Embrace the Sikhs, don't fear them
Column: All Paths
Rev. Jay Speights
February 20, 2007

A few weeks ago, I had lunch at the United Nations with Hardayal Singh, director of United Sikhs, a non-government organization that champions minority rights worldwide, and Herb Yassky, chairman of my NGO, The New Seminary. The purpose of the lunch was to discuss how the two organizations could work together because of our shared interfaith message. I have to say that I was shocked after Mr. Singh shared many stories about the hatred and prejudice that Sikhs are confronted with in the United States and around the globe.
     I was particularly moved when he discussed how much of this intolerance is due to the events of September 2001. Many Sikhs have been misidentified as Muslim extremists because they wear a turban. Some have been harassed, assaulted or even killed. Sikhism bears no resemblance to fanatical Islamic sects, and they believe in the equality of all human beings, regardless of gender, religion, race or social status. The equal treatment of all human beings is one of the major tenets of their theology.
     So after my lunch with Mr. Singh, I did a little research, and I was amazed to see that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts of Sikhs being singled out because of various articles of faith that they are required to wear or carry as a Sikh. For example, they are required to wear a turban to protect their Kesh (uncut hair), which serves as a reminder for them to do no harm to their body. The turban makes them an easy target for ridicule, verbal assaults and violence, either because they just look different or because they are confused with members of other religious minorities. Whatever the reason is, it is wrong.
     The turban has been a major source of controversy for Sikhs at security checks in airports. There are many reports from airports all over the world, and even here in the USA, where Sikhs were forced to remove this article of faith so security personnel can look under it and in some cases even search through their hair. Sikh turbans also have been challenged in workplaces and schools.
     Another article of faith that Sikhs are required to carry is called a Kirpan. The Kirpan is a short sword and reminds the Sikh that he is to defend against repression of the weak. This is a noble concept, and I understand why it is challenged by many institutions and law enforcement officials. However, Harvard University found a way to allow a Sikh student to carry a Kirpan on campus. Perhaps Harvard can be a resource to help other institutions resolve issues regarding Sikhs and their various required articles of faith. After all, it's Harvard — there are a bunch of smart people up there.
     Sikhs are even singled out in prisons. In some states, there have been efforts made to force Sikh prisoners to cut their Kesh and disallow the turban. This is foolish because I would think that prison is the one place where we want folks to get in touch with the divine. And any prisoner who wants to do that should be supported and encouraged. I wonder how many Christian inmates have been challenged in these states for wearing a crucifix?
     You know, there are approximately 23 million Sikhs worldwide, and about 500 thousand in North America. Yes, Sikhs are all over the world and they quietly practice their belief of "Divine Universal Love." This hardly makes them a group that should be feared. They are valued and contributing community members wherever they live, and have an excellent track record for helping those in need around the globe. They were among the very first to respond with aid for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and recently helped rebuild a Christian church in Florida that was destroyed in a storm.
     I think the harsh treatment of Sikhs in this country and around the world is a classic and sad example of a clash of cultures and the resulting fear that can arise when we are confronted with differences based on how others worship or look. The entire global faith community should give this matter its full attention. Leaders and members of every faith tradition should work with their Sikh brothers and sisters in their communities, to question and find solutions to any policy and action that challenges the rights of Sikhs to practice and express their faith and traditions.
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     Rev. Jay Speights, with an MA in public policy, is an interfaith minister and the main United Nations representative for The New Seminary in New York. You can learn more about his work at the United Nations at The New Seminary website. His email address is jayspeights@newseminary.org. You also can learn more about Rev. Speights' ministry at harmoniousday.webexone.com. © Copyright 2007 by Jay Speights

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