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Enlisting SpongeBob and ‘Game of Thrones’ to counter anti-Sikh prejudice

We Are Sikhs representatives hold the American flag at a Fresno Grizzlies baseball game in Fresno, Calif., on July 4, 2017. Photo by Christina Hulick

(RNS) — Sikhs are counting on their love of “Game of Thrones” and other elements of American popular culture to help combat misperceptions of their faith that they believe have made them targets for hatred and violence.

Since April, the National Sikh Campaign has aired “We Are Sikhs” ads depicting adherents of the religion as neighbors and proud Americans on CNN, MSNBC and Fox and in the local media market of Fresno, Calif., where tens of thousands of Sikhs live. The ads also appear online and on YouTube.

“I’m obsessed with ‘Star Wars,'” says a turbaned man who appears in one of the videos. “I’ve seen every episode of ‘SpongeBob,’ because that’s what my daughters like to watch,” says another. A PTA mom, a physician and “Game of Thrones” fans also appear.

After watching ads in the $1.6 million media campaign, viewers had more positive attitudes about the monotheistic religion, which has approximately 25 million adherents worldwide.

Surveys commissioned by the organizers found that the percentage of Fresno residents who knew nothing about Sikhs dropped from 50 percent before the ads aired in June and July to 38 percent after they concluded.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there has been an uptick in discrimination and violence against Sikhs, including a 2012 attack in which a gunman shot six people dead and injured four others at a gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in Oak Creek, Wis. More recently, in Fresno, a store clerk was killed in 2016 and another Sikh was intentionally hit by a car in 2015.

Hart Research Associates, which conducted a survey of 501 people before the ad campaign and 502 afterward, found decreases in ignorance, especially among Republicans, older residents and whites without a college degree.

“We Are Sikhs” members participate in Independence Day celebrations in Fresno, Calif., on July 4, 2017. Photo by Christina Hulick

Researchers also found substantial increases in perceptions that Sikhs have American values and are patriotic.

“Across the board, despite our political differences and different backgrounds, the people come together on this issue and they have respect for us,” said Rajwant Singh, co-founder and senior adviser of the National Sikh Campaign.

He called it a “ray of hope” for the rest of the country “that understanding each other can bring this nation together while a very divided, polarized, political atmosphere is present.”

RELATED: Most Americans are clueless about Sikhs

More than half of the people who viewed the ads – 57 percent – said if they saw a man with a beard wearing a turban they would associate him with Sikhism. A 2015 survey by the same organization found that many Americans mistake Sikhs for Muslims.

Sikhism developed in North India five centuries ago, and Sikhs have lived in the U.S. for more than 100 years. Their faith’s key tenets include devotion to God, truthful living and service to others.

Researchers found that the number of respondents who said “Sikhism and Islam are separate religions” rose from 36 percent before the ads to 46 percent, with 58 percent of those who saw the ads agreeing with that statement. The percentage of people who said they personally know Sikhs increased from 32 percent to 41 percent.

The Fox ads are running from Aug. 15-Sept. 1.

“What we felt was conservative voters and heartland America, Trump supporters — that’s another whole big constituency that we need to reach out and kind of inform them who we are,” said Singh of the ads that feature the red-white-and-blue turban that is the logo for the “We Are Sikhs” campaign.

In the wake of the racial rhetoric during and after recent violence in Charlottesville, Va., “We Are Sikhs” issued a statement that declared: “What makes America great and, as President Reagan said, makes America a ‘shining city on a hill,’ is that we are a nation bounded not by race or ethnicity, but by the fundamental, self-evident truth that all men are created equal.”

Singh said the wording was not focused on President Trump, who was criticized for some of his remarks after those events.

“We just wanted to make a statement about the whole incident, not just the president’s statement,” he said.

Sikhs and their neighbors gather at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in Maryland during the National Month of Community Outreach on May 7, 2017. Photo by Rajwant Singh

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About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.


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  • Being an old mason contractor for many years, I perhaps am one that mistook these folks to be connected somehow with the Muslims. I have always had a tremendous respect for people with ancestry tied to India. These remarks are great to help folks understand that there is NO connection with the Muslim faith. I am sure that their Patriotism is just as good as mine. Thanks for sharing this info, and please share more as it comes in. God Bless

  • I like people and Sikhs even if they aren’t patriotic or have “American values”. And I similarly hold no grudge against Muslims. It makes me sad that this campaign is needed.

  • ” These remarks are great to help folks understand that there is NO connection with the Muslim faith.”

    And even if it were not the case, why would it in any way justify the extreme violence employed against them or anyone else based on their religion? We are talking about domestic terrorism and mass murder committed against them here.

