Project Conversion

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A Sikh Wearing a Turban Walks Into an Airport…

…And everyone does this:

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Man I miss those Godzilla movies.

Seriously though, in our post-9/11 world, most of us are sensitive about anything that looks “different” than the understood norm–especially at airports or any mass transit location. Humans are hard-wired to notice these differences in our environment; it’s what helped keep us alive along our evolutionary journey. But the system is less than perfect and sometimes, many times, our warning systems give us a false positive.


Sikhs–especially males wearing the dastaar (turban) are all too common triggers for these false alarms. I’ve recieved more looks, stares, finger-pointing by kids (at least they did it to my face instead of at my back like adults) this month because of my turban than any other month this year. Despite my extra “garments,” when people treat me like this, I feel naked.

Having experienced this just out in everyday public life, I cannot imagine how Sikhs must feel in airports. You are a target for fear, anxiety, judgment, blame…all misplaced, but heavily present. In this day and age, Sikhs in many ways wear a stereotype as if it were the sixth addition to the Five K’s.

Many Sikhs try to alleviate this pressure and anxiety (at least for themselves), sometimes with humor, and other times with legal support from organizations like The Sikh Coalition.  Personally, I think walking into any public space wearing a t-shirt that says:


…is pretty awesome. I found this beauty at, a great spot for contemporary Sikhi clothing.

But what does a Sikh do when planning a trip by plane? First you’ve got the whole airport on edge because you just walked in with a turban, but what few fellow citizens know is that you are wearing the kirpan–a blade. This is the point where everyone could use a little education. The Sikh Coalition is, according to their site (which I visit often):


The Sikh Coalition is a community-based organization that works towards the realization of civil and human rights for all people.  In particular, we work towards a world where Sikhs may freely practice and enjoy their faith while fostering strong relations with their local community wherever they may be.  

We pursue our mission by:

  • Providing direct legal services to persons whose civil or human rights are violated;
  • Advocating for law and policies that are respectful of fundamental rights;
  • Promoting appreciation for diversity through education; and
  • Fostering civic engagement in order to promote local community empowerment

The Sikh Coalition has a section that specifically addresses the issue of passenger searches, what Sikhs should expect at airports, and the rights of Sikhs (or those of other faiths with conspicuous religious garments). In its “The Sikh Traveler Bill of Rights,” everything a Sikh needs to know about these procedures is clearly spelled out. This includes DHS (Dept. of Homeland Security) and TSA (Transportation Security Administration) search techniques, which range from a physical pat-down of a turban, to the classic walk-through metal detector, and wand searches. If you are a Sikh and have not read this document, I highly recommend that you not only go over it now, but print this bad boy off. Rights do us no good if we are ignorant of their existence and application.


For a better illustration of Sikh public perception, common misconceptions, and interactions with security officials, I found this great video:

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 If you can make it beyond the formality of the video, it does a really good job of showing us how to interact with one another in a respectful matter. I’ve said this before, but this is the primary goal of Project Conversion: that is to end ignorance via daily immersion and education in each faith. When we understand one another, fear has no place to grow, and we in turn have a more peaceful world.


What’s so interesting about Sikhs being singled out and stereotyped more in this post 9/11 world is that the hijackers of the planes did not wear turbans, and had very short, if any facial hair.

9/11 Hijackers


So why look at Sikhs so closely today? I should point out that no one deserves to be profiled based on their appearance, regardless of faith or cultural identity. It’s just wrong. I only point out the irony here with the Sikhs because that is the faith we are exploring this month.


If you are a Sikh, what have been your experiences at mass transit locations such as airports or subways? Were you treated differently? What are searches like for you? What do you think our society can do to improve these situations where the line between security and profiling is blurred?

And what about others…have you ever caught yourself stereotyping someone based on their appearance? How did that make you feel, knowing that it was wrong? Could you not help yourself? Is it something that’s simply imbedded in our cultural psyche?

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” –President Franklin D. Roosevelt

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posted September 30, 2011 at 8:43 am


Very good points. As long as we continue to press the stereotype into our minds, it will never leave.

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posted September 29, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Ha! I have that shirt and wear it all the time. While it is funny, the sad part is that it isn’t really a joke. I get searched “randomly” every time I fly. Most often, I’m flying with my wife and two little girls…

Two things bother me about this:

1. It is horribly ineffective security. Both the Director of the FBI and of Department of Homeland Security have publicly announced as much.

