American Sikhs are the target of bigotry, often due to cultural ignorance


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(THE CONVERSATION) Ten years ago, a white supremacist opened fire on a Sikh congregation in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six people and injuring several others before killing himself. An eighth person, Baba Punjab Singh, remained partially paralyzed and died of his injuries a few years later.

At the time, it was one of the deadliest mass shootings at a place of worship since the bombing of the Baptist Church on 16th Street by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. It was also the deadliest assault on Sikh Americans since they began migrating to the United States a century ago.

I remember that the reporters covering the massacre didn’t know much about the Sikh community. A presenter called the gurdwara a mosque and called the murdered Muslims. Another journalist described the gurdwara as a Hindu temple. A third described the Sikh religion as a sect of Islam, using the term “sheikhs” rather than “Sikhs”.

Academics and government officials estimate the American Sikh population to be around 500,000. Cultural ignorance has often made them targets of fanaticism.

As the author of “The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life” and as a practicing Sikh myself, I have studied the prejudices and barriers that many Sikhs in America face. I was also the victim of racist insults from an early age.

Ultimately, the United States misunderstands exactly who Sikhs are and what they believe. So here is a primer.

Founder of Sikhism

To start at the beginning, the founder of the Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469 in the Punjab region of South Asia, currently split between Pakistan and northwest India. The majority of the world’s Sikh population still resides in Punjab on the Indian side of the border.

From an early age, Guru Nanak was disillusioned with the social inequalities and religious hypocrisies he observed around him. He believed that a single divine force created and resided in the entire world. In his belief, God was not separate from the world and observed from a distance, but fully present in all aspects of creation.

He therefore asserted that all people are equally divine and deserve to be treated as such.

To promote this vision of divine unity and social equality, Guru Nanak created religious institutions and practices. He established community centers and places of worship, wrote his own scriptural compositions, and appointed successors, known as gurus, who would carry on his vision.

The Sikh view thus rejects all social distinctions that produce inequality, including gender, race, religion, and caste, the predominant structure of social hierarchy in South Asia.

Serving the world is a natural expression of Sikh prayer and worship. Sikhs call this prayer service “seva”, and it is an essential part of their practice.

Sikh identity

In the Sikh tradition, a truly religious person is one who cultivates the spiritual self while serving the communities around them – or a holy soldier. The ideal of the holy soldier applies to both women and men.

With this in mind, Sikh women and men maintain five articles of faith, commonly referred to as the five Ks. They are: kes (long uncut hair), kara (steel bracelet), kanga (wooden comb), kirpan (small sword) and kachera (soldier’s shorts). Sikh philosophy teaches that all Sikhs have a responsibility to stand up against injustice and that this is an act of service and love.

Although there is little historical evidence to explain why these particular items were chosen, the Five Ks continue to provide the community with a collective identity, binding individuals together on the basis of shared belief and practice. As I understand it, Sikhs cherish these articles of faith as gifts from their gurus.

Turbans are an important part of Sikh identity. Both women and men can wear turbans. Like Articles of Faith, Sikhs view their turban as a gift from their beloved Guru, and its significance is deeply personal. In South Asian culture, wearing a turban usually indicated one’s social status – kings and rulers once wore turbans. Sikh gurus adopted the turban, in part, to remind Sikhs that all humans are sovereign, royal, and ultimately equal.

Sikhs in America

Today, there are approximately 30 million Sikhs in the world, making Sikhism the fifth largest religion in the world.

After British colonizers in India seized power in Punjab in 1849, where the majority of the Sikh community was based, Sikhs began to migrate to various regions controlled by the British Empire, including Southeast Asia , East Africa and the UK itself. Depending on what was available to them, Sikhs played a variety of roles in these communities, including military service, agricultural work, and building railways.

The first Sikh community entered the United States via the West Coast in the 1890s. They began to face discrimination as soon as they arrived. For example, the first race riot in the United States targeting Sikhs took place in Bellingham, Washington, in 1907. Angry mobs of white men rounded up Sikh laborers, beat them, and forced them out of town. .

The discrimination has continued over the years. For example, after my father moved from Punjab to the United States, around the time of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, racial slurs like “Ayatollah” and “raghead” were hurled at him. Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens had been taken prisoner in Iran, and tension between the two countries was high. The Sikhs had nothing to do with it, but they faced a racist backlash because their appearance matched how Americans saw their new enemies in Iran. Our family faced a similar racist backlash when the United States entered the Gulf War in the early 1990s.

Racist attacks increased again after 9/11, particularly because Americans were unaware of the Sikh religion and confused the unique appearance of Sikhs with popular stereotypes about the appearance of terrorists.

Rates of violence against Sikhs jumped after President Donald Trump was elected. The Sikh Coalition estimated in 2018 that American Sikhs were the target of hate crimes about once a week.

As a practicing Sikh, I can say that Sikhs’ commitment to the tenets of their faith, including love, service and justice, keeps them resilient in the face of violence. For these reasons, many Sikh Americans, including those affected by the Wisconsin Massacre, I believe, will continue to proudly maintain their unique Sikh identity.

This is an updated version of an article first published on August 9, 2018.

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