By Rajdeep Singh
The failure of President Obama to visit Darbar Sahib (commonly known as the Golden Temple) during his recent tour of India disappointed Sikhs throughout the world. Reports have emerged that the visit was fixed but ultimately nixed because of concerns among his aides that American bigots would have a field day with images of the president appearing at the shrine with his head covered alongside turbaned Sikhs. Such a cynical sidestep would not be so extraordinary but for the fact that we live in extraordinary times.
Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims. In many cases, the confusion is well-intentioned and inoffensive, but in the toxic post-9/11 environment, it has become fashionable for hate-mongers to vilify Muslims and subject anyone who even appears to be Muslim to bias and dehumanization. Although the overwhelming majority of Americans who wear turbans for religious reasons are followers of the Sikh religion, turbans are popularly associated with the Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden. Thus, anytime a fanatical tirade or terrorist attack is launched against Americans from anywhere in the Middle East, Sikhs in the United States unwittingly pay a heavy price.
What is ironic about all of this is that Sikhs are, at least ideologically speaking, among the most American of Americans. When Guru Nanak founded the Sikh religion in South Asia five centuries ago, he taught his followers that there is one God and that all human beings are filled with equal measures of dignity and divinity, regardless of race, religion, caste, or gender. The Sikh belief in universal equality is a powerful counterpoint to religious exclusivity and foreshadowed the movements for civil rights and women’s rights by several centuries. For Sikhs, the turban distinguishes its wearer as an ambassador of his or her faith and serves as a constant reminder to abide by the core values of the Sikh religion, including the importance of standing up for anyone who is oppressed.
A Thought Experiment
If you are reading this and wondering what it is like to be a Sikh these days, it might be helpful to imagine that you wear a turban. Consider the weight of sorrow and anger that you feel about the inhumanity of the 9/11 attacks and the specter of terrorism, and then add to that the weight of knowing that you and your loved ones are susceptible to hate crimes and racial profiling, and that your children are likely to suffer bullying at school, often without any possibility of meaningful recourse or redress.
Unsolicited slurs on the street or on buses and trains, and the occasional exhortation to ‘go back to your country’–even if you were born in the United States–are only incrementally deleterious to your sense of being welcome in American society. In other words, you have more serious problems to deal with. For example, some courts have recently ruled that it is permissible under federal law for employers to segregate you from customers, all in the name of preserving stereotypes about what American workers should look like. So far, the Obama Administration and U.S. Congress have done nothing to resolve this modern-day version of the separate-but-equal doctrine.
So just when you begin to lose hope about the possibility of progress, you learn that, for the first time in history, the president of the United States will visit Darbar Sahib. Consistent with the Sikh traditions of celebrating religious pluralism and defending those who are oppressed, it is a fitting place for the leader of the most powerful nation in the world to make bold statements about the sanctity of human rights, especially in the post-9/11 environment.
You find it poignant that President Obama is also mistaken for a Muslim. Since his presidential campaign, it has become fashionable for hate-mongers to exploit anti-Muslim lunacy and claim that the President is a Muslim. You believe that he can relate to the plight of Sikhs and Muslims in the United States, who face barriers of bigotry and ignorance in their daily lives. Indeed, in light of these challenges, one of the best ways to snub the bigots of the world would be for President Obama to stand with Sikhs–and accordingly stand up for them–on their hallowed ground, even if his gutless and brainless opponents mock him for looking Muslim.
Before long, your hopes are shattered, as political fears override courage and principle. You are reminded again that the way you look is considered a liability by politicians and their handlers. You have no choice but to move forward, and you console yourself by walking with your turbaned head held up high, supported by a centuries-old religious conviction that nothing can ever be gained by being afraid.
Rajdeep Singh is Director of Law and Policy at the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the United States. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.