What is Sikh? Community pushes for better understanding

OAK CREEK, WI - AUGUST 10:  A man grieves as community members pay respects to the six victims in the mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin at the Oak Creek High School August 10, 2012 Oak Creek Wisconsin. Suspected gunman, 40-year-old Wade Michael Page, allegedly killed six people at the temple on August 5 and then killed himself at the scene. He was an army veteran and reportedly a former member of a white supremacist heavy metal band. Three others were critically wounded in the attack.  (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)
A Sikh man grieves as community members pay respects to the six victims of a mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on Aug. 10, 2012. Credit: Darren Hauck/Getty Images

In the wake of an attack on a Sikh man near Columbia University, Sikh community leaders are calling for more education about their religion.

Prabhjot Singh is a professor in international and political studies at Columbia University as well as a medical doctor and community health organizer. He was reportedly attacked at 110th Street and Lenox Avenue about 8 p.m. Sept. 21 by a group of about 15 to 20 youths on bicycles who shouted “get Osama” and “terrorist.”

Sikhism is an independent religion, unrelated to Islam or Hinduism, that originated in and around India about 500 years ago, community advocates explained at a press conference on Monday.

But according to a Stanford University study sponsored by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 70 percent of Americans misidentify turban-wearers in the U.S. as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Shinto, when the vast majority nationwide — more than 90 percent — are in fact Sikh. The study found nearly half of Americans believe Sikhism is a sect of Islam and associate turbans with Osama bin Laden more than any named Muslim or Sikh figure.

“Where are they getting these images from? Where are they getting these stereotypes from?” demanded Amardeep Singh, program director at the Sikh Coalition, noting the young people who attacked Prabhjot Singh called him Osama bin Laden. “It’s from their parents, it’s from the media. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. He’s not randomly being called ‘bin Laden.’ There’s a whole system of information that’s being disseminated that makes people think ‘bin Laden,’ instead of doctor, community activist, community health worker, professor. Instead they think ‘terrorist.’”

Amardeep Singh pointed to a survey released earlier this month that found more than 50 percent of Sikh kids in New York City suffer bias-based bullying.

“If we can’t get this right in New York City, where are we gonna get it right?” he said.

Amardeep lauded the “really robust” section on LGBT issues in the city schools’ new Respect for All curriculum, geared at promoting appreciation for diversity and pluralism, but rued the absence of any information on Sikhs, Asians and other minority groups.

The Sikh Coalition, which Amardeep said was “born the day after 9/11,” tracks attacks on Sikhs. No statistics on such attacks are available from the FBI or the NYPD, though the FBI agreed in June “after a tremendous amount of advocacy” to start keeping track of specifically Sikh attacks starting in 2015, Amardeep said.

He said the “animating event” for the FBI’s decision was the Oak Creek massacre, when a neo-Nazi opened fire on a group of Sikhs in Wisconsin.

In discussing the role of the media in shaping the American public’s understanding of Sikhs, Amardeep pointed to CNN’s coverage on the one-year anniversary of the Oak Creek attack.

“The way that most people get their information on people with a turban and a beard is really through images they see on TV,” he offered. “CNN on that night broadcast images, on the one-year anniversary, of terrorists in Yemen with turbans and beards.”

Along with greater education of young people in schools, Amardeep is pushing for more Sikhs in the public eye. His younger brother is a councilman in Hoboken, N.J., representing a community that is about 80 percent white. But because of his brother, people in Hoboken don’t see a turban and think “bin Laden,” he said.

“When people think Sikh in Hoboken, they literally think, like, community leader, person who’s contributing to the welfare of the community,” he explained.

But without people like his younger brother, he said, “What you’re left with as our spokesperson is effectively bin Laden.”

Who are the Sikhs?

Information provided by the Sikh American Legal Defense Fund.

  • The word “Sikh” means student. Sikhs consider themselves students in the meaning of life.
  • Sikhs believe in one god, equality and freedom of religion, and they place a high value on community service and outreach.
  • The core values of Sikhism are derived from three tenets held in equal importance: an honest living and an honest day’s work; sharing with others what God and life have provided; living life fully with an awareness of the divine within all people.
  • Sikhism is the only religion that requires men to wear turbans.
  • The Sikh turban is meant to represent a commitment to equality and justice.
  • Sikhism is unrelated to Hinduism or Islam.
  • Ninety-nine percent of turban-wearing people in the United States are Sikhs from India.
  • Sikhs have been in the U.S. in relatively large numbers for more than 100 years.
  • There are roughly 700,000 Sikhs in the U.S. today, out of a worldwide population of 25 million.
  • Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion.
  • Male Sikhs all use the last name “Singh,” which means “lion.” Women all use the last name “Kaur,” meaning princess. This stems from a guru called Gobind Singh and was intended to free Sikhs from the caste system.

Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat


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