Empire Files: The Sikh Experience in America
People of the Sikh faith, commonly mistaken for both Muslims and Hindus, are frequent targets of bigoted hate crimes-in fact, the first victim of post-9/11 hate crimes was a Sikh man. Promoting respect and understanding of this religious and cultural tradition, The Empire Files profiles this minority community with a long and rich history in America, and explores the roots of anti-Sikh racism with Georgetown Professor and civil rights attorney Arjun Singh Sethi. – teleSUR English
ABBY MARTIN: With the rise of Islamophobia in the United States, harassment and violence not only impacts Muslims, but people perceived to be Muslims, in particular, people of the Sikh faith. Four days after 9/11, an 49-year-old Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot to death outside of the gas station he owned, marking the first hate crime casualty after the attacks. According to witnesses, the perpetrator had said he wanted to, “shoot some towel-heads” to avenge the actions of Osama Bin Laden.
In just the first month after 9/11, the Sikh Coalition documented more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikhs in America. Hate crimes against Sikhs peaked in 2012 when Wade Michael Page charged into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, murdering six Sikh Americans in cold blood. It was the deadliest attack against a place of worship since the Jim Crow era.
The Trump phenomenon gave new energy to Islamophobes with hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived as Muslims skyrocketing over the past year. On March 6th, 2017, a Sikh man was shot on his driveway by a masked assailant who told to, “Go back to your country.” A week prior to that, an Indian man was shot to death in a bar by a man who told him a variation of the same racist slur, before opening fire on him and his friend. The perpetrator said he thought they were both Iranian.
Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, but Sikhs are one of the most mistaken and misunderstood minority groups in the country. A 2015 Stanford study found that 70% of Americans misidentify Sikhs with beards and turbans as Muslims. The same study found that 49% of Americans think Sikhism is a sect of Islam. There are currently an estimated 500,000 Sikhs living in the U.S., many of whom are American citizens. In addition to racism, as a consequence of the U.S. Empire’s campaigns, the cultural richness, diversity and beauty of the Sikh American community, are rarely seen in mass media and popular culture.
That’s why I wanted to explore this community for myself. I visited a Sikh place of worship, called the gurdwara, in Virginia. My guide was, civil rights lawyer and professor at Georgetown University. I talked to members of the community about their experiences as a Sikh in America.
MAN: I came here in ’98.
INTER: Oh, wow. So, right before 9/11.
INTER: Did you, kind of see a shift when that happened?
MAN: Oh, definitely. … because I went to high school here, so I sat … you can see how, after 9/11, the tensions in the schools were… … trying to see … of guys, maybe … name-calling …
MAN: When they seen us with the beard and the turban on the streets, on the public places, they hate us. They shoot us. They march on us. They give us problems.
WOMAN: My niece, who’s a medical doctor, and she was just walking by, and there was – in Florida – and there was two white people who was leaf-blowing and they blew leaves on her face. And… (laughs) …you know, and they can’t tell. They’re, like, “Go back to your country.” So, that’s, pretty sad that that’s how people feel about other people.
WOMAN: Even my father, he, actually works in a very small, small town in America. He owns a gas station. And he wears a turban. He has a beard and everything, and so he receives terrible comments. He’s had to deal with it.
WOMAN: My husband is Sikh. He wears a turban. And he works in the county and he works in the Department of Environment, so when they go to schools to bring awareness about the environment, the kids don’t recognize Sikhs. They’re, like… they talk about Islam, they talk about Bin Laden, and that’s pretty sad.
WOMAN: In America, I would say do not discrimination because I’m … Sikh. But discrimination as a brown person.
MAN: Yeah, I work in D.C. most of the time, and I didn’t hear anything. Whenever I go, like, hiking to West Virginia … where, like, I’ll go to, like national parks, or something, like, where people never seen me before, first thing they will tell you is, like, you know, go back to Afghanistan or something, right?
MAN: A lot of time we have seen people simply not educated enough who understand why my son is covering his head. They think… sometimes they thought, like, it’s… he is not well enough, he’s covering his head, and sometimes they want to know what is under his head and his covering.
