Author Archive

UNITED SIKH Sponsors SF 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb to Ensure that the Fallen Firefighters are Never Forgotten!

San Franciso , California:  UNITED SIKHS joins  the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb. We climb to ensure that the fallen firefighters of September 11 are NEVER forgotten.  We climb the 96 Floors of the TransAmerica Building on 9/11.  See: www.sf911msc.com. To check on how many climbers, see: http://www.sf911msc.com/content/our-supporters 

Continue reading ‘UNITED SIKH Sponsors SF 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb to Ensure that the Fallen Firefighters are Never Forgotten!’ »

Hurricane Irene Update from NYC VOAD

1. Approved Operational Transition Statement- American Red Cross

This is a statement issued by the American Red Cross of Greater New York containing operational information agreed upon between the American Red Cross and the New York City Office of Emergency Management regarding Coastal Storm Plan ongoing operations: Continue reading ‘Hurricane Irene Update from NYC VOAD’ »

Seeking Clemency for Professor Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar

Blog by Marina Pohrib, Legal Intern in NYC office.

This month, the European Union (EU) has appealed to India not to execute Professor Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar.  Bhullar had been sentenced to death in 2001 by a split decision of the Supreme Court of India for a 1993 car bomb attack in New Delhi that killed 12 people and injured 29, including former Youth Congress leader M.S. Bitta.  (See EU opposes death to Bhullar, writes to Chidambaram.) Continue reading ‘Seeking Clemency for Professor Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar’ »

Issues Undermining NGO Access and Participation at the United Nations

Blog by Marina Pohrib, legal intern at UNITED SIKHS NYC office.

As a new intern with UNITED SIKHS I recently attended a panel discussion on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) access at the United Nations (UN) organized by the UN NGO Committee on Human Rights.  The discussion was held on June 13, 2011 at the UN Church Center’s Hardin Room. Continue reading ‘Issues Undermining NGO Access and Participation at the United Nations’ »

International Religious Freedom sign on letter and roundtable

Today, UNITED SIKHS signed on to a joint letter that will be sent to the Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to urge the State Department to list Pakistan as a country of particular concern, or CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), in order to encourage the Pakistani government to take action to protect the religious freedom of minority religious groups. Sikhs in Pakistan face many threats to their religious freedom and their personal safety. For more information on the threats to the religious freedom of Sikhs in Pakistan see our 2010 Global Sikh Civil and Human Rights report -you can find the report on Pakistan on page 98. You can also read the text of the sign on letter below.

The UNITED SIKHS legal team attends bi-monthly religious freedom round tables in Washington, DC to discuss ways of better promoting and protecting international religious freedom through IRFA. This round table is comprised of a diverse array of NGO’s and non-profits that are committed to the cause of religious freedom for all. UNITED SIKHS is able to discuss concerns of the Sikh community at these roundtables and by doing so raises awareness about the threats to religious freedom that so many Sikhs face around the world. Recently, we brought to the attention of the roundtable the following two issues: the forcible turban removal in Mohali, India and the kirpan ban in Quebec. Additionally, we consistently discuss the religious profiling that occurs both domestically and abroad at airports and through these meetings we are able to educate partner organizations and government officials about the increasingly discriminatory policies that the Transportation Security Administration is implementing.

The IRFA was passed in order to promote religious freedom as an important part of the foreign policy of the United States. For more information about IRFA, click here.

Read the sign on letter below:

May 12, 2011

The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC

Dear Madam Secretary:

We are deeply concerned about Pakistan.  The murders of Governor Salman Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, as well as the “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief” described in the 2011 Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), lead us to respectfully urge you to designate Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).  Further, the U.S. should supplement the designation by working behind the scenes to convince Pakistani authorities of the value of advancing religious freedom in order to undermine extremism and terrorist sanctuaries.

To date, the Pakistani government has proven unwilling to implement needed reforms, and the USCIRF again recently recommended that Pakistan be so designated.  Pakistan is glaringly absent from the CPC list and unquestionably meets the statutory threshold.