2. It presents a horrible visual to everybody else travelling. Something along the lines of: Oh, good, they are at least focusing on the terrorist.

3. (I guess I have more than two problems with it)…How do I explain to my daughters why their father is constantly given different treatment by law enforcement when we travel simply because of who we are. Why does a “just” society allow that?

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posted September 27, 2011 at 9:40 am

still many people have set ideas about the community people….like people commenting on the JOKES……then about indira gandhis death…shameful cowardly act….

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posted September 25, 2011 at 2:34 pm


Thanks for sharing this experience. Different folks respond in different ways, I suppose, depending on their exposure to various cultures.

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posted September 23, 2011 at 9:08 am

I once travelled from London Heathrow to India via Austria. Heathrow is fine when it comes to Turbans as they have large internal Sikh staff. Plus large number of Sikh passengers. However Austria was a different case. There was only one more turban wearing passenger on my fight . At Austrian airport when we were to queue up for security check, all other were went through metal detector.. security officer glanced at their passport and thats it. However when I went through detector .. it beeped and I pointed to my KARA. Well at per his job now that I caused detector to g off, he has to WAND me. Well it was all clear only KARA beeped.. Now lets turn to passport , What ur name? What ur address? where are u going? Why are u going? What visa are you on? whats ur father’s name? ur date of birth? How long you been in London. And this repeated with other guy. He didn’t beep though he has already removed his KARA but still..

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posted September 21, 2011 at 8:01 am

False positives, intentional mockery, estranged stares from the time I was a school going kid till even decades later, now, until I am no more, or maybe still further in someones memories. I have learned to tread alone for it makes me self-sufficient and less dependent. I have learned to diffuse the situation by means of some humor. I have learned to be more forgiving, generous and kind towards others. I have learned to be less fearful of unknown territories. All that has also hardened the shell of the cancerian crab while the sensitive inside shrugs.

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Ryan H

posted September 21, 2011 at 1:23 am

On November 11, 2011 I flew from New Orleans to Charleston (SC) and 4 Sikhs boarded the plane just before my wife and I. They also ended up sitting in the row in front of me. I already knew they were Sikhs so i wasn’t bothered, but was worried someone else would make a scene. I’m happy to report that nobody gave them any dirty looks or panicked expressions. I’m sure the Sikhs were very tense, flying on a relatively meaningful date (i.e. exactly 2 months after 9/11) but to everyone’s credit, the flight continued without incident.

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posted September 21, 2011 at 12:56 am


Excellent point! I am so glad you brought that up and that you understood what I was trying to say. Sometimes, because I spend so much effort connecting with each faith, I will get “tunnel vision” and only think from that point of view. You are right though, NO ONE should be profiled based on how they look. I just wanted to point out that, from the Sikh position, that’s it’s strange how they in particular are singled out (just as other groups) when they do not look like those few who attacked the U.S. That in mind, I’ll tweek the post. Thanks again and feel free to drop another line!

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posted September 21, 2011 at 12:53 am


Give your bro a high-five for me!

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posted September 20, 2011 at 10:54 pm

“What’s so interesting about Sikhs being singled out and stereotyped more in this post 9/11 world is that the hijackers of the planes did not wear turbans, and had very short, if any facial hair. So why look at Sikhs so closely today?”

Hi Andrew Singh! While I wholeheartedly condemn the profiling of Sikhs for turbans, beards, or any other aspect of their appearance, I take issue with the argument you are making here.

To say that Sikhs should not be targeted because they do not look like the hijackers implies that others who DO look like the hijackers SHOULD be. And that is problematic for the millions of peace-loving people around the world who have brown skin and dark hair.

The men in those photos could pass as Mexicans, Italians, Iranians, Arabs, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshi, Indian, Armenians, or Turks. They could also pass as Australians, Brits, Germans, Spanish, French, Italians, Canadians, or Americans. And their appearance does not give any indication, necessarily, of their religion. They could be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindus, Buddhists, or Atheists.

Sikhs should not be targeted for their appearance, but neither should anyone else — even someone who looks like an identical twin of any of the men in those photos. I don’t think you mean to imply that they should, but I felt compelled to make the point. Thanks for allowing me space to do so :)

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posted September 20, 2011 at 7:03 pm

my brother has that t-shirt and last time we went to india ,he actually wore it. All of the security people thought it was pretty funny.they still pulled him aside and hand searched him though.

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