Sikh Participation in U.S. Civic Life (2006)

Introduction

Since they first arrived in the United States over a hundred years ago, Sikhs have been active participants in American life, holding positions in which they make decisions about the greater American good and supporting rights and causes they believe in, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They have become involved in nearly every aspect of American life, and many have taken a place in the public eye, such as the California Sikh who served as the first Asian American Congressman in 1956. Today, there are approximately half a million Sikhs living in the United States, pursuing many different careers and participating as active members in their communities.

After the attacks of September 11th, the Sikh community experienced hate crimes and bigotry because of their appearance. Sikh men and some women wear the dastaar, or turban. In the Sikh faith, a turban is considered a religious article and is one of five religious items that Sikhs must have on their bodies at all times. Particularly after the American public saw images of terrorists on television, the Sikh turban has been misunderstood as Muslim or as the mark of a terrorist. The long beards that many Sikh men keep in accordance with the requirement of uncut hair (a gesture to pay tribute to God’s creation) have also been confounded with those of terrorists seen in the media. Through these acts of misunderstanding, it has become apparent that Sikhs are still an unfamiliar group to many Americans.
In response to this and to encourage non-Sikhs to understand the Sikh American perspective and experience, many Sikh organizations have actively pursued a prominent place in the public eye, planning events and contacting government officials to help Sikhs be seen and correctly portrayed in an American light. In the past three years, there have been many examples of this increased involvement and participation in US civic life resulting from the efforts of Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike.

United States Postal Service Recognition

Though recognition from the United States Postal Service may seem minor, commemorative stamps and memorial post offices are ways the United States honors the commitments and contributions of various individuals and communities. In the past two years, Sikhs have been recognized by the United States Postal Service as being members of the greater American community. In September of 2004, the United States Postal Service issued a postal stamp to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first installation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred text of Sikhism, in the Golden Temple. The stamp has a picture of the Golden Temple and is the first Sikh-themed postal stamp in the US. In addition, in early 2005, a California post office was named after the first Asian American Congressman, Mr. Dalip Singh Saund, a Sikh from India who served in Congress from 1956 to 1962. This commemoration marked an important step for Sikh’s noticeable involvement in US civic life.

Religious Contributions and Recognition

Since the attacks of September 11th, the Bush Administration has been active in supporting Sikh Americans and acknowledging them as contributing citizens and an active religious presence in the US. For example, President George W. Bush invited Sikhs to participate in the National Day of Prayer, established in 1952 by an Act of Congress and held this year on May 5, 2005. Mr. Manjit Singh, Vice Chair of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), remarked on the event: “It was an honor to be invited to this annual event hosted by the President. The presence of a Sikh American illustrates a commitment to religious diversity…By attending such events, we hope government officials at the highest level are gaining a better understanding of Sikh Americans and the contributions our community has been making to this nation for over a century.” (1)

In addition to participating in this event and in many interfaith conferences and dialogues, Sikhs have been actively pursuing government funding for the outreach and community programs that are run by gurdwaras throughout the country. In June 2005, Dr. Rajwant Singh, National Chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE), one of the most visible and active Sikh organizations, and other Sikhs met with White House officials to discuss receiving federal funding to support the programs of various Sikh organizations through the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives of the Bush administration. They talked about how Sikhs can apply for federal grants for the programs that serve not only the Sikh community but also the greater American community. Jennifer Sullivan, Deputy Associate Director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said that as the Sikh community is already active in providing crucial services through community centers and gurdwaras, it would be easier for them to receive federal funding. The meeting secured a commitment from Jennifer Sullivan and Jim Towey, Director of the Office, to aid the Sikh community in receiving federal financial assistance for particular programs. This will help Sikhs give more to the greater community and become more visible both locally and nationally.

White House Events

In the past two years, the White House has honored Sikhs and their heritage through a variety of special events. In August 2004, the Bush Administration invited 90 Sikhs from across the country to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures. This was the first time the White House celebrated a Sikh event. Dr. Rajwant Singh, National Chairman of SCORE, stated, “The Sikh community in the United States is extremely pleased with President Bush’s invitation on this auspicious occasion. Sikhs have been in America over 100 years and this definitely sends a strong signal that this White House regonizes the Sikh presence in the US.” (2) At the event, the involvement of Sikhs in American life was highlighted–particularly significant contributions made to American society through careers in medicine, technology, business, academics, and politics.

