Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Sikhs faced heavy discrimination and violence. Since then, hundreds of hate crimes have been reported.
Americans’ lack of familiarity with the Sikh religion — and the hate crimes Sikhs experience as a result — has inspired a national campaign to boost understanding of the faith.
Before Anjleen Kaur Gumer and her husband fly, they calculate how much time to allow for secondary airport security screenings.
Before they accept a social invitation, they weigh “what the crowd’s going to be like” in terms of openness and diversity.
Before they enroll their young sons in sports, they make sure the small turbans the boys wear won’t cause problems with coaches.
“It’s not something we think about once in a while,” said Gumer, a Paradise Valley resident. “We think about it every day.”
“It” is how to navigate being Sikh in America. Though the religion has more than 25 million adherents worldwide and a 100-plus-year history in the U.S, nearly two out of three Americans know “little to nothing” about the faith, according to a survey commissioned by Sikh leaders.
“We’re just not on anyone’s radar, which makes it really easy for people to have misconceptions about us,” said Gurwin Singh Ahuja, co-founder of the National Sikh Campaign. “When someone sees a Sikh man that has a turban and a beard — and there are a lot of Sikh men with turbans and a beard — many people associate that with religious extremism or terrorism.
“We have this huge dichotomy between how we’re perceived and what our values actually are,” Ahuja said.
The lack of familiarity with Sikhs and their faith has led to discrimination and hate crimes throughout the U.S., the worst of which left six dead at a Wisconsin temple in 2012.
Sikh leaders hope to reverse the trend with a $1.3 million awareness campaign on social media and major news networks Friday. The “We are Sikhs” spots will stress the faith’s core tenets of equality, service and religious freedom, which Ahuja said mirror classic American values.
The non-profit National Sikh Campaign will conduct before-and-after polling in cities such as Phoenix and Fresno, California to measure changes in public perception of Sikhs, he said.
Phoenix in particular has “played an instrumental and important” role in the Sikh-American narrative, Gumer said, because the first post-9/11 hate crime happened in Mesa. Mistaken for a Muslim, Balbir Singh Sodhi was gunned down outside his gas station by a man seeking revenge just days after the 9/11 attacks.
On April 9, about 200 of Phoenix’s roughly 4,000 Sikhs gathered at Sodhi’s relatives’ restaurant, raising more than $115,000 to support the national campaign.
“I grew up in Texas with a father and brother who wore a turban, and now I’m married to a man who wears a turban, and the ignorance and bullying has been pretty constant,” Gumer said. “I just want my kids to be able to grow up in an environment where they’re respected.”
Here’s a closer look at Sikhism, the world’s fifth-largest organized religion.
Sikhism, one of the youngest major religions, originated in northern India more than 500 years ago.
Sikhs believe in one god, with practices based on the teachings of Guru Nanak and his successors.
Journey to the U.S.
The first Sikh immigrants to the U.S. — young men looking for work to support their families in India — arrived in the late 1800s. They primarily settled in California and Washington.
From 1903-1908, thousands of Sikh workers helped lay hundreds of miles of roads and railways in northern California. Later, they turned to agriculture, at one point holding more than 80,000 acres of farmland.
More than half a million Sikhs live in the U.S. today. They work in all types of industries: A Sikh is recognized as the “father of fiber optics,” and another is the CEO of MasterCard.
Emphasis on equality
India’s caste system, which dictated an individual’s destiny based on class, was deeply entrenched at the time Sikhism began. Sikh leaders fought the system, believing everyone was equal in God’s eyes.
They adopted the tradition of langar, or “free kitchen,” where hungry people from all castes could receive food and eat side by side. Langar was revolutionary at a time when the caste system divided the rich and poor in everyday activities.
Sikhs still prepare langar after services at gurdwaras, their places of worship, and the meals remain open to anyone in the community.
Progressive gender roles
Though gender equality has not been achieved universally among Sikhs, particularly in rural India, gender discrimination has no formal place in Sikhism. From the start, leaders promoted equal rights for men and women.
Sikhs gave all men the last name “Singh” and all women the last name “Kaur” to reduce inequality tied to castes and to give women an identity independent from their fathers or husbands. Today, Sikhs often keep their family surnames and use “Singh” and “Kaur” as middle names.
Freedom of religion is an essential Sikh value. Teachings from leaders of other faiths appear alongside the words of Sikh gurus in the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.
Sikhs don’t actively look to convert others, and they welcome people of any faith to their gurdwaras. When tens of thousands of Californians fled the threat of flooding in the Oroville area in February, Sikhs opened their temple doors to evacuees.
The turban, or dastaar, is the most common “article of faith” worn by Sikhs. Uncut hair, or kes, is usually wrapped underneath and shows respect for the perfection of God’s creations.
Other articles of faith include a steel wristband or bracelet symbolizing an endless connection to God; a wooden comb symbolizing the importance of leading a clean and healthy lifestyle; and undergarments symbolizing the promise to uphold the sanctity of marriage.
The most significant spiritual event in Sikhism involves taking amrit, a holy nectar drink. The ceremony represents a commitment to the Sikh moral code.
As in other faiths, weddings and births are important. On their wedding day, spouses circle the holy scripture together. Parents use the Guru Granth Sahib to name infants, opening it to a random page and using the first letter of the first word to determine the first letter of the name.
Sharing one’s time, skills or wealth is key to Sikhism. “Seva,” or “selfless service,” is work done for others without expecting something back.
Sikhs have fought in every American war since World War I. Some carry a symbolic sword to remind them of the importance of “protecting the oppressed.”
Military mandates to cut hair and remove turbans spurred a backlash in the Sikh community. Earlier this year, the Army began accommodating beards, turbans and hijabs worn for religious reasons.
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