The IRFA standard for “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom is actions “engaged in or tolerated” by the government in question.  Pakistani laws and constitutional provisions explicitly repress the religious freedom of all Pakistanis, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.  The well-known blasphemy law carries the death penalty and three individuals during the past year have been sentenced to death or had death penalties confirmed on appeal.  The anti-Ahmadi provisions in the constitution and criminal code are shockingly discriminatory and criminalize many of their religious activities.  The lack of any effective government response to an increasing number of violent acts perpetrated by non-state actors against Muslims and non-Muslims also meets the “tolerated” provision of IRFA.  The two prongs of IRFA, government sins of commission or omission, so to speak, clearly describe the situation in Pakistan.

After the assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti, the Pakistani government has not only avoided, but has run away from, any serious efforts to reform the blasphemy law or to prevent further attacks.  A CPC designation would help to change the political calculations of Islamabad and encourage the Pakistanis to move forward, not backward.  The increase in violent religious extremism threatens all Pakistanis, particularly women and religious minorities, but also the majority faith community.  Acts of violence and the repressive laws have fostered a culture of vigilante violence, which is destabilizing Pakistan, with dangerous implications for our and their national security, let alone human rights protections.

Because we recognize that Pakistan is critical to the United States on a number of levels, we urge you to designate Pakistan a CPC.  But since we also realize that this designation, by itself, could merely aggravate our deteriorating relations, we urge you to work to convince Pakistani authorities of the value of advancing religious freedom in order to undermine extremism and the culture of violence.  The negative CPC designation should be supplemented with positive foreign policy actions that encourage the development of legal, educational and cultural institutions and procedures that can change state and societal behavior in Pakistan.

Sincerely,

CC:      William Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs
Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Marc Grossman, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan

The End of an Era: Bullying as part of the past, not our future.

Blog by Rebecca Tweneboah UNITED SIKHS NY legal intern

Bullying is no longer going to be considered our nations’ most accepted pasttime, according to President Barack Obama, when he kicked off the Bullying Prevention Conference with a speech at the White House on March 10, 2011.  To view the speech click here. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/03/10/president-obama-first-lady-white-house-conference-bullying-prevention.

The First Lady expressed how this particular issue hits close to home because of their own two children, and the fear every parent has that their child is being bullied at school.  She emphasized that the burden of dealing with bullying is not only for the parents to bear, but the responsibility extends to all of us, especially teachers and other students.  It is our job as adults to lead by example and show our children the appropriate way to treat people.

President Obama focused on how and to what extent bullying affects young people in this country.  Statistics show one-third of middle school and high school students reported being bullied; three million students reported being pushed, shoved kicked or even spit on; and bullying causes increased school absences.  Unfortunately, bullyings’ reach has extended beyond the school gates into the homes of many children, via cyber-bullying, giving bullied kids no relief from the attacks.  The ‘bullied’ are mostly those perceived as being different in the eyes of students, whether they are of a different race, ethnicity, have different religious beliefs, or are of a different sexual orientation than the masses.  Regardless of these differences, the goal for the President and the conference is to create an environment where all kids feel like they belong.  It is going to take the cooperation of everyone in order to realize this type of change.  The PTA has already lended its support through a new campaign aimed at getting information into the hands of parents.  MTV also stepped up with its new tv campaign that speaks out against bullying, in a language that children can understand.  Students, teachers and parents at the local level have taken a stand against bullying, and the President was pleased to acknowledge these accomplishments.  However, he emphasized that there is still a long ways to go and that the conference is about creating an environment where all of our children can thrive.  President Obama recognized that children are going to make mistakes, it is part of growing up, but at the very least we must teach them the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated.

UNITED SIKHS collected data in the community regarding bullying and focusing on how it effects Sikh children and we came across some shocking results.  Our research shows that of the roughly one-third of children who experience bullying in school, over 50 percent of those children are Sikhs.  Based off this information and personal accounts of bullied Sikh children, UNITED SIKHS began a Bullying Prevention Initiative.  This Initiative attempts to inform other children about the Sikh faith and explain the harmful effects bullying has not only on the child being bullied but on the bully him/herself.  UNITED SIKHS hopes Bullying Prevention Initiatives such as this one will dispel fear, othering and hate that is at the root of such biased based bullying. Through our Bullying Prevention Initiative we also hope to create an effective program that eradicates bullying through education, awareness, empowerment, and accountability. UNITED SIKHS will work to create safe spaces for not only Sikh youth, but all youth at school, on the playground, on the computer, so youth no longer fear being bullied or feel the need to be a bully.