  • Thanks for your remarks Spuddie, in a way I agree with you and I am not trying to sit on the fence. I don’t believe in violence of any kind, well with some exceptions. One exception would be saving your own life. I’m no fan of a white supremacist, or black racist, or antifa people. In the case of Muslims, some of what happens to them is brought on by the way they say, do some things. It is my understanding, that they cannot, will not pledge allegiance to our country, if that is the case, then why do they want to live here?? You see a lot of people just don’t trust them, sad, but true. I can’t say much more except that I know that we need to pray for country, more that ever. Thanks again. God Bless

  • ” It is my understanding, that they cannot, will not pledge allegiance to our country, if that is the case, then why do they want to live here?? ”

    Because you are incorrect in such an understanding. Much like how people used to claim that a Catholic or Jew could never pledge allegiance to our country because they have religious interests outside of it. Its merely a reiteration of a rather old and pernicious idea people have been using for minority faiths.

    As for pledging allegiance to our country in a formal way, it should be noted that several Christian sects here are against taking oaths in such a manner. Most notably the Society of Friends and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    For people who you think may not be allowed to pledge allegiance to our nation, a good number of them are dying for it and many are standing up in defense of it to turn in terrorists who threaten it.

    I live in a community with a sizable and very visible population of Muslims. I treat my neighbors well until they give me a reason not to. 🙂

  • Thanks Spuddle, appreciate your return remarks. I did know that about Jehovah’s. Let me ask you this, again, it is my understanding that Muslims consider Christians to be infidels and there (Koran) tell them to kill all of these people. I guess we see and hear of all of these people killing one another, and you must admit this doesn’t make them look like very nice people. Thanks again.

  • I hate to break the news to you, but if you look at the history of Western civilization, the same is true for Christianity as well. Centuries of not getting along with other faiths, or even other sects within the same faith.

    The last genocide in Europe was by Christians against Muslims. That was only a generation ago. Genocide by Christians against other faiths is still going on in areas of Latin America. What you are seeing right now is as much a function of world politics as it is religion. The issues of dictatorship and their collapse.

    Ultimately what you are telling me is an exaggeration of ideas which are inherent to all monotheistic faiths. Which is not to tolerate the existence of other ones in favor of their own version of “the one true god”.

    Its best to get ideas about how various people actually practice their faith from the actual adherents of said faith rather than outside sources with an agenda.

  • Thanks, I did know about the crusades and most of what you said here. I also know that my scripture says that there will be wars and talks of war! Don’t you think human nature as such has a lot to do with things?? I won’t bother you anymore, but just want to thank you for your remarks.

  • Hence you demonstrate Christian scriptures differ sharply from the practice of their faith. Which is why the best way to find out about a given religion is to talk to its adherents. Get to know them and what they actually believe.

  • I can’t argue with what you say, but are you saying that all Muslims (for example) live and follow their Koran? So, why are they killing all the Christians they can in the Middle East?? Do you think it’s because their Koran directs them too?? Look, I’m not trying to be funny, but in a way you should be able to understand why some Christians would be uneasy around Muslims. Jesus Christ preached peace and the love of all men. God Bless

  • What I am saying is that generalizations you are making about Muslims are so broad as to be completely unreasonable garbage.

    “So, why are they killing all the Christians they can in the Middle East?? ”

    Who is they here?
    All Muslims in the Middle East?
    All 1.2 billion of them in the world?

    What you are trying to say about an entire religion encompassew so many people that such generalizations are merely prejudicial fear mongering.

  • This will be my last response here, as we seem to be spinning our wheels here. I thought we were talking about Muslims here. The same logic you use “Who are they?” can be used about the remarks you made about the Crusades, meaning not all Muslims go around killing Christians, just as I am sure not all Christians went around killing Muslims! Now, peace be with you my brother! God Bless.

  • Do me a favor.

    If you want to find out what Muslims believe, find out from them. In their words. That is really the fairest way to do that sort of thing.

    One is never going to make a reasonable or rational argument with the premise “____ religion is inherently evil” regardless of the faith.

    “The same logic you use “Who are they?” can be used about the remarks you made about the Crusades, meaning not all Muslims go around killing Christians, just as I am sure not all Christians went around killing Muslims!”

    Which was the point. 🙂

  • Well, I said I wouldn’t reply anymore, but I had to so here. You said “religion is inherently evil” I am sorry you feel that way. You are half right, there is evil with-in religion, in other words religion is NOT evil, BUT there are some people that are evil within religions! We are ALL sinners and Jesus was the only person who never sinned! If man is truly honest, he or she would admit that they have had (not necessarily evil) sinful thoughts from time to time. This is human nature and if you are a Christian, then it could be the Devil at work. I also think that basically most people are good. Again, Peace, and God Bless.

  • You missed what I said.

    What I said essentially is you can’t demonize an entire religion with a straight face.

    That you cannot make a rational argument, “____ religion is evil”.

    You misunderstood my point. I am sure we found some common ground despite the goof. 🙂