To very, very first discussion, like, when you have at parent-teacher meeting, we were able to talk to them, and explain to them this is all religion, this is what is not right for us, this what is right for us, and we gave them, you know, hey, if somebody has a question, definitely, we are here to help. Ask us, and we can… you know, learn together.
ABBY MARTIN: Considering the widespread lack of knowledge about their faith, I asked people about what Sikhism teaches, and what it means for them.
WOMAN: Biggest misconception either we’re Muslims or we’re Hindus. I think even in India there’s a misconception that we’re Hindus. And so even the government treats us as Hindus. But in America they look at us like Muslims. So, nobody really knows that, we’re our own distinct separate ideology and faith and it kind of makes it hard for us to explain, because we always have to use it as a reference point, because that’s what people know.
MAN: The ideology of the Sikh religion believes in international brotherhood. Love all. Resect other communities. Respect other religious feelings. Equality of society. You see here? The people sit down on the floor. That’s mean everybody doesn’t matter he’s a billionaire, he’s doing labor, they have to sit down here on the floor.
WOMAN: Whatever we got from God we are thankful for. We are grateful. We are happy that we are beautiful. And I think every individual in this world is beautiful as that person is created, every individual, and we need to respect individuality of that person.
MAN: No arrogance. Nothing. This is one thing, arrogance…
WOMAN: You’re not better than anyone else.
MAN: Yes. What you sow, that you reap. It’s written even in the Bible. This is a basic of Sikhism, … that when you die, you take nothing with you. You take only with your deeds. It’s not even balanced whether you are Bill Gates or a guy on the street, and when he goes, stand before the Lord, it is only his deeds.
WOMAN: Being a Sikh for me personally is having a discipline to really, just practice and express my love for God. As a Sikh, we believe in our ten Gurus. They taught us values of truth and love and being honest and sharing and those universal things I think they’re in all faiths. I guess what distinguishes us, though; the cultural ties kind of play a big role. So, we keep an external identity. If you were to walk into a gurdwara, the church, you would just… the culture of it is very different. But, in essence, it’s the same, I feel.
MAN: There are a couple of types of the turban. You will see turbans of … different. It is mine. This is traditional 500 years ago. You will see that … is modern.
MAN: I didn’t really know how to tie a turban before, and when I got to know when I was in 9th grade, I felt, really good, like something… it’s a sign to remember everyone. If I go to some place where nobody knows me, then he will be able to know and remember me, like a sign to remember, and I’m proud to be Sikh. Yeah. Wearing a turban.
MAN: See, if I cut my hair, that will make me fit in the college, but at the same time, I want to be stand up … I can explain why do I have … because I believe in God.
MAN: Whenever I come here, they usually tell me, can you teach me how to tie a turban, and you … yeah. Yeah. So, they just, like, always ask me, like, how to tie a turban, and I usually suggest to them, go to YouTube and everything, you can find everything… yeah. Yeah. So…
INTER: Tell me more about the women’s role in Sikhism?
WOMAN: When we come to the gurdwara, it’s everything is equal. We come, we can sing upstairs, and it’s not about only men can sing, and only men can do… there is no division of any duties or any responsibilities. The woman can be next to the … side … The woman could be on the stage singing … The woman could be cooking. The woman could be serving food, the same for men. They are doing the same thing. So, the level of equality that we have in Sikhism it’s amazing.
ABBY MARTIN: I sat down with Arjun for a traditional Sikh communal meal, called langar.
ARJUN SINGH SETHI: This is a religious and cultural tradition of the Sikh faith that after the ceremony is concluded, all are welcome to come to the gurdwara for a meal. And if you go to gurdwaras in India, you will find not just Sikhs, you will find Muslims, you will find Hindus, you will find day laborers, all are welcome to enjoy the vegetarian food that’s served.
It usually consists of bread, some yogurt, some salad, some lentils, some potatoes, chickpeas, of course, all cooked Indian style. The Sikh faith itself is extraordinarily inclusive, so later today, I think you’re going to, actually get a glimpse of the Holy Book … upstairs, and it is an extraordinarily unique Holy Book because it contains the writings, not just of Sikhs, but actually contains the writings of Muslims, of Sufis, and … of other traditions, as well.
