Sikh Americans' Political Roles after September 11, 2001 (2004)
The objective of this research was to understand the political roles of Sikh Americans and the various challenges to Sikh identity from post-9/11 hate crimes. Some of the difficulties faced by Sikhs are addressed along with some of the reactions to post-9/11 hate crimes. This study investigated the actions taken by Sikh leaders, from the United States and the Punjab, towards hate crimes as well as their efforts to create more awareness about Sikhism and the Sikh identity. The mutual system of Sikh Americans and Sikh leaders in the Punjab is also explained. Some of the assimilation life-style patterns of Sikhs, which were collected through surveys, are also explored. Finally, ideas for future research studies are discussed.
Surveys and interviews were the two main methods of collecting data. A total of sixty-five surveys were collected from several gurdwaras and interviewees. Surveys were given in gurdwaras to Sikhs that were eighteen years in age and older. There were fourteen surveys collected from the Sikh Cultural Society, NY; twenty-three from the Blue Mountain Gurdwara, PA; twenty-two from the Bridgewater Gurdwara, NJ; and six from interviewees in the area of Washington, DC. I interviewed six representatives of Sikh organizations and gurdwara committee members. I interviewed representatives of three Sikh organizations: Sikh Council On Education and Religion (SCORE); Sikh Mediawatch And Resource Task Force (SMART), which switched its name to Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF); and Khalistan Affairs Center. Observation and/or filming were done during Sikh events such as: 17th Annual New York Sikh Day Parade, Philadelphia Sikh Day Parade, and the 400th Anniversary of the installation of Guru Granth Sahib Ji. I observed sadh sangat (Sikh congregation) and their actions closely in gurdwaras.
Events Affected the formation of Sikh Identity in the Untied States
Asian Indians were found in the United States as early as hundred years ago. According to Lal (1999), the first Sikhs who entered the United States were labeled as Hindus while some of other South Asian Americans were part of the British Indian Army. Eighty-five percent of South Asian Americans coming to Canada and California between the period of 1900 and 1917 were Sikhs. Since the Sikhs made up a large percentage of South Asian Americans groups in the United States, they started to build gurdwaras. The gurdwaras has been found as early as 1908 in Vancouver, Canada and in 1915 in Stockton, California. In 1913, the Ghadr (revolutionary) Party was founded by Punjabis in San Francisco to fight against the British for liberating India. Soon after, in 1917, this Party ended, when America entered into the war working with the British. The Immigration Act of 1917 closed the doors for all Asians from entering the United States. Lal (1999) shows how the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 once again opened the doors for Asians to enter the United States as professionals saying, “By 1975 the number of Asian Indians had risen to well over 175,000” (Lal 2).
Racial attacks on South Asian Americans are traced back as early as 1907 in Bellingham, Washington. Sandhu (2002) says, "Sikhs were asked to cut their hair and beard in order to get a job." However, these racial attacks and discrimination did not completely discourage Sikhs from teaching others about their religion. That said, the first priority of Sikhs at that time was not religion, but the American dream of economic advancement.
One event that motivated Sikhs to become more religiously active was the Blue Star Operation of 1984, which was an attack on the Golden Temple by the Indian army. Orders were made by Rajiv Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi, to kill Sikhs after two Sikh bodyguards murdered Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India in 1984. Under the law of TADA, Indian police gained the power to arrest and kill young Sikh boys from villages without legal due process. Regarding this illegal arresting and killing in Punjab, Sandhu (2002) says, “Recent immigration, of relatives of the previous immigrants, has been spurred by events in Punjab. Young Sikh men, particularly those from villages in Punjab, are ‘getting out’ not only for economic reasons but also to escape arbitrary arrest, torture and possible death. This group, representative of the average village population in Punjab, includes a large proportion of non-professionals. However, their influx has contributed to growth in numbers and to the emergence of strong local communities centered around numerous gurdwaras” (Sandhu 1).
As some of my interviewees mentioned, there were few gurdwaras prior to the Blue Star Operation. After this massacre, Sikhs became aware of their rights and started to build more gurdwaras and to start organizations in order to protect their status in India. This crisis on Sikhs and their religion motivated them to fight against unfair policies by the Indian government. The demand for Khalistan started. Many Sikhs left the Punjab, but had difficulty finding safe communities in which to settle. Many Sikhs started to sell their properties in India and began moving to countries like Canada and the United States. Likewise, Sikhs who were already in the United States and Canada became more active about protecting their identity through the creation of more religious infrastructures (i.e., gurdwaras, non-profit organizations, etc.). Years later, after the terrorists attacks on September 11, 2001, Sikhs were attacked again. In contrast to earlier discrimination, these recent attacks were based on a mistaken association between Sikhs and Arab Muslims. On September 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot to death for resembling a terrorist. Many other hate crime cases were shown on the news, one after another, continuing to the present day. These crisises have mobilized the Sikh community to make efforts in preserving their identity and creating more awareness among non-Sikhs.
