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U.S. Sikhs tap Clinton Strategist in Rebranding Effort



(Diya TV) — Sandy Dhaliwal grew up in the rural Midwest, and as a Sikh living in Wisconsin, she remembers first-hand accounts of how her closest friends would play with her long hair, dress up and borrow her elaborate garments from annual trips to India, and the vivid images of airline passengers yanking off her fathers turban while calling him a terrorist.

It was quite the contrast.

“People embraced me,” Dhaliwal, 24, said, “Then, on the other side, my brother and dad — all the men in my family — wore a turban. They weren’t really treated as being unique the same way I was.”

According to a 2012 report from the Pew Research Center, there were 200,000 Sikhs, or six percent of the American population, living in the country. That report was conducted shortly after an attack during the same year on a Wisconsin Sikh temple, which killed six, and injured four.

Leaders of the U.S. Sikh community say these types of events, involving verbal and physical attacks, are all too common in their daily lives, and are entirely fueled by the misconceptions Americans’ minds are filled with about those who follow the faith. In an effort to combat misinterpretations, Dhaliwal and other Sikhs launched the National Sikh Campaign in March. Last month, the campaign tapped the services of ex-Hillary Clinton political strategist Geoffrey Garin.

Garin served on Clinton’s 2008 Presidential campaign, and Priorities USA, the Super PAC which backed President Obama’s 2012 successful reelection bid. With Garin now at the helm, the group plans to employ a grassroots strategical social media campaign, with the ultimate goal of highlighting Sikhs’ contributions to society and counter negative perceptions.

“The purpose of the campaign is to give other Americans a better understanding of who Sikh Americans are and what makes them valued members of the American community,” Garin said. “Most importantly, what are the insights about Sikh Americans that are most important to communicate?”

Gurwin Ahuja, executive director for the National Sikh Campaign, spoke at its launch party on March 1. (Photo courtesy of the National Sikh Campaign)

Gurwin Ahuja, executive director for the National Sikh Campaign, spoke at its launch party on March 1. (Photo courtesy of the National Sikh Campaign)

Garin has already undertaken research of his own on the subject, which he says is a “work in progress,” delves into what Americans actually understand about the Sikh community, and how they react to seeing a man on the street with a beard and wearing a turban. Garin currently serves as president of Hart Research in Washington D.C., and said his team will compile a series of facts, stories, and images about Sikhs to relay a comprehensive message to the American public.

Of the most important, Garin seeks to identify common interests between American and Sikh communities; values such as community, service, and diversity are all messages which can be sent to the populous in an effort to dissolve the faith’s “image and message problem,” said National Sikh Campaign executive director Gurwin Ahuja. For now, organizers like Dhaliwal are relying on word of mouth to get the message out.

“What Sikhs actually believe and what people attack are two different things,” Ahuja said.

The issue became mainstream news during last year’s holiday season—in December, a Gap fashion ad in a New York City subway station featuring an Indian American was vandalized with hate speech. Similar movements of religious right have occurred in the recent past—in 2011, the “I’m a Mormon” campaign was launched in New York, and has caught wind throughout the world. Through a series of online images and videos, Mormons showcased believers from diverse backgrounds to contradict societal stereotypes.

Sikhism, a monotheistic religion, was founded in the late 15th century by Hindu-born Guru Nanak in Punjab, a region now split between India and Pakistan. Most prominent in India, Sikhism is often identified globally as the fifth largest religion, behind Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

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