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Sikh Americans Hope To Reduce Hate Crimes With Ad Campaign

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Racial and religious profiling, school bullying, discrimination, hate crimes - those are all realities of being a Sikh in this country.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We are Sikhs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Sikh-Americans.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We believe in equality.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tolerance.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: And respect for all.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Because Sikh values are American values.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We are doctors.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: PTA moms.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Patriots.

SIEGEL: This is from a new ad campaign called "We Are Sikh" airing on CNN and Fox News.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: We like "Game Of Thrones."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: I'm obsessed with "Star Wars."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: I've seen every episode of "SpongeBob" because that's what my daughters like to watch.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: We are Sikhs.

SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Rajwant Singh co-founded the National Sikh Campaign. That's the group behind the ads. And he joins me now in the studio. Welcome.

RAJWANT SINGH: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And Sikh is spelled S-I-K-H.

SINGH: Yes.

SIEGEL: We're as likely to hear it pronounced seek (ph) as sick (ph). Which is actually correct?

SINGH: Actually, it's sick (ph).

SIEGEL: Sick (ph).

SINGH: Yes.

SIEGEL: Sikh Americans have been reporting hate crimes at least since 9/11. Why launch this campaign now?

SINGH: Well, after the attack on a Sikh place of worship in Oak Creek, Wis., in 2012 which took six lives, our community was shaken to its core. And that's when we started exploring that we need to do a major preparedness campaign so we can really inform all Americans about who we are and what our turban stands for.

SIEGEL: We should explain to people a bit who the Sikhs are. What is Sikhism?

SINGH: Well, Sikhism is a monotheistic religion. It originated from India, and we believe in equality of men and women. We believe that all religions ought to be respected. And we also believe that we should serve those who are underprivileged or unfortunate in this society.

SIEGEL: Men typically wear turbans and have beards and long hair under their...

SINGH: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...Turbans and are named Singh.

SINGH: Yes. The hair - unshorn hair is your commitment to live a spiritual life, your connection with your own creator. And Singh means lion. And that was again to bring equality because your last name will tell you which caste you belong to or...

SIEGEL: In India.

SINGH: ...Which family you were originated from. So in order to eliminate all of that, for males, it was Singh, and females were Kaur, which means princess.

SIEGEL: Let's listen to part of the other ad that you're running.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: I have two children, and they keep us really busy - you know, Boy Scouts, saxophone, gymnastics.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: We teach our kids the American values go hand-in-hand with the Sikh values - tolerance, religious freedom, gender equality. Having that opportunity available for my daughter to pursue her dreams is just a beautiful thing.

SIEGEL: I mean clearly what these commercials are saying is, we are Americans, and we support American values. Is this an uphill fight for Sikhs in this country?

SINGH: Yes because what we found out in a study that we commissioned in 2014 - and the study results were released - that the moment people see a turban or our identity, they identify that with something which stands for anti-Americanism or violence against Americans or terrorism.

SIEGEL: With Osama bin Laden, is what it is.

SINGH: Exactly, exactly. So it was very important for us to clear that misunderstanding and to create a better understanding of who we are and awareness of the Sikh identity that actually, the turban stands for the same values of what this country stands for - is equality and opportunity for all.

SIEGEL: Why do you think this campaign will work?

SINGH: Because what we have discovered is once the ads were tested, it was very pleasant for us to see that people of all backgrounds, even with all various political leanings, are very accepting who we are and what we stand for. We found Republicans, Democrats, independents - every...

SIEGEL: All groups.

SINGH: ...Demographic shifted from 15 to 20 percent towards having a warm feeling towards the Sikh community, which is an amazing - and I - we feel that what we are discovering is that at the core of this nation, there's a goodness. People are ready to accept once they understand who we are or know each other better. So if there's an opportunity, if we can create a mechanism to understand each other, we could all come together.

SIEGEL: Dr. Rajwant Singh, co-founder of the National Sikh Campaign, thanks for talking with us.

SINGH: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ MAKO'S "BLU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.