Say Goodbye to Freedom: The King Hearings in Context by Rebecca Tweneboah

Say Goodbye to Freedom, blog posted by Rebecca Tweneboah, Legal Intern, UNITED SIKHS, NYC

What do you call it when an entire group of people are singled out based on their religion?  According to the laws of the United States of America, such action is considered Unconstitutional.  However, Representative Peter King claims thatby singling out Muslims and accusing a whole community of being unwilling to work with law enforcement to thwart terrorism does not racially profile this distinct group because that, of course, would be Unconstitutional.

It is difficult to see elected government officials abuse their power on such a regular and consistent basis.  What is even more unsettling is how these Representatives and Senators continue to mislead the public, into believing an entire religious/racial group is single-handedly responsible and in some way involved in terrorism.  This top down method of othering minority groups has dire consequences throughout the nation. Sikhs, because of their external religious identity, are often victims of such governmental religious profiling, societal discrimination, and hate crimes. Government officials need to see their negative actions towards minorities as having direct consequences in the public sphere. Discriminatory speech can lead to violent acts, and the Sikh community has recently seen this happen.

Two elderly Sikh men were walking around their neighborhood several days ago, part of their daily routine, when they were gunned down, in what is being called a hate crime.  Hate begets hate, we all know that, and the hate speech put out there by our country’s leaders does nothing but exacerbate the ignorant ideologies circulating at dinner tables and in work places around the country.

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, a powerful speaker, spoke at the hearings.  She believes the First Amendment of the Constitution gives everyone the right to freedom of religion and what these hearings are suggesting takes those rights away from a minority group.  She asked how many Muslims were at the hearing that day testifying, in order to make the point that Muslims are in fact cooperating, “a Muslim is on the panel, a Muslim is testifying,” so she asked, where are the non-cooperating Muslims?  There was no response.  She was infuriated by the lack of factual basis for these hearings, how it diminishes the sacrifices made by Muslim soldiers on the front lines, and how pointing the finger at our own plays directly into the hands of Al Qaeda.

All in all, the hearings are likely to have the opposite effect of what it claims is the purpose of having these hearings in the first place.  It will cause even more of a disconnect between Muslims and law enforcement.  Demonizing a group in the eyes of society does not create a trusting environment and inevitably undermines our security.

Train in, Drive on, Opt Out on National Opt Out Day.

Celebrate Thanksgiving by giving thanks for what remains of our eroding civil liberties by opting out of TSA’s new body scanners when you travel home for the Thanksgiving holiday on November 24th.

Recently, TSA has been under fire from groups sprinkled over the entire political spectrum left to right.

Individuals concerned with health, safety, cost effectiveness, religious liberty, profiling, privacy, and security are all rising up to protest the implementation of the new Advanced Imaging Technology (known as AIT) and accompanying security measures. You may have noticed the media buzz about the poor decision TSA made when it decided to roll out its new Advanced Imaging Technology accompanied by the ‘optional’ prison style pat down.

TSA’s new AIT security strategy is coming under fire in part due to the graphic images AIT body scanners produce which have civil liberties and privacy rights advocates up in arms.

UNITED SIKHS lawyers have been in constant communications with TSA officials over the years, advocating on behalf of the religious freedom rights of the Sikh community and educating TSA staff about the implications of their security systems on individuals of the Sikh faith.

Alas, it appears that our efforts fell on deaf ears. Despite the consternation expressed by the Sikh community, TSA has continued with its roll out of the AIT scanners –which some have termed ‘naked body scanners.’ If a traveler refuses to undergo this virtual strip search (which is invasive enough- in and of itself impinging upon Constitutionally protected privacy and religious rights) then they are forced to submit to a rigorous prison style pat down –which the ACLU has referred to as ‘really aggressive groping’.

