By David Michael Newstead.
The Christmas season is here and it is omnipresent – on TV, in decorations, and the music playing in almost every store.
Overwhelming even at its best, I thought December would actually be a perfect time to take a break from the typical holiday activities, instead focusing on Sikh culture and trying to learn more about the Sikh experience in America. To do so, I reached out to the local Sikh temple and paid them a visit recently. Leading up to that, I realized that I knew some things about Sikhism in an abstract sort of way, but when I really thought about it, I hadn’t had much exposure to the Sikh community at all. Disappointed by this lack of interaction, I decided that this was all the more reason to check out the Sikh Gurdwara in Washington, D.C. and to endeavor to gain a better understanding.
When I arrived at the temple, the people I met there were instantly welcoming and happy to explains things and answer my questions. I was asked to remove my shoes. Then, I was fitted with a head covering and went on to enjoy an afternoon of music, prayer, and Indian food (I love Palak Paneer). The congregation was made up of young families, a few small children, and grandfathers with the long beards characteristic of a religion that views natural uncut hair as a symbol of respect for God’s creation.
Later in the service, ceremony gave way to announcements about upcoming events and a brief talk on the important, on-going efforts of the American Sikh Congressional Caucasus, formed 2 years old and consisting of 42 members in the House of Representatives.
It’s this last point that informed the conversations I had over lunch as I tried to understand the distinctiveness of Sikh culture in relation to a larger American context. Since the 19th Century, Sikhs have made diverse contributions to the United States, particularly to the medical profession, to agriculture, and the development of fiber optics. Their long military tradition includes distinguished service in both world wars, while also preserving Sikh cultural practices at the same time. But despite the significant accomplishments of the Sikh community, their appearance has been a focal point for ignorant stereotypes and baseless suspicion over the years. A majority of Sikh students report being bullied or harassed. Airport security often views Sikhs as a threat. And today, news about Sikhs in the military most likely debates their facial hair and not their heroism.
Unfortunately, the Sikh experience in America has been marred by discrimination and violence, especially in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Often mistaken for Muslims because of their beards and turbans, there have been hundreds of documented assaults against Sikhs from 2001 to the present. The most well-known case is the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Arizona, on September 15, 2001. But even years after 9/11, Sikhs have continued to be targeted in senseless acts of violence across the United States. In 2012, a White Supremacist attacked a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, fatally shooting 6 people. On a Sunday morning in 2013, an 81-year old Sikh man was beaten with a steel pipe in Fresno, California. And in New York City the same year, 30 men attacked a Columbia professor named Dr. Prabhjot Singh, fracturing his jaw and calling him a “terrorist” and “Osama Bin Laden”.
As we ate lunch, I spoke to a retired postal worker who described Sikhs as a peaceful, loving people that wanted to be represented within communities and not apart from them. He explained that preserving their identity and the visibility that’s associated with it is essential to Sikhs, even as they integrate into American culture. In fact, it’s a remarkable testament to the Sikh community and their closely held beliefs that they always seem to rise above the hate crimes and harassment that’s directed towards them – through their ability to forgive, to build understanding, and to continually welcome outsiders in with open arms.
Later in the afternoon, I asked a college student whether he thought things were improving for Sikhs in the United States and I got a two part answer. He was skeptical about certain regulations changing for the better, describing how uncomfortable he feels at airports. But in society at large? He said things were improving little by little.
There’s still a long way to go. That said, it’s a great reminder about the importance of peace on Earth and good will toward men, year-round.