WASHINGTON, D.C., September 22—If Osama bin Laden and his followers were watching American television in the hours after the destruction of the World Trade Center, they must have been delighted to learn that they had hundreds of willing accomplices within the United States, individuals who were willing to exploit the tragedy to indulge their own bigotry, their hatred of the principal of inclusiveness on which this country is built, by assaulting the individuals they held responsible for the attack, vandalizing their property and their places of worship.
It must have struck them as ironic, too, that most of the attacks targeted not Moslems but Sikhs, whose turbans and long beards make them easily identifiable. Within days of the attack, a Sikh was murdered in Arizona by a man who allegedly told arresting officers he was a “patriot.” In New York, there have been reports of attacks on Sikh cab drivers and a financial consultant, whose former boss died in the attacks on the World Trade Center reported being cursed and chased by men who demanded that he remove his turban.
Fearing further attacks, the Sikh community has retained The MWW Group to generate national publicity that explains that Sikhism is a separate religion, unrelated to Islam, and that Sikhs were not involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. At the same time, Sikhs are anxious not to create the impression that attacks on Moslems are any way more acceptable than attacks on their own community.
“Most importantly, we want to get the message out that the Sikh community is peaceful,” says Bill Murray, a senior vice president at MWW, “They are Americans, they are family men and business men, and Sikhs have condemned these terrorist attacks. But since these attacks Sikhs have born the brunt of a lot of misplaced anger from some within the U.S. We want to get out the message that intolerance is always wrong.”
Murray says the Sikh community is grateful for the messages from politicians who have condemned attacks on Arab-Americans, but felt they needed to go further to explain their faith and their communities.
The firm conducted media training sessions for several leaders of the Sikh community and began reaching out to broadcast media. “Part of our strategy is to use television and graphics in the print media to illustrate how Sikhs dress and what they look like,” says Murray. So far, the firm has secured coverage on CNN, ABC and NBC and the AP wire and in The New York Times.
“The media response has been favorable,” says Murray. “Although initially we found there was confusion even among reporters, many of whom did not understand that Sikhs are not Moslems. So we have had to educate the media too.” There are believed to be about 500,000 Sikhs in North America, most of them originally from India, where the religion originated.