How Does Hate Speech Directed at One Community Affect Another Community?

Jagbir Jhutti-Johal is Professor of Sikh Studies at the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham.

In her January 2024 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Nazila Ghanea, highlighted the significant impact of hate speech on individuals and communities. She emphasized that

[n]otwithstanding the psychological and physiological harms or sense of offence that can result from hate speech, the fundamental threat to the dignity of targeted groups does not solely arise from hateful expressions but also from the social reality that they are drawn from, i.e. the potentially widespread societal identity-based contempt towards the target community. (para. 6)

Furthermore, Ghanea raised and addressed the question of how to effectively address this “social reality,” insisting on the need to move beyond mere observation of violence and toward proactive intervention. She cited Georgette F. Bennett and Jerry White who underscore that “our hearts must be broken open with compassion” and we must all act to address this issue. Ghanea recognized that

[w]hile both the regulation of speech and the promotion of counter-speech may go some way towards addressing various forms of hate speech, a broader transformative toolkit is necessary to address matters at the systemic level. (para. 6)

I find this point of particular importance, as hate speech directed at one religious community can have an impact on individuals from other religious communities—due, for example, to mistaken identity. The Sikh community is one such community. Sikh turban-wearing men are often mistaken for Muslims and are subjected to genuinely anti-Muslim hate speech and violence.[1]


Sikhs who undergo initiation (Amritdhari Sikhs) are required to wear the five articles of faith, known as the 5Ks: Kesh(long hair covered by a turban—dastaar), Kara (a steel bangle), Khanga (a wooden comb kept in hair), Kachera (white shorts), and the Kirpan (a curved blade). These articles of faith symbolize a commitment to universal justice, equality, and selfless service (seva).

Amritdhari Sikhs and Keshdhari Sikhs (Sikhs with long hair, but not initiated) are particularly vulnerable to religiously motivated hate violence and speech when national and global events occur, such as the 9/11 attacks, 2005 London bombings, the Charlie Hebdo shooting, or the Manchester Arena bombing. They are often mistaken for Muslims and wrongly associated with terrorism because turbans and beards have become linked to figures like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who wore a turban, and Osama Bin Laden, who wore a kaffiyeh (head dress) and a beard. As a result, Sikh men and, more rarely, women have become targets of hate speech, being called derogatory names such as “Taliban,” “bin Laden,” “rag head,” “terrorist,” and “diaper heads.” More worryingly, they have also become targets of religiously motivated hate crimes.

Numerous mistaken-identity hate crimes have occurred in the United States and the United Kingdom. For example, on 15 September 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was murdered in retribution for 9/11. Mr. Sodhi, who had a beard and a turban in accordance with his Sikh faith, was mistaken for an Arab Muslim. In 2012, a gunman entered a Gurdwara and shot and killed six worshippers in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. They were killed due to hatred toward the Muslim “other.” In 2015, Inderjit Singh Mukker from Chicago was attacked and called a “terrorist” and “Bin Laden” because of his religious appearance. In April 2020, Lakhwant Singh, a turban wearing Sikh, was attacked in his store in Denver, Colorado, by a man who told him to “go back to your country.” The attacker believed he was an “Arab.”[2]

Prominent mistaken-identity hate crimes in the UK have included a physical attack on Ravneet Singh outside the UK Parliament on 21 February 2018. His assailant targeted his turban while shouting “Muslim go back home.” In 2020, Vaneet Singh, a Sikh taxi driver from Reading, was attacked by four white men who made him remove his turban and asked whether he was a member of the Taliban.

In addition to hate crimes against Sikh individuals, their place of worship, the Gurdwara, has also been targeted due to architectural similarities with mosques, such as domes and minarets. In 2015, Sikhs found the words “F**k Islam, No Sharia!” painted on a wall of the Glasgow Central Gurdwara, next to a Nazi swastika. In Thornaby, Middlesborough, the outside wall of the Shri Guru Nanak Gurdwara was sprayed with the words “White power,” “Death to Allah,” and “Die Muslims Die.” In 2018, Guru Nanak Gurdwara Sahib in Edinburgh and Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha Gurdwara in Leeds were both attacked by arsonists. And in March 2021, a swastika was spray-painted on the boundary wall of the Siri Guru Nanak Darbar in Gravesend.

