When a Sikh family in Sterling, Va., received a death threat in the form of a letter addressed to “Turban family,” on February 28, it was not the family’s first experience with religiously motivated threats to their safety.
They had seen a hate letter of this kind, demanding that the family leave the country or be killed, back in 2003: “We used to live in Gaithersburg, Md., where we got two letters, and graffiti (was scribbled on) our home. At that point it was very scary.” The graffiti said something along the lines of “Osama go back” or “Go back to your country.”
The victim, who asked that his identity be kept confidential for security reasons, said his family contacted the county police, who investigated but were unable to find any suspects.
More Threats in 2005
The family was in the process of selling their house when they received the 2003 threat. They moved shortly thereafter to Leesburg, Va. In 2005, they received two more threatening letters around Thanksgiving. “The language was pretty scary. They were talking about killing us, using our turbans to tie up the women folk,” said the victim.
They gave the letter to the county sheriff, and the FBI also became involved in the investigation. In early 2006, the FBI informed the family that they had confiscated the computer that was used to create the letter. However, the family moved shortly afterwards and did not follow up with the FBI to see if charges had been brought or an arrest made.
They moved to their current home in Sterling in 2006, and until last Monday, all was well. “Then we got this letter, which has brought up so many things,” said the victim.
The text of the letter, posted on the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) website, was as follows:
“Our People in the neighborhood have been closely watching your activities and figured out you are a close associate of a secret Taliban movement on the US Soil. We ask you to leave the country as soon as possible otherwise one of our people is going to shoot you dead. Don't attempt to relocate somewhere else in America, as people are closely monitoring your day to day activities.”
Because of the reference to relocation, the family is concerned that the perpetrator may be the same one from the previous threats. “It might be coincidental, but when the person is saying ‘do not relocate,’ maybe they are tracking me,” the victim said.
On receiving the letter, the victim and his wife reported the incident to the Loudoun County Office of the Sheriff. They additionally contacted SALDEF, which informed the FBI’s Community Relations Unit of the threat.
The victim has been in contact with an FBI agent, and is in the process of setting up a meeting with him.
The FBI said it could not comment on the existence or status of an investigation. But the bureau’s Public Affairs Specialist Lindsay Godwin did indicate that they are aware of the incident, and “remain committed to protecting the civil liberties of all Americans and will investigate any violation of federal law.”
Liz Mills, director of media and communications at the Loudoun County Office of the Sheriff, commented that their office was working in conjunction with the FBI on the case, but would not give further information.
SALDEF’s Associate Executive Director Jasjit Singh is calling on the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office to ramp up patrols in the family’s neighborhood.
The victim commented that additional levels of patrols would give him a sense of comfort, as the threat has made him concerned for his family’s safety. “I would think twice now before letting my kids stay out by themselves,” he said.
Singh commented that while this type of harassment has unfortunately not been uncommon for the Sikh community since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- “There have been hundreds of incidents over the last 10 years.” He noted that they do not typically see so many challenges faced by one particular family.
The victim could think of no reasons why his family would be the repeated target of hate crimes.
“I’ve been with my consulting company, working with federal agencies since 2001. I go through my security clearance every 10-12 months,” said the victim.
The Washington, D.C. area has the fourth-largest concentration of Sikhs in the U.S., and for them, incidents of religiously motivated discrimination are no longer surprising.
The Sikh community has a long history with discrimination caused by events abroad, SALDEF’s Singh noted.
“In the late 1970’s, when the situation with the Ayatollah was happening in Iran, people would yell ‘Ayatollah’ at Sikhs. During Desert Storm in the ’90’s, people would call Sikhs ‘Saddam’ and attack them. Now they’ll say Osama or Taliban or al Qaeda. It’s a sad reminder that there still needs to be a lot more education done in this realm,” said Singh.
Because of the increased frequency of these incidents, community members have started to see them as just a part of life.
“It really is far more common than we would like to think. The reason is because of the very visible articles of faith that our community members wear,” said Singh. “We have a target on our back for people who don’t know who we are and what we stand for. In the absence of that knowledge, people tend to fill in those gaps with their misperceptions.”
As for the Virginia victim, he wants the threats to end. “We need to get closure on this,” he stated. “The part which concerns me is, if this is the same individual, the authorities are not able to track him, but he is able to track us.”