Stranger in Your Own Land

I could never be a practicing Sikh.  I do not have the courage.

Following last Sunday’s shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, I stumbled upon an excellent short documentary from 2004 called, “Dastaar: Defending Sikh Identity.”  Directed by Kevin Lee, the film encapsulates the uncommon struggle of the India-based religion here in the States, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, emphasizing the significance of the dastaar, or turban, as a symbol of the faith.

The essence of the issue is that Sikhism in America has fallen victim to a cruel and ironic case of mistaken identity:  Because its adherents wear turbans—as they are commanded to do—certain armed geniuses assume them to be members of the Taliban, al Qaeda or some other manner of Muslim.  In point of fact, Sikhism has no relationship whatever to any Islamic sects, except (ironically again) for fighting the occasional war against them.

While violence against American Sikhs was not unheard of prior to September 11, 2001, the attacks and ensuing paranoia about foreign-looking men with headgear engendered this confusion and produced a spike in high-profile “hate crimes” that continues today.  The Sikh Coalition, founded in New York on the night of 9/11, says it has received “more than 1,000 complaints of violence or discrimination against Sikhs since September 11, 2001.”  Prabhjot Singh, the organization’s operations director, very eloquently laments, “We’ve been attacked twice.  Once by the terrorists, and then by fellow Americans.”

“I can’t hide who I am,” Prabhjot Singh says in the film, underlining his faith’s present dilemma, “I am a Sikh because I wear a turban.  I am identified as a Sikh.”  Amardeep Singh, Sikh Coalition’s legal director, is even more direct:  “Our articles of faith require us to stand out.”

This is the component of the whole mess that I find most admirable, if not outright heroic.

The United States, for all its official freedoms, is a culturally conformist place most of the time.  To dress differently—in whatever way and for whatever reason—rarely endears one to the community.  When it doesn’t lead to violence, it leads to ridicule and suspicion or, at the very least, a general air of discomfort and unease from one’s fellow travelers.

In light of so many Americans’ misplaced and hostile perceptions about those with turbans, beards and long, flowing robes, it requires genuine nerve to assume the outfit nonetheless, risking safety for piety.  It is a tradeoff no law-abiding religious or ethnic group should be forced to make, so we must bow our heads in reverence to those who are so compelled and choose, with the utmost integrity, to err on the side of danger.

I have never had this problem.  I count myself a member of two religious minorities—I am a Jew and an atheist—but neither one enjoins me to proclaim it on a daily basis; I can keep either a secret if I want, and often do.  Observant Sikhs, with a great deal more to fear from exposure, are not afforded such a privilege.

In point of perspective:  Any discussion of religious persecution should include the disclaimer that, as a country in which to freely exercise one’s faith, the United States ranks higher than most.  We can be thankful that crimes against members of a religion are, in fact, looked upon as crimes (not all societies can make such a claim).  We are plagued by dumb people, rather than dumb laws.

Nonetheless, within our borders the Sikh community faces an unceasing and singular conundrum that it did nothing to deserve and, on balance, has handled with charity and grace.  It merits all the support it can get, and this is as good of a week as any to say so.

It is sometimes the duty of the coward to sing the praises of the brave.


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