These attacks, whether on individuals or places of worship, are driven by religious intolerance and bigotry. They exemplify how Sikhs have become victims of anti-Muslim sentiment in the West due to ignorance and religious illiteracy. This underscores the urgent need for education and cultural understanding of Sikhs, the “silent and invisible” victims of hate crimes.


In 2022, 198 hate crimes against Sikhs were reported in the United States. From March 2022 to March 2023, 302 such crimes took place in the United Kingdom. However, these numbers most likely underrepresent the true extent of attacks on Sikh men; many incidents are not reported to the authorities because there is a perception in the community that they will not be taken seriously or that the attack will be recorded as an anti-Muslim attack.

Due to underreporting, there is a lack of empirical research into how Sikh victims are affected by hate crimes. However, my own research has clearly demonstrated that the impact of the attacks on individuals and community identity is significant[3]: While some victims demonstrated resilience and refused to let these incidents affect them, others experienced psychological issues, which also impacted their relatives. Victims grappled with feelings of fear, vulnerability, anger, and depression. Victims also noted changes in the way they dressed to avoid attacks. For example, some turban wearing men have resorted to cutting their hair and abandoning their turbans altogether, or if they do not cut their hair, they wear their hair either loose, in a bun or ponytail, or covered with a baseball cap, to avoid being mistaken for Muslims. Parents of turban-wearing boys have cut their sons hair to protect them from bullying and being mistaken for Muslims. This represents a significant loss of identity for individuals, their families, and the community, highlighting how the Sikh community’s human rights, most importantly freedom of religion or belief, are being attacked and undermined due to mistaken identity.


In conclusion, whilst hate crimes against Sikhs may not be as prevalent as those against Muslims and Jews, it is clear they are perpetrated against Sikhs mostly due to mistaken identity, underscoring the dangerous consequences of religious ignorance and prejudice. Thus, action needs to be taken to achieve and promote parity in resource allocation but also justice and support for all victims of religious and racial hatred. Specifically, states and governments need to recognize that hate crimes can affect individuals from multiple marginalized communities and need to ensure that all communities, including Dharmic communities like Sikhs, have a seat at the table in discussions of hate crime initiatives, especially those focusing on law enforcement training and victim support services, because the emotional, mental, and physical impact is the same across all communities.

As a community, Sikhs globally, especially in the United States, Canada, and Europe, have conducted educational and professional training programs and outreach efforts through events like “Turban Days” and the development of TV documentaries and news stories to raise awareness about the Sikh male identity and their Articles of Faith. However, this responsibility should not rest solely on the community. States should ensure that all professionals receive robust continuing professional development (CPD) training on religion and belief and that school curricula includes comprehensive religious studies. It is essential to start teaching children about religions and diversity at a young age so that they grow up with a level of faith literacy that enables them to address common challenges and promote mutual understanding and respect.

In today’s world, neither religious illiteracy nor inaction is acceptable when hate speech and violence are on the rise. It is imperative that we adopt a proactive and inclusive approach to addressing hate speech and discrimination. This will ensure that victims of religiously motivated hate crimes are not left to suffer physical or mental abuse in silence but are supported and heard. Only then can we create a society where human rights, especially freedom of religion or belief, are protected and all religious communities feel safe, respected, and valued.


[1] In the last three decades, Sikh women wearing the turban (dastaar) have also been victims of abuse and attacks. However, the narrative on the gendered dimension of Sikh-race hate crime is not as strong as that within the Muslim community.

[2] For examples of attacks, see Jagbir Jhutti-Johal & Hardeep Singh, Racialization, Islamophobia and Mistaken Identity: The Sikh Experience (Routledge 2009); Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, Racism or Mistaken Identity?, in The Sikh World (Pashaura Singh & Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair eds., Taylor & Francis 2023).

[3] For the impact on individuals, see sources cited supra note 2.

Return to the Series introduction