A Sikh American actor and model missed his flight to New York City out of Mexico City on Monday morning after refusing to remove his turban.
Waris Ahluwalia, who appeared in a viral ad campaign for Gap in 2013, said taking off his head covering in front of other passengers would have violated his faith.
"That's not something I'm willing to do in front of everyone. It's like asking someone to remove their underwear in public," Ahluwalia told Think Progress. Most Sikh men wear turbans and beards in order to show their commitment to their religion.
The incident highlights how widespread confusion about minority faiths affects members of these religious groups. It comes in the wake of President Obama's visit to a Baltimore mosque, where he addressed rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. and around the word.
"The Muslim American community remains relatively small — several million people in this country. And as a result, most Americans don't necessarily know … a Muslim personally. And as a result, many only hear about Muslims and Islam from the news after an act of terrorism, or in distorted media portrayals in TV or film," Obama said.
Although the president's remarks in Baltimore, as well as his speech the next morning at the National Prayer Breakfast, stressed the importance of religious freedom for all faith groups, the Sikh community has criticized him in the past for failing to recognize their unique struggles.
For example, when six Sikh Americans were killed during a temple shooting in 2012, Obama did not visit Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to mourn with residents.
"Our community needs the deeper spiritual and emotional assurance that we are welcome to live, work and worship as fellow Americans," wrote Sikh American Valarie Kaur at the time for CNN.
Sikhs have often been the victims of violence aimed at Muslims, because outsiders don't recognize the difference between members of the two religions, as Religion News Service reported in December.
"The turbans worn by Sikh men in particular prompt the perpetrators of hate crimes to assume that their targets follow Islam," the article noted.
In the absence of a visit by the president to a Sikh temple, members of the Sikh community have taken it upon themselves to track and confront violent incidents. The Sikh Coalition launched Report Hate, an online reporting tool, last week.
"The Sikh Coalition intends to use (information collected through the tool) to better identify the types of bigotry Sikh Americans face as well as the geographic areas where Sikh Americans are acutely vulnerable," as a press release from the organization noted.
According to RNS, "Sikhism is the world's fifth-largest religion, with about 25 million practitioners, including more than 500,000 in the U.S."
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