Violence against Sikhs stems from ignorance and fear

Though not Muslim, the group has borne much of the post-9/11 anti-Muslim prejudice

August 06, 2012|By Dawinder S. Sidhu

We do not yet know for certain what motivated a gunman to open fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin Sunday, killing six and wounding many others. But we do know that the Sikh community in America — for no reason other than its members' appearance — has suffered extensive harassment, prejudice and violence in the years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Sunday's shooting was a tragedy, but it offers Americans an opportunity to learn about the Sikh community and to quell the ignorance that may have enabled the shooting to occur in the first place.

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion, established in the 15th century in the Punjab region of South Asia. The religion emerged in a time of conflict between Hindus and Muslims. In this context, Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, sought to highlight the underlying humanity and equality of all people. Indeed, Guru Nanak argued that anyone, regardless of caste, creed, or gender, could be content and achieve enlightenment if he or she lived by three simple instructions: first, to reflect and meditate upon God; second, to earn a decent and honest living in society; and third, to give back to the less fortunate when feasible.

Guru Nanak was followed by nine other living spiritual teachers, or gurus. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last living guru, installed a book of hymns penned by several gurus and other spiritually-minded Hindu and Muslim poets as the permanent guide for Sikhs ("Sikh" literally means "student"). Guru Gobind Singh also established a group of saint-soldiers who abide by a code of conduct that, among other things, requires adherents to keep five articles of faith, including unshorn hair. Observant Sikh males thus do not cut their hair and wear a turban on their heads.

While the Sikh turban is an integral part of a Sikh's physical identity, carrying with it deep religious and symbolic meaning, it has served as a marker for hate violence and discrimination, particularly in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks ofSeptember 11, 2001.

The Sikh footprint in the United States can be traced to the late 19th century. Early Sikh migrants arrived primarily in Western America, working in farms, mills and foundries and helping to build railroads. Sikh immigration to the United States was relatively modest at the beginning and first part of the 20th century, but a wave of Sikh migration corresponded with the relaxing of federal immigration laws in 1965. The new laws favored professionals, and Sikhs in these occupational areas were among those who were able to take advantage of these preferences. Today, though figures vary widely, roughly 700,000 Sikhs reside in the United States.

Despite the general, inherent difficulties that immigrant and minority groups encounter, and despite the additional problems associated with discrimination and harassment tied to their unique appearance, "our country," as President Barack Obama noted in a statement Sunday, "has been enriched by Sikhs." Perhaps most notably, Dilip Singh Saund became the first Asian-American, let alone Indian- or Sikh-American, member of Congress. Today, Sikh Preet Bharara is the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan, while South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is the daughter of Sikh parents. Caucasian converts to Sikhism, who are concentrated in the American Southwest, have demonstrated the ability to start thriving businesses. These converts' entrepreneurial initiative stemmed in part from their sense that non-Sikhs may not hire individuals with turbans and beards.

The terrorist attacks of9/11represented the start of a defining era for Sikhs in the United States. Because of Sikhs' physical appearance and the fact that the architects of the attacks, including Osama bin Laden, wore turbans and had long beards, Sikhs encountered significant violence and discrimination immediately after the attacks. On September 15, 2001, for example, turbaned Sikh Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed in Mesa, Ariz., by a self-proclaimed "patriot" who sought that day to kill some "ragheads." Aside from murder, stabbings, physical assaults and verbal harassment, Sikhs have been profiled, ejected from airplanes, terminated from and refused employment, and bullied in schools, among other things, all on account of their appearance and specifically some Americans' hostility to it. All told, Sikh-Americans have suffered the disproportionate brunt of the post-9/11 backlash in America.

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