The White House honored Sikhs again on May 11, 2005, when Yogi Bhajan, a well-known Sikh leader, was placed in the ranks of Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John Paul II, and Mother Theresa as one of very few religious leaders to be honored by a Congressional Resolution passed by the House and the Senate. Yogi Bhajan gained many followers in yoga and meditation and started a movement in the 1960s that led to his international recognition as a spiritual, community, and business leader.
Perhaps the largest event of the past two years honoring Sikhs at the White House was the Sikh American Heritage Dinner a few days later. Organized by SCORE, it was held on May 17, 2005 to honor Sikhs and their involvement in US civic life. The event had the support of both Republicans and Democrats, particularly that of Senator Rick Santorum, a powerful conservative Republican. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Congressman Tom Davis, and Congressman Jim McDermott were among the speakers at the event, which over 225 people attended. Information was passed out regarding the Workplace Religious Freedom Act introduced by Senator John Kerry and Senator Santorum. Awards were given to an actor, a lawyer, and individuals in the military service, to commend Sikh involvement in all aspects of American life. In addition, the FBI received a special award for promoting Sikhs, particularly through a commercial aired during the Super Bowl that depicted a Sikh man with a turban talking about the agency. Sartaj Singh Dhammi, outreach coordinator for SCORE, commented on the event: “The Capitol Hill dinner was such a huge success and a major accomplishment for the Sikhs in our country. Not because the dinner itself was held on the grounds where the Nation’s legislation is created, but the fact that for the first time ever Sikhs celebrated their contributions to America in the new post 9/11 world. Tonight we saw the diversity of how Sikhs are serving our great Nation. Whether it was in the arts, law, military, or intelligence, it’s easy to see how integrated Sikh contributions are to our society. If anything, one thought was continuously relayed through out the night by both Congressional and Sikh speakers—that the Sikhs of this Nation are indeed as American as anyone else, and they stand proud of it.” (3) The events hosted by the White House in conjunction with Sikh organizations like SCORE make Sikh involvement in and commitment to American life more visible to the American public and provide an opportunity for Sikhs and others to celebrate Sikhs’ ongoing contributions to the United States.

Government Involvement

Sikhs have also taken steps to become more involved in the political sphere by putting Sikhs in office. In September of 2003, Tim Goeglein, director of the Public Liaison Office at the White House, met with Sikh leaders to discuss their involvement in civic life, national issues such as hate crimes, and how Sikhs can be better understood and recognized in the United States. SCORE, the Sikh national civil rights and education organization behind many of these events, arranged the meeting. A key component of this meeting was a discussion of the benefit of putting a Sikh in a high-ranking governmental position. This would demonstrate the United States government’s acceptance of Sikhs and help to dismantle stereotypes that peg Sikhs as terrorists.

While Sikhs are currently absent from high-profile government positions, Sikh Americans are involved in public office throughout the country. For example, South Carolina State Assemblywoman Nikki Haley nee Randhawa is the first Indian-American in the South Carolina state assembly. Mrs. Haley nee Randhawa is a Sikh woman born in South Carolina to Indian parents; she is also married to a Methodist. Her children were baptized in the Methodist Church, but they attend both the church and the local Sikh temple. Despite slurs and confusion about her religion, she won the election with the support of even incumbent Rep. Larry Koon’s own precinct. A Republican, Mrs. Haley nee Randhawa also operates Exotica International, an upscale clothing store that her parents started when they first came to the United States, with her sister. Nita McMahon, a local supporter of Mrs. Haley nee Randhawa, commented on her win: “‘Isn’t it something,’ she marveled, ‘that a person whose parents are from another country can portray America better than you and I can? They can teach us a lesson of what it means to be an American.'” (4) Involvement of Sikhs in politics on every level is increasing, helping Sikhs become more visible as active contributors to American society.

Cultural Recognition

Though much of the action Sikhs have taken to become more involved in US civic life has involved meetings with government officials and participation in political and interfaith events, Sikhs have become more visible in the cultural realm as well. In July 2004, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC opened a permanent exhibit entitled “Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab.” Though this exhibit does not directly portray the Sikh American experience, it provides visitors with an understanding of the religion, culture, history, and contemporary practices of Sikhism.

