A striking billboard advertisement in New York City showing a turbaned and long-bearded Sikh man with a model was defaced with racist slurs, prompting a defiant response by the advertisement’s sponsor, clothing company The Gap, and subsequently leading to the poster going viral on social media.

When Arsalan Iftikhar, senior editor at The Islamic Monthly, noticed the racist vandalism on the advertisement in a Brooklyn subway, including the changing of the caption from “Make Love” to “Make Bombs,” and also the writing “Please stop driving taxis” on the poster, he posted a picture to his Twitter and Facebook wall.

The photo of the advertisement featuring Sikh actor and jewelry designer Waris Ahluwalia spread like wildfire and several hundred re-tweets and Facebook shares later, “there was so much social media buzz in less than one day that The Gap contacted me directly after hearing about its vandalized advertisement and wanted to know the exact location,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

As an apparent sign of solidarity The Gap then altered its Twitter background image to display the original advertisement, and was lauded widely on the micro-blogging site.

Mr. Iftikhar said that the story proved that “we certainly do not yet live in a ‘post-racial America’ since minorities like South Asians, or other brown folks perceived to be Muslim or Arab, cannot even grace fashion advertisements without having nasty racial epithets hurled their way.”

Meanwhile the North American Punjabi Association condemned vandalism, with its Executive Director Satnam Singh Chahal describing it as an “hate crime” that was an attack on “our civilised society,” calling for those responsible for the defacement to be booked at the earliest and should be punished to the maximum extent of the law of the land.

Mr. Chahal noted that Sikhs and Muslims alike applauded The Gap’s prompt action and show of solidarity, and some members of the community started a “Thank you, Gap” campaign to appreciate their action.

In the wake of 9/11 there was a rash of racist attacks on Sikhs and Muslims in the U.S. leading recently to stronger calls for authorities to crack down on hate crimes.

Sustained lobbying by minority and human rights groups led to a top advisory body of the Federal Bureau of Investigation recommending updating the Agency’s Hate Crime Incident Report Forms, a key mechanism for documenting hate crimes.

The fine-tuning of hate crime laws also comes in the wake of the massacre of worshippers at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in August 2012.

Commenting on the broader question of racial equality Mr. Iftikhar said, “I want to live in an America where a fashion model can be a handsome, bearded brown dude in a turban who is considered as beautiful as a busty blonde-haired white girl.”

 

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