Recently, a TSA security official executed a pat down of a 3 year old child using this new highly invasive method –with the poor child hysterically crying the whole time. How many 3 year olds have to learn firsthand what it’s like to be searched like a prisoner before TSA realizes this new security strategy doesn’t work? (Click here for an emotionally charged article about the pat down procedure).

A young man who refused the body scanner and vociferously expressed his concern at the prospect of TSA security officials touching sensitive areas of his body now faces civil charges and up to a $10,000 fine. Another woman ended up in handcuffs.

Some activists are laying bare their dissatisfaction for all to see –quite literally. A group of Europeans arrived at an airport terminal in only their undergarments to display in real time what it is that the AIT images actually produce.

UNITED SIKHS along with SALDEF and Sikh Coalition recently sent out a community advisory alerting the Sikh community of the new invasive TSA security measures and discussing how this will adversely affect the practice of their faith.

Additionally, these 3 organizations sent a joint advisory letter to several government entities urging government action to stop this tidal wave that is sweeping away the Constitutional rights not only of the Sikh community but of the entire American citizenry. There has been no response so far, although UNITED SIKHS staff continues to look forward to collaborative communication with TSA to address the current issues.

Although AIT spells bad news for the rights of all Americans, for Sikhs however, things are worse. Typically, for a Sikh to get through security unimpeded requires them to shed at least one of their articles of faith all the time (the kirpan). In essence, if a Sikh traveler wanted to be screened in the same manner as other Americans are, Sikhs would have to shed their distinctive identity (TSA officials informed UNITED SIKHS attorneys that not only folds of cloth on the head but also long hair can trigger an anomaly in an AIT scanner). If a Sikh –with their articles of faith intact –goes to the airport now, they are literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. One option (let’s call this ‘the rock’) is to choose to go through AIT and allow complete strangers to view your entire body naked. It is bad enough that this is an affront to the principles of modesty and dignity but what is even worse is that the dastaar will be picked up as an anomaly by AIT machines due to its folds of cloth. This will require a Sikh traveler to go through secondary and even tertiary security screenings of the dastaar, while other Americans will pass right through. The second option ( ‘the hard place’), is for a Sikh traveler to decline the AIT body scan and choose to be subjected to a rigorous, groping form of hand pat down –which will make even the most stoic individuals blush. In totality, this means that those wearing religious head wear will be substantially more burdened by the current security policy than secular Americans. Now, Big Brother is not only watching, he is touching too.

As if the strategic implementation of technology that results in the profiling of certain religious groups and subjects them to heightened security searches wasn’t bad enough, TSA’s new AIT machines bring with them a slew of health concerns due to the radiation levels emitted.

Even pilots are unhappy –TSA’s own employees are concerned about the increased risk of cancer that AIT scanners bring with them. There are studies indicating that such scanners may even damage human DNA.

And TSA still claims this makes us safer?

Civil rights organizations focusing on privacy issues are also up in arms. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (known as EPIC) has filed a suit against the Department of Homeland Security (parent to TSA) and UNITED SIKHS attorneys are working with them to provide EPIC with a Sikh perspective on this issue.

Fiscal conservatives are displeased too –the cost of this new security system is astonishing considering the economic climate of the nation.

Also, there are many who feel that this system, not only too costly, will actually make people LESS safe. [Click here to see another discussion of both health and safety concerns.]

Although TSA is trying to show us a Brave New World in which our religion, privacy, dignity, modesty, health, finances, safety and security can all be sacrificed in the name of knee-jerk reactions to address purported national security interests, it is our job to respond back and say, ‘NOT ON MY WATCH!’

UNITED SIKHS legal team, staff and volunteers are all actively advocating for TSA to change its current policy –and implement a policy that actually makes us safer as a nation and doesn’t single out religions to bear the burden of implementation.
We are spreading the word so that the voices of the community can be heard.

What can you do? GET INVOLVED!!! Here’s how:

1) National Opt Out Day is November 24th –we are urging all air travelers to join this national campaign and OPT OUT of AIT! Show TSA THIS IS NOT OK!