Such efforts have occurred both on the local and national levels in the United States, indirectly teaching Sikhs how to participate in politics.
Discrimination to Sikhs After Sept. 11 Attacks
Sikhs faced many problems after the September 11 attacks because many people in the United States misunderstood Sikhs due to their similar appearance to terrorists (i.e., turbans, beards, dark skin, knives, etc.). The earliest misunderstanding with Sikhs was when Sher Singh, currently a member of Sikh Council on Religion and Education, was arrested the day after the attacks. Sher Singh was traveling by a Amtrak train. As the news was released that some terrorists escaped from Boston, Sher Singh, was arrested by police on September 12, 2001 because he was wearing a turban and had a long beard. NBC telecasted his arrest as an the arrest of an 'Arab'. With the help of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE), NBC and other media soures later corrected their stories that Singh was a 'Sikh' and that Sikhs had nothing to do with the terrorists on September 11.
A few days later, this misunderstanding turned into hate crimes against Sikhs. One dictionary defines a hate crime as "any of various crimes... when motivated by hostility to the victim as a member of a group (as one based on color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation)." Many Sikhs faced public discriminations. Several gurdwaras were burnt down. Many were killed in hatecrimes. Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot to death on September 15, 2001 in Phoenix, Arizona. This murder created a movement and fear within Sikh societies. The following are quotes by Sikhs about some of this discrimination:
-"I was attacked two blocks from my residence. Verbal abuse was everyday after 9/11."
-"An individual attempted to attack me physically. I was forced to stay home for a week."
-"The day after 9/11 attacks, I faced many problems. People were calling me “Bin Laden, shoot him.” I had to run from there and didn’t go to work for three months because of fear."
"People were running after us to beat us or shoot us."
"I was arrested three times and one time just for verification. I was in lock-up for four hours, because I went to work a little early and was wearing a round turban and open beard. I work at the MTA. Police questioned me about my work."
Sikhs faced discrimination from US security and police as well. Sikhs during travel by air or land were told to remove their turbans for security checks. A Sikh police officer was told to remove his turban while on duty. He later filed a case against the NYPD over a “No Turbans” policy. He won the case with the help of the Sikh Coalition. The Sikh Coalition is also fighting a case for Sat Hari Singh, an American Sikh also known as Kevin Harrington, who was told to remove his turban while on duty by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of New York. MTA gave Sat Hari Singh a choice of removing his turban if he wanted to continue working as a subway train operator or to choose to work in the MTA yard in which there is no customer interaction. His case is still in progress. Furthermore, Sikh drivers are stopped by police and are charged as criminals for wearing turbans, having an open beard and carrying a kirpan, an important Sikh symbol that baptized Sikhs normally carry with them at all times. Sikhs continue to face discrimination.
Actions Taken by Sikh American Leaders
Many existing Sikh organizations such as the Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE), founded in 1998, and the Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force (SMART), founded in 1996, revamped their programs after September 11 hate crimes. To help Sikh victims of hate crimes, some new organizations were founded in the months after September 11 attacks such as the Sikh Coalition. The Sikh Coalition, SCORE, SMART and the Sikh Communications Council along with two Arab American Organizations met with US Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to protect the religious rights of Sikhs and other minorities during travel. SCORE led a delegation of Sikh leaders in America to meet President Bush at the White House on September 26, 2001, to share how the Sikh community was facing a backlash for their mistaken identity.
Many new programs were and are being introduced to create more awareness about Sikhs, their religion, and their identity in mainstream society. SCORE also has started the program called “Sharing Your Faith with Your Neighbors”. Neighbors, religious and civic leaders, teachers, and elected officials are invited to a local participating gurdwara by gurdwara members to create more awareness of each others’ faith. SCORE prepares packets to hand out to gurdwaras with the information of how to lead this program. SCORE requires the permission of the committee of the gurdwara, in which the program will take place, in order to direct this program at the gurdwara. Thirty-seven gurdwaras nation-wide participated last year and over a hundred gurdwaras participated in this program for this year. SMART offers services in legal matters just like the Sikh Coalition. Khalistan Affairs Center has been working on the cases involved with extradition. Dr. Amarjit Singh, president of Khalistan Affairs Center, indicates that Indian government is seeking the extradition of Sikhs, who are languishing in American jails for more than 10 years. These are the Sikhs who were implicated in post-1984 acts on the Golden Temple.
Individual gurdwaras have started their own parades in their home towns to educate their community about Sikh values. The organizers of the parades say it is not an easy task to organize a parade, especially for an individual gurdwara. There used to be one parade in New York called Annual New York Sikh Day Parade. All the gurdwaras of the tri-state area would participate in this parade, which organizers said was much easier because it was a joint effort of many gurdwaras. It has been celebrated for long time; as a result, many New York officials know Sikhs personally. Sikhs celebrated their 17th Annual New York Sikh Day Parade in 2004. Sikhs have become aware that they need to promote Sikh identity nationwide in the United States.