Everyone congregates upstairs, usually there is a … priest, who sings holy hymns. Everybody joins in the recital of those hymns, and then it concludes with a reading from the Holy Scripture, and then everyone comes down for the meal.
ABBY MARTIN: There was, definitely lots and lots of amazing food.
Part of the activities at the gurdwara also includes a school for kids.
ARJUN SINGH SETHI: Our main focus with the school here is to make… give exposure to our children about our culture and Sikhism. School is primarily divided into two pieces. One is the teaching of language. We are from Northern India, most of the Sikhs, so our main language is Punjabi, and our scriptures, … which means … as a true guru, it’s written in Punjabi. So, it’s extremely important for us to teach our kids to learn the main language.
The second part of the school is, which you probably noted, is the history. We have a lot of focus on teaching our kids the Sikh history so they know, you know, where we originated from, what are the different challenges throughout the lifetime so far we have, and where we are heading now.
ABBY MARTIN: Sikh contributions to science, culture and more are extreme importance. Among them are Narinder Singh Kapany, dubbed the Father of Fiber Optics, whose work revolutionized communications, medical equipment and more. Artist Amrita Sher-Gil, known as India’s Frida Kahlo and a pioneer of modern art, renowned novelist and poet, Amrita Pritam, … Singh, American civil rights attorney who won major victories against the Bush era torture machine, and electronic music pioneer Talvin Singh.
Music is, actually an integral part of Sikhism. A large number of the community members are musicians themselves.
WOMAN: I always went to the gurdwaras. I was little. I don’t… it’s just my heart of my life that I never felt that I could live without it. So, this was my part where I connected as a kid – the singing. And it connected me and I started going and looking at the keys, and I started working at it at home, no lessons, nothing, it’s just spiritual.
ABBY MARTIN: Sikhism is a relatively young religion, founded around 500 years ago in the Punjab region of what is today Northern India. Around 75% of Sikhs still reside in the Punjab region. A cultural melting pot, with Sikh being its only indigenous religion. The religion was stared by a Hindu man name Nanak. Founded as a rejection of gender division, the caste system, and social inequality, this new religious community faced heavy persecution from its inception, first by an emperor, then by the British Colonial occupation, and still today by the Indian government. As recently as 1984, the Indian government carried out an anti-Sikh massacre led by Indian army troops. Upwards of 20,000 Sikhs were brutally tortured and murdered. Hundreds of thousands fled.
To this day, many seek political asylum in the U.S. and beyond, as their status as one of the many persecuted minorities in India puts them in danger.
Sikhs began immigration to the United States over a hundred years ago, in 1899, mainly to California. They helped build America, as farm workers, rail workers and other types of manual labor. They immediately faced violence and discrimination.
In 1907, anti-Asian riots swept the west coast of North America from Vancouver to California. In the town of Bellingham in Washington State, a lynch mob of about 500 white men, in an organization called the Asiatic Exclusion League, marched into a Sikh neighborhood in protest of them getting jobs in lumber mills. Scores of innocent Sikhs were beaten and forced to flee.
The U.S. government codified the discrimination into law. The California Alien Land Law of 1913 barred Sikhs from owning property. Then in 1917, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act made it illegal for Sikhs – or anyone else from Asia as a whole – to immigrate to the U.S. In fact, everyone from the entire continent of Asia was prohibited from becoming U.S. citizens until 1946.
Sikhs actually served in the U.S. military in both World War I and World War II, with long-standing uniform exceptions for their traditional turban and beard. But in 1981, Sikhs were inexplicably barred from the military for the next 40 years. It was not until 2012 that the first major city allowed the Sikhs to become police officers. The NYPD didn’t even lift this ban until 2016.
I talked to Arjun about the state of Sikh discrimination today and what’s really behind it all.
