As we enter the fourth week of 2022, hate crimes across the country are continuing at an alarming rate for people of all races and religions, including individuals of the Sikh faith.
Based on FBI data from October 2021, hate crimes in the country are at their highest level since officials began tracking them in 2001. And anti-Sikh hate crimes are at the highest level recorded since they started tracking them in 2015.
In one of the latest of these disturbing episodes, Brahmjot Kaur of NBC News reported that “authorities have arrested and charged a man with a hate crime in connection with an alleged attack on a Sikh taxi driver at John F. Kennedy International Airport early this month.”
According to Kaur, “the criminal complaint alleges a verbal dispute on Jan. 3 between the Sikh driver and another man, who has been identified as 21-year-old Mohamed Hassanain, escalated into a physical assault, which led to the Sikh man’s turban unraveling and falling off his head.”
Following a police investigation into the case, Hassanain has been charged with assault in the third degree as a hate crime, assault in the third degree, and harassment in the second degree.
The victim, who asked to remain anonymous, is being represented by the Sikh Coalition. Police reports state that what started as a verbal dispute at JFK’s Terminal 4 quickly turned into a physical altercation.
“Hassanain allegedly punched the victim in his face and body ‘several times,’ called him ‘you turban guy’ and told him to ‘go back to your country,’” Kaur reported.
Following the attack, the victim went to a local hospital for treatment. Several airport bystanders witnessed the attack, recorded it on their phones and posted it online. These videos ultimately helped authorities identify Hassanain as the attacker in the case and will also be used as evidence in his eventual prosecution for the hate crimes charge.
In what many of the Sikh faith say is the most disturbing part of the entire attack, Hassanain’s assault of the taxi driver caused the man’s turban to unravel and fall from his head, hitting the ground. As an integral part of the Sikh identity, turbans are considered part of Sikhs’ spiritual strength, so anything that disturbs or desecrates them is especially troubling and disrespectful.
In an interview with NBC News, Simran Jeet Singh, Senior Fellow for the Sikh Coalition and Executive Director for the Aspen Institute’s Program on Religion & Society, said: “It’s hard to put into words what a turban means to a Sikh. It’s more than just a piece of cloth, and it’s more than a religious article of clothing. The relationship between a Sikh and their turban is deeply personal, and that’s why it’s so painful to see a Sikh’s turban knocked off their head and fall to the ground. I know how upsetting that feels, and I hate seeing other people go through that, too.”
For his part, Hassanain is claiming the attack is just part of a fight that went too far.
“I came to the airport to pick up my girlfriend,” he told authorities. “I saw a cab driver there who cursed at me. I threw a punch and cursed at him.”
Still, many believe bias against the Sikh faith was part of the reason for the attack.
“It paints a very clear picture that bias is at least partly driving these incidents,” Aasees Kaur, Senior Legal Client Manager at the Sikh Coalition, told NBC News. “That makes it much more alarming because why should anybody be subjected to violence based on how they look when they’re just trying to do their job?”
In a tweet, New York City’s new Mayor Eric Adams also offered his support for the victim, saying: “We are shocked and angered too. This is an outrageous attack. We say ‘hate has no home’ in New York City, and we’re living that value.”
The Sikh Coalition has also issued a statement from the victim of the assault, which says in part: “I am thankful for law enforcement, the Sikh Coalition and all those in the community who have offered their strength in this difficult time. No one should experience what I did — but if they do, I hope they receive the same overwhelming amount of support and quick, professional action by the authorities in response.”