Sikhs are learning to participate in politics. They are starting to participate in the politics of the United States and getting their voice heard. Sikhs are making contacts with the president of the United States by asking for help in their projects and issues. Asking for permission for local parades allow Sikhs to get to know local officials and to understand state and federal laws. Sikhs organize events in which top government officials are invited. For example, an event was organized by SCORE on December 11, 2001 at the Capital Building in which Senators, members of Congress, Government officials and top leaders of the Commerce, Labor and the Interfaith Communities participated to show their unity and harmony. Sikhs are participating in interfaith alliances to gain more political contacts as well as promoting Sikhism. Sikh organizations are compelling Sikhs to register their votes and to vote. Sikhs become familiar with the American political system by participating in these kinds of programs.
The Sikh Coalition website
says, “The Asian Pacific American Voter Alliance (APAVA) held a press conference on October 28, 2004 to announce that it had registered over 7,000 new Asian American voters in New York City during the last four months. The Sikh Coalition participated in the press conference as a member of APAVA. Rallying under the slogan, ‘No Vote = No Voice = No Power,’ the press conference speakers emphasized the importance of not only registering to vote, but actually voting as well.”
Actions Taken by Sikh leaders in the Punjab
The Delhi Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee offered their support for Sikh Americans. The Delhi Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and Tarlochan Singh, chairman of Minority Commission, contacted Dr. Rajwant Singh, president of SCORE, to offer support. The Delhi Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee invited US Ambassador Robert D. Blackwill to Bangla Sahib Gurdwara to show how the Sikh system works and to show who Sikhs are. After understanding Sikhs and their values, Blackwill wrote a letter to the government of the United States concerning Sikhs. The Delhi Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee lead a delegation to the American Embassy in Delhi to show that Sikhs are different than Arabs and Muslims. The Delhi Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and Sikhs in Delhi have given their best support to Sikhs in America.
Simranjit Singh Mann, president of Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), is the only Sikh leader of my knowledge who keeps Sikhs outside of the Punjab in mind when making decisions. He is one of the few Sikh leaders who is concerned about Sikh Americans and their problems. He wrote many letters to the President Bush on lightening Sikhism, Sikh values, and Sikh identity. Dr. Amarjit Singh, president of Khalistan Affairs Center, says, “Simranjit Singh Mann requested the Indian Government in the Indian Parliament that why can’t the Indian Government can come up with an ad campaign on American TV’s, radios, and newspapers telling who Sikhs are and how they have distinct identity with their turbans." Dr. Amarjit also says, “The Indian Government didn’t come to rescue of the Sikhs.” Simranjit Singh Mann work closely with American officials to make Sikh Americans’ lives better in the United States of America. He came to the United States to stop further distribution of a video called “Terrorism: A War Without Borders,” released in 2002, in which Sikhs were shown with weapons and addressed as terrorists. The clips of Sikhs with weapons in the video were taken from news clips of the time of the 1984 Blue Star Operation against Sikhs. This video was supposed to be distributed nationwide, but only few thousand copies were able to be distributed out due to the mutual effort of Simranjit Singh Mann and SMART to stop further distribution. According to collected data, Sikhs in America really admire him as a true Sikh leader and as one of the best contemporary Sikh leaders.
Besides the efforts made by the Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and Simranjit Singh Mann, Joginder Singh Vedanti, the Jathedar of Akal Takhat (“Timeless Throne,” a critical source of Sikh religious authority), also wrote a letter to President Bush about his concerns for Sikh Americans. In addition, Akal Takhat helps Sikhs outside the Punjab on various issues that are handled by Akal Takhat. For example, they helped in the passing of the Hukums (orders) out to Sikh community.
The Mutual System between Sikh Americans and Sikh Leadership in the Punjab
The mutual system between Sikh Americans and Sikh leadership in the Punjab is complex; the connections are stronger in some places and weaker in others. For an example, many Sikh organizations have addressed that they do not have good working relations with SGPC or Akal Takhat. They said that they do not work with Akal Takhat, SGPC, or any other political party in Punjab to run the organization. Sikh organizations’ members have mentioned that they have kept the respect and honor for Akal Takhat as the center of Sikhism, but do not have formal, working relations. Jathedar of Akal Takhat also says, “I can only preach to Sikh Americans to create more awareness for the mainstream and Akal Takhat is always there for any kind of help they might need.” Some organizations like SMART just want to concentrate on Sikhs’ needs only in the United States. However, some Sikh organizations like Khalistan Affairs Center and many gurdwaras do support Simranjit Singh Mann in his actions for human rights. Simranjit Singh Mann also works with Sikh organizations and gurdwaras to promote Sikh identity in the United States.
