UnitedSikhs

The best punishment for hate crimes
Column: All Paths
Rev. Jay Speights
ReligionAndSpirituality.com
June 5, 2007
 

It is inspiring when people of faith, no matter what tradition, stand firm in their beliefs in the face of adversity. There is a shining example of this in the form of a 15-year-old Sikh student, who attends Newton High School in the Elmhurst section of Queens in New York. On May 28, this young man was forced into a school bathroom by a fellow student, Ahmed Umair, 17, and another student, 15, who forced him to remove his turban and cut his waist-length hair, which is called kesh, and like the turban, is a required article of faith for all Sikhs. The kesh serves as a reminder to do no harm to their bodies.

It was reported that when Umair told the Sikh student that he had to cut his hair, he responded by telling him that it was against his religion to cut his hair. Umair reportedly showed him a ring and said, "This ring is Allah. If you don't let me cut your hair, I will punch you with this ring." After that, Umair reportedly proceeded to cut the Sikh student's hair with a pair of scissors and threw some of the hair in a toilet and some on the floor of the bathroom.

The Sikh student said in an interview, "I will grow my hair again," and "I have faith in my religion." I am proud of this young man. We all should be proud of him. He is my hero of the month. It would have been so easy for him to cower in the face of this type of adversity and doubt his faith and cultural traditions. But he did not.

I will tell you why his faith did not waver. It is because he probably comes from a home and community where it was instilled in him from an early age and reinforced in many ways over the years that his faith was important and worth standing up for in the face of adversity. Yes, home and community are where these values are taught and reinforced.

So I have to ask, where did Umair learn his behavior? I hope not his home. I would like to think that this was a boy just acting out. Kids can be cruel. But that cruelty comes from somewhere. Please don't think that I am saying that this boy comes from a cruel, bigoted family or community. What I am saying is that authority figures who are close to him should look inward and see if there is anything that they could have said or done over the years to make this young man feel empowered to act in such a hateful manner. Perhaps, as a Muslim, he was the target of hateful treatment by some other groups. Whatever the reason that made him act this way, it is wrong and it has put a young man on the wrong path.

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said in a prepared statement, "The defendant is not accused of some schoolhouse prank, but an attack on the fundamental beliefs of his victim's religion and his freedom to worship freely." So, yes, he should be punished. Punished in a way that he knows there are consequences for this type of behavior.

Umair has been charged with second-degree unlawful imprisonment as a hate crime, second-degree menacing as a hate crime, second-degree aggravated harassment, second-degree harassment and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon. He faces up to seven years in prison.

Now, should Umair go to jail for seven years? I am not a judge, district attorney or jury. That is a decision to be made by them. Chances are, however, that Umair would become more hateful and hardened in the American penal system. They are incubators of hate and violence.

However, as part of his punishment, all parties involved should consider a comment by Tejinder Singh, a lawyer for United Sikhs, who said he would like to see Umair educated about the Sikh religion. That's a good idea. As part of Umair's punishment, he should be required to learn about the Sikh faith and cultural traditions, and perhaps to perform some type of service for a Sikh organization. I am going to take it a step further and propose that his family or guardians be included, and that the learning not be limited to the Sikhs only. Other faiths and cultural traditions should be included. Perhaps an interfaith group in New York can take responsibility for this.

Let's turn this hurtful and mean act into a learning and growth experience for Umair, where he can become an agent of compassion, tolerance and understanding.


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Rev. Jay Speights has an MA in public policy and is an interfaith minister and the main U.N. representative for The New Seminary in New York. You can learn more about his work at the United Nations at the New Seminary website or at harmoniousday.webexone.com . His email address is jayspeights@newseminary.org . © Copyright 2007 by Jay Speights.


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