A year later, in 2005, Sikhs participated in Washington DC’s Fourth of July Parade for the first time. For over 300,000 spectators, the participating Sikhs performed Gatka (Sikh martial arts), and 35 Sikh men and women representing gurdwaras across the country walked along the float carrying American flags. Youth played a large role in the performance. Miri Piri Sikh Gatka Dal, a Sikh community in Houston, Texas, that has participated in many public events in the Houston area and throughout the country, was instrumental in securing Sikh participation in the parade. Gursharan Singh, leader of the Miri Piri Gatka Group, explained, “This was a great chance to show that Sikhs are part of the mainstream America and that we are equally joyous in the July 4th celebrations. This provided an opportunity for our youngsters to feel pride in being Sikh Americans.” (5) The float, which read ‘celebrating 100 years of presence and patriotism in America,’ carried Rajinder Pal Singh, a tabla maestro of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation (GGSF), and Dr. Rajwant Singh, National Chariman of SCORE. Amrit Kaur, secretary of GGSF, said, “Sikh men and women walking alongside American bands and floats celebrated not only the 4th of July but also displayed their distinct identity that drew hostility after the events of 9/11. This is our way of asserting that we are Americans and we will continue to educate others about ourselves.” (6)

Looking Ahead

In November of 2003, a television program called “Mistaken Identity: Sikhs in America” was screened at major universities and community centers across the country and the UK and proposed to be aired on major networks. The program, which started as an idea of Georgetown University student Amanda Gesine, is the first of its kind and is aimed mostly at the younger generation, who are considered to be the main perpetrators of bigotry and hate against Sikhs post-September 11th. “The objective is to inform and educate mainstream Americans and non-Sikhs in the USA and worldwide—Who are Sikhs, What is Sikhism, and the economic contribution of Sikh Americans since 1889, when the first immigrants arrived in California—over 100 years ago.” (7)

Amanda Gesine, who hosts the program, talks with young Sikhs about their experiences post-September 11th. The program, which was supported by many Sikh organizations and has been sent for review to many other countries, is part of an ongoing effort to educate the American population about Sikhism and Sikh Americans. In conjunction with Sikh involvement in US civic life, it will help Americans learn about their fellow citizens and develop a working understanding of the Sikh culture that exists here.
Meanwhile, Sikh organizations are continuing to work on furthering the Sikh presence and participation in US civic life. SCORE’s many initiative areas, including education, interfaith relations, religious freedom, civil rights, and international initiatives, allow the organization to implement programs and begin conversations with people in many realms of American life. Among the projects that SCORE is currently working on is the creation of educational materials for different grade levels to help children learn about the Sikh faith and culture, supporting the Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2003, and organizing a Sikh Washington Conference in which young Sikh professionals meet with representatives from various organizations in Washington to understand how Sikhism plays a role in both their lives and the lives of the broader community. Through these and many other initiatives, SCORE continues to represent the Sikh perspective in many forums.
Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, formerly known as SMART (Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force), aims to “empower Sikh Americans through legal assistance, educational outreach, legislative advocacy, and media relations.” (8) Their website contains resources not only for Sikhs but also for educators, employers, law enforcers, attorneys, and the media, to help individuals and organizations learn about Sikhs.
Through education, advocacy, and protection, The Sikh Coalition, another civil rights organization, seeks to “advocate cultural diversity and stand against racism while advocating social justice, equality for both sexes, and human rights for all peoples, to foster organization and civic engagement within the Sikh community to enable local empowerment and activism, [and to] provide Sikh organizations, Sikhs, and others with the skills and resources necessary to help organize, coordinate, and implement an effective and sustained Coalition effort,” among other things. (9) Some of its current projects include workshops for youth, establishing good relations with Congress to make progress in the acceptance of Sikhs in the United States, and working with employers such as the New York Police Department to help prevent discrimination against Sikhs. Through the efforts of these organizations, government representatives, and individuals like Amanda Gesine, increased Sikh participation and visibility in the United States are beginning to dispel some of the misconceptions about Sikhs that were voiced after September 11th and are helping the Sikh community become recognized as an important and active participant in American society.

Endnotes

(1) As quoted in paragraph two of “SALDEF Participates in National Day of Prayer at White House.”
(2) As quoted in paragraph three of “Sikhs Attend Program at White House.”
(3) As quoted in paragraphs twenty-six and twenty-seven of “Sikhs embraced by the political leaders of Washington.”
(4) As quoted in “Sikh Shares Thoughts on the Honor of Being Elected to Senate in S.C.”
(5) As quoted in paragraph three of “Thousands of Americans welcome Sikhs at the Independence Day Parade.”
(6) Ibid, paragraph eight.
(7) As quoted in paragraph two of “First TV Program on Sikh Americans After 9/11.”
(8) As quoted in paragraph three of SALDEF’s mission statement.
(9) As quoted in paragraph two of The Sikh Coalition’s mission statement.