By Winty Singh. Based in California, Winty Singh is a Social Justice Fellow at the Sikh Coalition.

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The Oscars is the most celebrated film event of the year and the film that has brought the most acclaim and controversy leading into these awards has been American Sniper.

Nominated tonight for the “Best Picture,” the film is based on the autobiography of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who is celebrated as the most effective sniper in U.S. military history.  For all the praise and box office success that American Sniper has received, the “Best Picture” conversation tonight will neglect the necessary dialogue about how films like this play a deeply problematic role in the misguided perception of minority communities.

Notwithstanding well-debated issues about the war in Iraq, the film has had its share of specific criticism, particularly the presentation of a  sanitized version of Kyle’s own memoir — one that de-emphasizes his lack of regret for killing and the biases Kyle allegedly held towards Iraqis and Muslims. Portraying Kyle as an archetypal “western” hero, the film conveniently leaves out Kyle’s deep rooted biases and instead pushes an “us-versus-them” narrative that has significant impact on the way the broader American public views ethnic communities at home and abroad.

The opening scene shows Kyle shooting a young Iraqi boy carrying a grenade meant for American soldiers, and juxtaposes this with Kyle’s training as a hunter when he was a child. Killing the Iraqi child was likened to hunting prey. Whether the child is the enemy or not, the message is clear: we’re at war with everybody “over there.”

American Sniper continues with this theme throughout the movie, offering a distorted view of the conflict in Iraq that is bereft of nuance. All of the Iraqis filmed are cast as the enemy, posing a threat to American soldiers, while little effort is made to show innocent civilians.  As a turban-wearing Sikh with a full beard and brown skin, I immediately felt a sense of vulnerability from this depiction as I watched this film in the movie theater.  I am well aware that members of my own Sikh community are often verbally and physically assaulted by those who associate my appearance with terrorists and extremists, and thus I felt a large sense of unease and discomfort with the depiction of those with brown skin, and the potential reaction from others that the film might expose in the theater afterwards. Would I be called a “terrorist” or “raghead,” or worse? The “other” is deemed as “savage” from start to finish, while Kyle is portrayed as the righteous hero.

This depiction is of course significant, as it exposes the cultural issues faced by many ethnic communities in America’s post-9/11 environment. American Sniper heightens the racism and Islamophobia that persists in our society, validating attitudes that see Muslims, Arabs and those of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent as people worthy of scorn and as targets of violence. Not surprisingly, and consistent with my own fears when watching the film, some of the public reactions to the film have been incredibly threatening.

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(Photo source: Raw Story)

These violent epithets are of course not unique to American Sniper, nor are they limited to the Muslim American community. Indeed, innocent Muslims become implicated even by America’s leaders in response to terrorist activity abroad. In just the past month we have witnessed state representatives in California and Texas publicly make bigoted remarks about Islam, while hate motivated acts of violence have spiked throughout the United States in recent weeks. These actions, motivated by ignorance and misguided hate are absolutely not helped by films that propel the simplistic blanket notion that “we’re all the enemy.”

American Sniper is certainly a riveting film that has a legitimate story to tell. The stories of our soldiers — their heroism, sacrifices, trials and tribulations abroad and at home — are ones that need to be told and heard. However, the modified version of the truth that the film presents, and what is disregarded by the film is important to note. When we do not honor the full truth of these stories, or when we do not recognize our own biases in the telling of these stories, we reinforce negative stereotypes that can only do more harm than good. More than “Best Picture,” what will be lost during tonight’s pomp, circumstance and applause is the problematic perceptions that American Sniper has exposed in American culture.

Based in California, Winty Singh is a Social Justice Fellow at the Sikh Coalition.

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By Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the Sikh Coalition.

Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan

The fascinating uniforms worn by Sikh Soldiers during World Wars I and II captivated my attention when I was a teenager. With resolve and determination to join the U.S. Armed Forces, I was unaware of the struggles I would face when I began my own journey to serve. I was lost in my dreams of saving the world as a Sikh and I felt invincible! However, my dream was shattered in a split second when a U.S. Army recruiter told me that I had to shave my beard and remove my “hat” if I wanted to serve in “his Army in his country.” Oh man! While I knew in my heart that I was an American—so much so that I was willing to join the Army and die for my country—I felt so out of place. I was disheartened and—in that moment—immensely missed my home country, India, where I knew that as a Sikh I could not only be in the Army, but rise to the highest ranks of military leadership. That was 1998. Continue reading

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Dear Supporters,

You don’t have to be an academic to understand that how we educate the public about Sikhism has an enormous impact on how the rest of the world perceives us. As a Sikh man, there isn’t a single day that goes by, when I don’t have a moment or share an interaction that makes me think about the importance of this education. I know I’m not alone and few would disagree that educating mainstream America about Sikhi plays a direct role in reducing discrimination and bigotry.

In the late 1990s, I remember writing to the Encyclopedia Britannica and the American Heritage Dictionary, both of which misrepresented Sikhism as a cocktail blending Hindu and Islamic traditions. Letter after letter from many others and me went without a response. During that time it became abundantly clear to me that we lacked the institutions and the credibility to be taken seriously by publishers.