The vast majority of Sikhs have kept tight ties with their religion, its values, and its practices. According to graph one, 54% of Sikhs attend gurdwara once a week, 27% attend more than once a week, 11% attend once a month, and 8% attend daily, which is a big percentage relevant to the number of gurdwaras and Sikhs in the United States. Graph two shows that 70% Sikhs do Paath (reading Guru Granth Sahib Ji) daily, 7% once a week, 8% once a month, and 15% sometimes. These values show that Sikh communities in the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York care about their religiosity.
Identity is another important value among Sikhs. Graph three illustrates that the subject of how Sikhs identify themselves is an important issues. Only 4% of Sikhs consider themselves Indians, 6% as only American, 18% as American Sikh, 32% as Sikh American and 40% as just Sikhs. The difference between an American Sikh and Sikh American is which identity one considers a priority. A related issue was studied, as to whether migration to the United States increased, decreased, or did not affect Sikh self-identity. Results shown in graph four demonstrate that 8% of Sikhs think their identity has not been affected and 11% of Sikhs think their identity has been decreased due to the migration to the United States. However, 81% of them believe Sikh identity has increased after migration to the United States. The research seems to imply that Sikhs become more aware of their Sikh identity after they migrate to the United States. The reason of this change was not found through this study, but can be worked on in further studies. Some of my interviewees say the following about how and why they became more interested in learning more about Sikhism and their own identity after migrating to the United States:
“You become aware of your identity after you experience people looking at you differently and you become aware of your unique appearance with a turban and open beard in the crowd. Kids would look at me and tell me that a genie is walking by and people would give me a very different look that makes me feel that I do not belong here. It is different now then it was like 15 years ago. Now there is more diversity and more Sikhs with turbans and open beards in the United States. These kinds of experiences make me think that I am different than the others and I become more aware of my identity in the United States than in Punjab or India. In Punjab, you are not aware of your unique identity when you walk in bazaar [market], because most of the men there have a turban and open beard.”
“I am a professional and often go to business meetings and conferences with a turban and open beard. People usually ask me about my outfit and its meaning. Then I have to explain the meaning of the turban and beard, and how its related to my religion and my identity. These kinds of interactions with people encourage me to learn more about my religion and the identity I carry around. If I would be in India, nobody would ask me about it and I probably would not give that much importance to my unique appearance.”
“I wanted to cut my hair like everybody else in my high school, but my parents did not let me do it. I was the only one with patka [small piece of cloth that young boys ties around their head with tied hair]. When I went to college, I had that spirit and unique feeling about my identity. At this time, I would proudly say that I am a Sikh and explain to my peers about my appearance and my religion. I just developed the interest to know more about my religion and Sikh identity, so that I can tell others about my uniqueness. What my peers liked about me is what I am from the inside (...my Sikh values...) and not my outside appearance.”
Hearing from above Sikhs, it seems that being in a different environment, where people around you do not know about your identity, usually makes Sikhs more aware of their appearance and identity. Sikhs do not limit their identity to their outside appearance, but what and who they are from the inside. As other surveys reveal, many Sikhs hold tightly to their religious values such as: doing 'path,' reading Guru Granth Sahib and attending gurdwara. They have an increasing interest in learning more about their religion after coming to the Untied States, and most importantly they put their Sikh identity prior to their American identity, which does not label them as bad Americans. From interviews and surveys, it seems, though this was not quantified, that Sikhs do not differentiate their Sikh identity from their other identities in social, cultural, political, public or even private arenas. Their unique appearance constantly reminds them about who they are. Some point back to the the history and purpose of the creation of Khalsa. I do not know if Sikhs without the turban would try and balance multiple idenities differently than those Sikhs with turbans. Further research is needed.
The political roles of Sikh Americans in the Untied States are growing day by day. Sikhs have started to participate in interfaith alliances, government programs and events, and in politics by becoming senators or representatives of the states. Sikhs have started to ask for help from federal and local governments. They are creating big events to further develop relations with government officials and to make political connections on national and local levels. Sikhs are creating more awareness about the religion and its values by doing parades and celebrating Sikh festivals and anniversaries in public. Sikhs are also keeping close ties with their religion, its values and its practices. With the limitations of this study, there are many things that could not be addressed. Further research directions on Sikhs may include Sikh identity with or without turbans and Sikh youth in the United States. Related to the latter, further studies could examine the assimilation of Sikh youth to the American culture, how Sikh youth keep the balance between Sikh values based on families and the American culture, enculturation of Sikh adolescence, the role of Sikh youth in gurdwaras, the role of Sikh youth in Sikh politics, etc. There is no present study that addresses these issues of Sikh youth even the present Sikh youth will soon be leading Sikhism in the Untied States.
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