2) Write to your Senators and Congressman and urge them to take action against TSA’s current security policy.

3) Write TSA officials and fill out TRIP complaints every time you travel and are subjected to additional screenings based on your religious identity.

4) Fill UNITED SIKHS turban screening survey on our website every time you travel.

5) Ask TSA to conduct a self audit of its security checks to get data on how frequently Sikhs are screened (we know the numbers but they need to start counting!).

6) Volunteer for UNITED SIKHS –sign up to get involved!

7) Donate to our Protect Our Identity campaign: Visit our website to make a donation -your support allows us to continue our fight for justice on this issue and many others!

SAVE THE DATE for the 3rd Global Sikh Civil Rights Conference!

SAVE THE DATE for the 3rd Global Sikh Civil Rights Conference!

On December 17, 18, and 19 2010 Sikhs from across the world will gather in Vancouver, British Columbia for the 3rd Global Sikh Civil Rights Conference. The UNITED SIKHS staff and volunteers are gearing up for a very exciting, informative and inspiring event, so save the date and join us in Canada!

The theme for this year’s conference is Protect Our Identity, building upon the work of our Protect Our Identity (POI) Campaign launched earlier this year and that has gained momentum among Sikhs globally.

The global conference provides a unique opportunity for community leaders and members to engage in a dialogue with experts, advocates, authors, and academics about the pressing civil and human rights issues that most affect the Sikh community. Not only does the conference provide a stimulating and thought provoking forum to learn about the current state of civil and human rights for Sikh communities around the world, it also galvanizes the community to act together in developing solutions and resolutions to combat discrimination in all forms. Do not miss the opportunity to be a part of this discussion!

What’s new about the conference this year? First, it will be held in the beautiful and vibrant city of Vancouver! Vancouver is the home of the largest Sikh community in North America. Also, this year we are looking to actively engage the youth community by hosting panels/events exploring the challenges that young Sikhs face today. Youth topics include bullying prevention and protecting the Sikh identity. Other panel topics will include minority rights under international law, articles of faith and religious accommodations, and women’s rights.

As always, UNITED SIKHS needs your support in continuing its efforts to advocate on behalf of the civil and human rights of the Sikh community. If you are interested in lending a hand and helping us with the conference, please do not hesitate to contact our Legal Fellow Ilana Ofgang at law-usa@unitedsikhs.org.

Gleeks, meet Sikhs!

A shout out to the creators of Glee for highlighting one of the current challenges of the Sikh community!

In a recent episode titled “Grilled Cheesus” that aired October 5, 2010, a Glee cast member misidentifies the religion of a Sikh acupuncturist, and she proudly clarifies, “I am a Sikh”.

This insightful dialogue, in a prime-time show on national television, encapsulates the current state of affairs in the USA and the world. Too often, Sikh community members are targeted because of mistaken identity and are subject to discrimination. Glee script writers were somehow attuned to the need for greater awareness of the Sikh faith as a distinct religious, ethnic and cultural identity. Now more than ever, education is needed in order to foster awareness of the Sikh identity.
UNITED SIKHS volunteers and staff work tirelessly to educate, advocate, and engender awareness of the Sikh identity on the national and international level.  Brief but sweet, this most recent episode of Glee is a small inroad into the ongoing efforts to educate society at large about their rich and distinct faith.
In response to this need to foster awareness about Sikhism as a distinct and vibrant faith community, UNITED SIKHS has launched the Protect Our Identity campaign, which also supports UNITED SIKHS’ advocacy efforts on behalf of those who are victims of hate crimes, discrimination and profiling.
Thanks again to the creators of Glee for giving the Sikh community a brief chance to be center stage. Now, it is our time to sing our own song! Get involved today by signing up as a volunteer or contributing to the Protect Our Identity Campaign.

Glee is a show about a school choir (a modern day glee club) and the show explores themes of students and teachers dealing with diversity, identity, and bullying. The show is vastly successful and its format of a TV musical has gained popularity.  The episode is available for viewing for a limited time only on www.hulu.com or www.fox.com.