ARJUN SINGH SETHI: This is what we know, and this is according to a report by the Bridge Initiative. Hate violence against Muslims is roughly 7 to 9 times higher now than it was after 9/11, which is extraordinarily startling. Because I felt after 9/11 that things couldn’t possibly get any worse. There were many, many reports of acts of hate, incidents of hate violence against Sikh Americans, Muslim Americans, and other minority communities and what we actually saw in 2016, and really even late 2015, was that it was what I call, “open season” against Muslims, against Arabs, against South Asians because they make easy targets.
I think it’s also important to think about not just hate violence but the various ways in which these communities are criminalized. Right? So, you think about something like Watch List, a suspicious activity reporting countering violent extremism programs, all of these programs allow for the profiling of these communities and it has always been my belief that if the government is going to profile me and treat me as a second-class citizen, why wouldn’t everyday Americans?
ABBY MARTIN: You know, people think that Trump is this aberration, and they’re shocked, and how did this openly racist, bigoted reality star get into the White House. But, really, this has been festering for a long time. When you’re not prosecuting war criminals and torturers, that’s kind of giving carte blanche to the next administration that they too can do this and get away with it. What are your thoughts on kind of this normalization of Islamophobia?
ARJUN SINGH SETHI: Sure. I have no doubt that Trump has emboldened nativism, racism and discrimination, but it’s always been there. And I would say that it has become institutionalized. I was talking a little bit earlier about criminalization. You see it with respect to things like hate violence. So, Trump might have been the catalyst, but it was there to be catalyzed.
ABBY MARTIN: Mm-hmm.
ARJUN SINGH SETHI: If you think about things like suspicious activity reporting, suspicious activity reporting, that program, basically asked local law enforcement to report what they perceived to be suspicious activity reporting to the FBI. The problem is, what is suspicious activity reporting? I will tell you. It is Muslim, Arab, South Asian Americans purchasing computers at Best Buy for their home business.
It is Muslim, Arab, South Asian Americans taking photos of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is buying pallets of water at Costco. Those are actual cases. Even just thinking about the president. I’m not a fan of President Bush, but President Bush visited a mosque a few days after 9/11. It took President Obama eight years. It took him eight years to go to a mosque.
ABBY MARTIN: Under the Trump administration not only are we going to see this exacerbation of hate crimes and vitriol, but it’s almost this false narrative that Steve Bannon and people who are, you know, managing these Alt-Right media types, that put out their… that the hate crimes aren’t real. That this isn’t happening. That Islamophobia is not real.
ARJUN SINGH SETHI: There are people who can tell you that they have been targeted. I can tell a little bit about my life. Just in the last few years, I’ve had numerous instances where people have said, “ISIS, go home. You don’t belong here.” I had a situation the day before inauguration. For lunch, I picked up lunch in Chinatown, I come out of a restaurant, and there are three men who had just gotten off a bus who started elbowing one another and pointing at me.
This is two blocks from my apartment in Washington, D.C., you know, five blocks away from Georgetown University Law Center where I’m a professor.
ABBY MARTIN: When speaking about the horrific anti-Sikh massacre in Wisconsin, Arjun gave important insight about the reaction of both the politicians and Sikhs themselves.
ARJUN SINGH SETHI: The political rhetoric at the time. President Obama called us in his speech a few days after the attack, “part of the broader American family”. There’s really only one American family, and we’re a part of it. I believe Candidate Romney at that time called us sheikhs. President Obama never came to the gurdwara. The First Lady never came to the gurdwara. We had a high-ranking official, who came, but a lot of Sikhs did feel excluded, and they did feel slighted, and I do think in many ways it was a lost opportunity.
What I will tell you is most extraordinary about that event and I think it’s something that all of America and the world can learn from is the day after that attack, the Sikhs typically conclude their religious ceremony with a prayer called the Ardas. You actually filmed it earlier today, where people stand up and fold their hands. And in that Ardas, they ask the Lord to say a prayer for the six people who were murdered, but also for the culprit. For Wade Michael Page, who actually stormed the Sikh temple that day and also, I believe took his own life.
For me, that showed the extraordinary power of forgiveness, of restoration. The Sikh community was ready to move on. They were ready to forgive. And I think that’s one of the most powerful traditions of this faith.