Jay Leno Infuriates Sikhs. Why?

If I watch late-night television, I watch Craig Ferguson. Not Jay Leno. Apparently Jay Leno angered some people in the Sikh community the other night. Here’s how Politico explains it:

Late-night comedian Jay Leno has landed in hot water with the Sikh community for showing a picture of the sacred Darbar Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple, on his show last week and jokingly referring to it as Mitt Romney’s summer home.

During the segment, “The Tonight Show” host shared with the audience a “behind-the-scenes look at all the presidential candidates’ homes,” calling the pictures “quite revealing” of the 2012 hopefuls.

After unveiling pictures of Newt Gingrich’s estate in Virginia and Ron Paul’s ranch house in Texas, the comedian purported to show a photograph of Romney’s summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee but flashed an image of the famous golden shrine located in Punjab, India, instead.

Thousands from the Sihk community have already signed an online petition called, “NBC — The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: Stop defaming Sikhs and using derogatory remarks against the Sikh shrines.”

OK, so what’s missing from this report? Well, speaking as someone who is neither Sikh nor familiar with what constitutes derogatory remarks against Darbar Sahib, I’m completely lost. What, exactly, angered these thousands of Sikhs? It seems like such a basic fact to include, no?

The Politico article goes on to quote the petition creator as saying that Leno has previously made racist comments but the article simply cites the claims, rather than putting them in context or verifying them in any way. For instance, many media outlets are repeating this claim that in 2007, Jay Leno called Sikhs “diaper heads.” I did a very simple Google search from January 1, 2007, to January 1, 2008, and didn’t find the basis for the claim. It’s a scurrilous charge, but is it true?

Anyway, I’m sure it’s not that difficult to explain why Leno’s joke was offensive to some Sikhs. Even if it is, it’s vitally important information for readers. Particularly since it’s become an international incident, according to this Reuters report:

American host Jay Leno has sparked anger among Sikhs with a joke about their holiest shrine and the Indian government is making its displeasure known.

In his ‘Tonight Show’ last week, the comedian poked fun at the wealth of U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney, suggesting that Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, was his vacation home.

A complaint against Leno will be officially filed by India’s ambassador to the United States, Nirupama Rao, after 2,000 people signed an online petition.

“The Right to Speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution excludes defamation and spreading hate, incitement and false advertising,” the petition urged.

Reuters rather humorously quoted a State Department official explaining how both satire and the First Amendment work.

But the Reuters article also fails to explain the religious objection raised by some Sikhs.

Image of Sikh at prayer in pond of Golden Temple via Shutterstock.

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  • Stan

    “The Right to Speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution excludes defamation and spreading hate, incitement and false advertising,” the petition urged.

    Would that that were true. Alas, it is not.

  • Jeff

    Another ghost in this story is the vaguely anti-Mormon undercurrent to Leno’s joke. Given that Romney is a “strange,” “exotic,” and “foreign” Mormon, he *would* live in a “stange,” “exotic,” and “foreign” temple, now wouldn’t he? I fear we can expect more of this kind of thing — much, much more — if Romney is the GOP’s presidential nominee.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Please keep comments focused on journalism. I’m going to delete those that don’t.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/ Nicole Neroulias

    I don’t think Jay Leno’s very funny, but come on — surely he or his staff were just doing a sight gag to a really, really expensive looking piece of architecture. Someone on his staff probably just Googled something like “golden palace” and found it. If anything, Sikhs could take it as a compliment, since the joke is about Romney having a fabulous place to live.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I understand the opinion, but shouldn’t we at least know *why* some Sikhs are upset before we decide that they shouldn’t be?

    It just seems like basic journalism to find out the nature of their complaint when we write that they’re upset.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    It would even be nice to have a Sikh explain it.I know if Catholics were upset I would want to see a bishop or some spokesperson for the church quoted. I would not want the reporter giving us his take on it as funny as that may be.

  • Bain Wellington

    Mollie, they are upset because of the insinuation (ludicrous though it be) that Romney lives in a place which is the holiest in the world to them.

    Or think of it this way. What if the gag-team had flashed up a photo of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. No big deal, right? Too absurd to give offence.

    But, if they had flashed up a photo of the tabernacle inside St. Peter’s, well . . . I, for one, would be offended.

    Remember the furore over the Benetton kissing ads? The objection wasn’t that the photos might have deceived anyone who took a few moments to reflect on the images, but that not every image is fair game for commercial exploitation (or a cheap laugh).

  • sari

    Jeff, #2.

    I agree, though it may have been more a reference to the architecture of some Mormon Temples. Most are beautiful and quite imposing. The D.C. Temple is visible for miles at night.

  • carl jacobs

    I think as a rule that religions desire to ‘own’ their narrative, and don’t like it when those outside the religion expropriate pieces of it for their own purposes. As a Christian, I don’t particularly like the usurpation of the person of Christ into profane displays – for example the movie “Life of Brian” or the play “Corpus Christi.” I desire that all such displays conform to Christian orthodoxy. But the fact is that I don’t have a copyright, and good Theology teaches me that God isn’t wringing His hands over such things.