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Dear Supporters,

Through the tireless advocacy work led by the Sikh Coalition, the Sikh community recently achieved a game-changing education victory in the state of Texas. My seven and nine-year-old sons will become some of the first American Sikh children to go through a school system in the United States where their faith is appropriately integrated and accurately taught through their school’s curriculum.

While Texas adopted these curriculum changes back in 2010, only last month did they vote to approve purchasing textbooks that correct over 50 inaccurate errors regarding the Sikh religion; however, this is far from just a victory that will change the lives of only my children.

The Texas decision now paves the way for up to 46 other states across the country to adopt the same textbook content.

As a mother, I know I speak for every parent when I say that this should be standard for all our children in every classroom across the United States. There is no organization fighting harder and more effectively for that to happen than the Sikh Coalition.

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Dear Supporter,

In the early morning hours after September 11, 2013, I got drunk and assaulted an innocent Sikh man. I charged him, forcefully knocking off his turban. He had done nothing to warrant my actions, I had simply hit rock bottom with my career and my drinking. He was simply in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time.

After the assault, I fled.

The victim chased me and once the police arrived and I had sobered, I immediately knew I had done something horribly wrong; however, it never dawned on me that my assault could be prosecuted as a hate crime.

At the request of the Sikh victim I assaulted and the Sikh Coalition’s legal team, I was given 72 hours of mandatory community service. To my great surprise, the Sikh Coalition requested that I spend those hours volunteering with them. Over four months, those hours would permanently alter the course of my life.

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Dear Supporters,

Three years ago, I arrived at Chicago O’Hare airport for a 6:00am flight without my driver’s license, and I was able to get on a plane simply by showing a TSA agent my credit card and a copy of a magazine that had my name and address on it.

Clearly, I am not Sikh.

I have gone my entire academic and professional career without being bullied or discriminated against because of my race or religion. As a white male, I embody the notion of privilege. While my journey might look different than yours, I believe we’re all entitled to the same fundamental human rights and that your voice matters as much as mine. This is why I joined the Sikh Coalition in October as the Senior Director of Media and Communications.

I will always remember sitting in a conference room in January 2012, when the Sikh Coalition team told me about their smartphone application they were planning to launch, which would enable travelers to immediately report cases of profiling to authorities. My eyes lit up, and I remember saying: “This is the best media idea I have heard in three years.” An advocacy organization had never used technology to influence policy work before. I was floored by the ingenuity and ambition used to take such a groundbreaking approach to their work. When the application was launched, it became clear that the national media agreed with me, and many organizations have since followed the Sikh Coalition’s lead, replicating similar civil rights applications.

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Dear Sadh Sangat Ji

This past July my husband, Sandeep Singh, was called a “terrorist,” and told to “go back to your country,” before being dragged for 30 feet under a truck, and then left to die.

I was born and raised in the United States and I never thought this could happen to me. I never thought that one day my family would come face-to-face with hate-related violence and that it would change our lives.

These past four months have been incredibly hard, but on the heels of this past Thanksgiving weekend, I’m unbelievably thankful that with Waheguru’s kirpa my husband is on the road to recovery, that the criminal responsible for this act was apprehended, and that I had the legal and advocacy support of the Sikh Coalition to help navigate us through this traumatic period in our lives.

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Dear Sadh Sangat Ji

As a child growing up outside of Richmond, Virginia, I felt a tremendous sense of pride each November when my family came together to count our blessings with Ardaas before our Thanksgiving meal – a combination of turkey and stuffing side-by-side with dal, roti, and sabzi. This week remains an annual reminder of how compatible our faith and culture are with our American traditions and values.

However, I also recall the tremendous discrimination I battled as a young Sikh being raised in Virginia. While we gave presentations to our schools, churches, and local law enforcement, it felt like a drop in the bucket in the face of misunderstanding about the Sikh faith. Through high school, college and then on to the workplace, I constantly felt like I was in a race to inform and educate as many people as I could before something happened.

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Kiranjot Gill is a second year law student at Fordham University School of Law and the Sikh Coalition’s 2014 Dr. Bajwa Legal Fellow.

I began my internship at the Sikh Coalition with little knowledge of Sikh civil rights. However my supervisor, Gurjot, took the time to sit down and explain the basics of the law, and what my main tasks would include.

Right away, I was conducting research for cases and topics the legal department was working on. I felt the work that I was doing helped the legal department and made a difference. I learned more and more about Sikh civil rights every day. My main responsibilities involved researching cases and statutes on narrow topics, conducting client intakes, and drafting complaints. By the end of my internship, Gurjot trusted me to handle client intakes and emails on my own.

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by Weber Drummond a/k/a Jasnam Daya Singh

In the piece below, an Oregon Sikh resident discusses the day he was escorted off an American Airlines flight in handcuffs because of his Sikh appearance.

Some days we don’t forget. For me, that day was November 4, 2010.

I have been traveling for over 30 years. Originally from Brazil, I visit my family and friends at least once a year, and as a musician I travel quite extensively across the United States and Europe to perform. Airports and airplanes are no strangers to me and I’m very familiar with the ways of traveling before and after September 11. Many things have changed, this I know. However, these changes haven’t made a difference in the way I travel. I’ve maintained the same behavior while at the airport and while airborne – one of respect and compliance with the professionals on the ground and on board, and with my fellow passengers.

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