In an effort that is winning bipartisan congressional support, the Chicago and suburban Sikh communities are calling for federal agencies to track hate crimes targeting their population.
The move would raise awareness about the extent of the problem and help area law enforcement agencies better deal with such crimes, they say.
Hate crime statsIn 2011, law enforcement agencies reported 7,713 victims of hate crimes. Analysis of single-bias hate crime victimsfound:
Ÿ 47.4 percent were targeted because of race
Ÿ 20.4 percent were targeted because of sexual orientation
Ÿ 19.2 percent were victimized because of religious belief
Ÿ 12.2 percent were victimized because of ethnicity/national origin
Ÿ 0.8 percent were targeted because of disability
Source: FBI Uniform Crime Report
The effort by the newly formed American Sikh Congressional Caucus comes on the heels of the brutal beating of an elderly Sikh man in Fresno, Calif., in May and the shooting rampage last August in which six worshippers were gunned down at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.
A letter signed by the 33 caucus members calling for the inclusion of an anti-Sikh hate crime category on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Hate Crime Incident Report was recently sent to the U.S. Department of Justice.
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a caucus member whose 9th Congressional District encompasses a sizable Sikh population in Chicago and the Northwest suburbs, said quantifying the problem is the first step to better understanding it and protecting the community.
"Many in the Sikh community have seen an increase in hate crimes since Sept. 11, 2001," Schakowsky said. "Their profile really has risen because of this (Wisconsin) attack, and really a lot since 2001 because of the reasons of being singled out. What we're asking for is a collection of data so that we can set up a separate category and make sure that we understand through the Hate Crime Incident Reports just how prevalent it is, and develop a particular strategy to address it."
Along with a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes nationwide since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Sikhs also have been targeted because of the unique head covering resembling a turban worn by practitioners as part of their faith.
"It's very important for the Sikh community because our identity is different than any other nationality, any other ethnicity," said Balwant Singh Hansra, a retired chemistry teacher and past president of the Sikh Religious Society of Palatine.
The Palatine gurdwara, the largest in the Chicago area, was targeted by vandals who broke 13 windows during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Hansra said.
Over the years, there have been other instances of vandalism but nothing too serious. Nationwide, however, there have been far more grievous attacks on Sikh temples and against individuals, Hansra said.
"It's very important that something should be done because the Sikhs are an important part of the fabric of society, part of the community," Hansra said. "More than any other community, I think the Sikhs are targeted. It's a tragic thing."
Hansra has helped train area police departments and law enforcement agencies on understanding Sikh religion and culture with support from the Department of Justice.
"They encourage us to report every little incident that happens," Hansra said, adding that he hopes having the statistics helps law enforcement agencies reduce the number of hate crimes against his community.
Organizations like The Sikh Coalition based in New York, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington, D.C., and United Sikhs track attacks against their community members, but many go unreported, Hansra said.
Similar congressional efforts aim to get the FBI to track anti-Hindu and anti-Arab hate crimes.
Tracking hate crimes can help groups obtain federal aid to increase security at their houses of worship, Schakowsky said.
"Synagogues become eligible for certain protections, grants to make the synagogues more secure," Schakowsky said. "It can open these opportunities to the Sikh community, as well."
It's the first time this many minority groups have requested special status since the Hate Crime Prevention Act was passed into law in 1990, said Kristi Donahue, hate crime coordinator for the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
The program has been tracking hate crimes motivated by biases against certain races, ethnicities/national origins, sexual orientation, and religions, including crimes against Jewish, Muslim and Catholic communities, since 1992.
Only two bias categories have been added since -- physical and mental disabilities in 1997, and gender and gender identity in 2009. Tracking of hate crimes based on biases against gender and gender identity just began this year, along with hate crimes committed against juveniles.
Donahue said the requests to add Sikh, Hindu and Arab categories already have been through the FBI's working groups and a subcommittee, and will be reviewed and voted on this week by the justice department's Advisory Policy Board. The final step is gaining approval from the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division director, she added.
"Even if it were to pass, (data) won't be collected before 2015," Donahue said. "We will normally have anywhere between 12 and 18 months to make all of the changes that are necessary for our states to be able to collect the data."
The data will help local law enforcement agencies identify what areas they need to focus on and where to allocate funding, she said.
Schakowsky said the Sikh Congressional Caucus also aims to address other discriminatory practices against Sikhs, including military rules that prevent Sikhs from enlisting because of a ban on turbans, racial profiling by law enforcement agencies, employment discrimination and bullying.
According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Sikh children are increasingly subjected to bullying because of their religion, with as many as three in every four Sikh boys experiencing bullying.
"Those are very alarming numbers," Schakowsky said. "After 9/11, people were really afraid to wear particular garments. Women were afraid to have their daughters cover their hair. Bullying creates an atmosphere that then can lead to all kinds of violence and discrimination. It's really important to make teachers, administrators aware that this is a problem."