    However, not everyone is going to have that attitude. They are going to see it as unlawful theft, and react with “My religion is mine, and you are not to touch it. You will treat it as I tell you to treat it.” I think this is especially true for small minority religions dwarfed in a foreign culture. They can be hyper-sensitive about small slights because they don’t have the cultural position to enforce their will. They are concerned their offense at being expropriated will not even be heard let alone taken seriously. So the response is magnified in proportion to their perceived vulnerability.


  • Martha

    I know nothing about the Sikh faith, but by definition a temple is the house of a god, so claiming (even in jest) that it’s the house of a human (and not even his main residence, but his summer house) is probably going to be seen as sacrilegious or even blasphemous.

  • Jeff


    I agree with you about both Sikh and Mormon temple architecture, but I don’t think the point of Leno’s joke was to complement Romney by reminding people — as if the media would ever let anyone forget — that Romney is a Mormon, and therefore a member of a church that builds beautiful temples. I think the point instead was to contribute to the strategy of “weirding” Romney on the basis of his Mormon faith — a stategy that’s been acknowledged openly as one of the tactics to be taken against him should he be the Republican party’s presidential nominee. I think that a really comprehensive journalistic account of the controversy over Leno’s joke really ought to acknowledge that religious (and political) ghost. It’s the best explanation for why Leno took the risk of — as Mollie puts it — “infuriating” Sikhs.

  • Ira Rifkin

    since when is jay leno held to journalistic standards? so why is this worthy of GR analysis?

    also, i’m guessing the joke was about romney’s wealth, not his being a mormon. leno and crew probably can’t tell a sikh temple from a mormon temple.

    plus, as i recall, leno is a republican.

  • Jeff


    It is only an urban myth that Leno is a Republican. He may or may not be a Democrat, but he is on record somewhere or other saying that he has never voted for any Republican before. That has nothing to do with this story per se, but your recollection above is simply off-base and needs to be noted as being so.

  • raj
  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Ira asks:

    since when is jay leno held to journalistic standards? so why is this worthy of GR analysis?

    He wasn’t, and it isn’t.

    You’ll note that I did what we do at GR every day: Looked at whether the *mainstream* media *covered* a religious story properly.

    The whole point of this post is that the media failed to explain why some Sikhs are upset.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    carl jacobs –

    As a Christian, I don’t particularly like the usurpation of the person of Christ into profane displays – for example the movie “Life of Brian” or the play “Corpus Christi.”

    You actually provide a good example of why these topics are hard to cover. What one person views as ‘usurpation’ or ‘profane’, others might view as legitimate references.

    For example, I dunno about the “Corpus Christi”, but in “Life of Brian” Jesus (briefly) appears doing exactly what what he’s shown doing in the Bible – preaching sermons, and performing miraculous healings. The humor in the film revolves entirely around human foibles – like a former leper who regrets being healed by Jesus, as now he can’t make a living by begging.

    Raj above links to a Sikh who didn’t take offense, who interpreted the joke as being directed toward Romney rather than the shrine.

    That is, in fact, why the article is incomplete. Without explaining the content of the objection, it’s impossible to for readers to evaluate how legitimate it might be.

  • Will

    If “they” had flashed a shot of the Kaaba or the Dome of the Rock, no one would be asking why Moslems and/or Jews would be offended.

  • michael henry

    Why, whenever, and it’s almost every story, someone is “offended”, they are referred to an a “community”?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Because “community” (or “faith community”) is a “safer” label than “religion”.

    Did you go to faith community this week?

  • northcoast

    I guess that Mr. Leno is not likely to show a cartoon of Mohammed in the near future, but a building? Who knew? Can’t we just share a dumb joke?

    Maybe a shot of the Tabernacle would have worked, but how can you beat a gilded monument for a vacation home?

  • BOB

    Something lost here is that Sikhs have fought and died for, and on the grounds of, the Golden Temple within the past 30 years. Anti-Sikh pogroms wracked India in the days following Indira Ghandi’s assassination. And there are still some who seek Khalistan.

    So Leno didn’t put up a picture of a building, but of a hornet’s nest. And if journalists are doing their job, they’ll inform their readers why it’s a hornet’s nest.

  • BOB

    For the benefit of Mr Leno’s staff, if for no one else.

  • northcoast

    I’m glad to learn that something is sacred after all. One would wish that respect could be expected for the symbols of all faiths.

  • http://sirgunkaur.com SKK

    As a member of the Sikh faith I think this entire affair is ridiculous. It saddens me that Sikhism is getting this kind of negative press. Many of my Sikh friends have posted this on their facebook with comments to the effect of “If you don’t think it’s funny, don’t laugh.”

    Jay Leno was not even making fun of the Siri Harimander Sahib in India. He was making fun of Mitt Romney.

    Ridiculousness aside (total absurdity actually!), I take a slight offense to being implicated in the lawsuit, since the plaintiff’s claim is that Leno’s joke hurk “all Sikh people,” which is a lie.