Sikhs forced to remove turbans at airport security gates

Monday, November 5, 2001

Followers of the Sikh faith say they have been unfairly singled out for elaborate security checks at airports, sometimes being forced to remove their turbans, an integral part of their religious identity.

Some say racial profiling at airports has been part of a backlash against people of Middle Eastern appearance since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic extremists.

Sikhism was founded in India in the 16th century and contains some elements of Islam and Hinduism. Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims because they also wear turbans.

The Sikh Communications Council and the Sikh Coalition say they have each received more than a dozen reports of Sikhs being asked to remove their turbans at airports. For Sikhs, the removal of a turban is as intrusive as a strip search, said Ed Vasquez, spokesman for the council.

Gurmeet Singh was standing in line at the metal detector at the Albany, N.Y., airport when a security guard told him he had to remove his turban. Singh said removing it was against his religion, and he offered to let the guard pat down his turban and run a scanner over it.

“I was humiliated,” Singh said. “Somebody wearing a turban and a beard does not necessarily mean he's a militant.”

Singh's bag was searched and his laptop computer examined. He finally agreed to take off his 15-foot-long, blue cotton turban so he wouldn't miss his flight.

Singh points out that removing a turban isn't just a matter of indignity, it's also an inconvenience. “Our turban is not a cap. You cannot just remove it and put it back again,” he said. “It takes about 10 minutes to tie it.”

The Federal Aviation Administration says if a handheld metal detector locates an object in religious headgear, the situation must be resolved, said FAA spokesman Les Dorr. But exactly how that would be done is left to the discretion of the security screener.

People should not be asked to remove head coverings if nothing has been detected by a metal detector, Dorr said.

Chanbir Dhingra was also asked to remove his turban at the airport in Oakland, Calif. Dhingra says he understands the heightened security since Sept. 11, but adds that efforts to improve the safety of the skies can be taken too far.

“You can't take away civil rights over security,” he said.

Sikh also have been targeted in violent attacks, including the killing of a Sikh gasoline station owner in Mesa, Ariz., days after terrorists struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

The Christian Science Monitor reported on Oct. 31 that the traditional Sikh knife called a kirpan has also become an issue in a few instances.

All Sikhs are supposed to carry the kirpan as a symbol of their faith. But carrying the knife got Sher J.B. Singh pulled off an Amtrak train in Providence, R.I., the day after the terror attacks. Nearly two months later, the city of Providence dropped concealed-weapon charges against Singh, who had no involvement in the Sept. 11 plot.

Another case involving a kirpan is pending in New Yor, the Monitor reported.

A federal court in California ruled in 1995 that students could wear kirpans to school “if the knife is sewn to the sheaf,” the Monitor said. It added that an Ohio judge in 1996 held the kirpan to be a religious symbol, not a weapon.

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