Finding a Way Forward
My wife and I are joyful parents of a happy, healthy 1-year-old boy. We often discuss how to raise him and, as Sikh Americans, we question whether to keep his hair unshorn and tied in a conspicuous turban as our religion guides us to do.
Growing up in America and having experienced enough trauma, teasing, bullying, and even hatred for my own turban, I wonder how I can subject my bright-eyed baby boy to future difficulty.
Last Sunday's Wisconsin shooting is the latest, most horrific example of hardships Sikhs have faced in America. Since 9/11, Sikh men have been victimized, even murdered, by bigots seeking easy targets of their ignorant hatred.
Before that, I remember Sikh men receiving taunts like "Saddam," "Gadhafi," "Khomeini," or the name of some other boogeyman. When not being mistaken for deranged leaders or fanatics, Sikhs deflect the charge that their religion is an offshoot of Hinduism. It is not.
So, who are the Sikhs? Sikhs (students) have been very visible religious minorities in India and wherever they have settled in the world. Guru (teacher) Nanak founded the Sikh religion more than 500 years ago after receiving a revelation from God to help create a more just, equal, and peaceful world.
Around 1700, Sikhs began to keep their hair uncut to commemorate God's gifts to humanity, and Sikh men kept their hair neat in turbans as a marker of their commitment to the religion. Of the world's 25 million Sikhs, several hundred thousand live in the United States. When the first Sikhs arrived on the West Coast around 1900, they, too, were subject to jeers like "raghead" and found themselves the victims of discrimination and abuse.
One reason many people may not have heard of Sikhs, though we outnumber Jews in the world population, is that the religion is young. Another reason is that Sikhs don't actively seek converts, for Guru Nanak taught that God's message has touched many faiths and no one way boasts the exclusive truth.
Guru Nanak taught that all people were equal under God and that we should seek justice in this world. The Sikh religion's core values include love, gratitude for God's gifts, and perseverance in the face of hardship. The final words of every Sikh prayer service ask for the Almighty's blessings for the benefit of all the world's people; for we are all God's children, deserving of respect and honor, regardless of our gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or nationality.
Last Sunday, around 10:30 a.m., the Sikh congregation in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, would have begun to congregate to celebrate these ideals at the Gurdwara (house of the Guru). During this early period of the service, as congregants slowly trickled in, many devotees were in the kitchen preparing the day's lunchtime meal to which all visitors, regardless of background, would have been welcome.
Young girls and boys may have been performing hymns they had eagerly learned to sing. They did not know their morning peace was about to be shattered by gunshots. We think of the day's victims with broken hearts and pray for them, just as we salute the brave police responders who arrived at the scene and prevented further bloodshed.
The teachings of the faith have gotten Sikhs through many tribulations in the past and we seek reassurance from them in times of crisis. Though there may be some who wish to make us feel unwelcome in the United States, we are firmly rooted here and serve our country with pride.
Today, and for a long time, Sikh Americans will need the support of their fellow citizens to speak out against hate, bigotry, and bullying. Coping with this terrible event demands that we all revisit our most cherished values and find a way forward through the healing power of prayer and reflection.
I want my son to be able to stand up for himself and for his religious community. But Sikh teachings require that he also champion the cause of the world's victims.
His mother and I will raise him to be cognizant of his ancestors' traditions, encourage him to grow his hair long, and teach him how to keep it wrapped neatly in a turban for as long as he wishes. Just as important, we will try to instill in him bravery and resilience.
These are Sikh values and these are American values. We hope he grows up to be a good Sikh and helps to make a better America.
Rahuldeep Gill is currently the assistant professor of religion at California Lutheran University where he teaches a variety of religion courses, focusing on Sikh history and doctrine.