Sikh-Americans: Drawing on a Rich Heritage

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Eastern Religions. Read other perspectives here.

Some weeks back, I got into a tiff with another Sikh-American about precisely why the local Sikh community should participate in service activities like homeless feedings and handing out water at the Los Angeles Marathon. One debater focused on the positive news coverage that might follow such acts of goodness, while the other felt motivated by the inherent good of the service act as an expression of Sikh values. The Sikh religion was founded around the year 1500, in the region known as Punjab, on the tenets of monotheistic worship, hard work, and the goodness of sharing one's bounty gratefully.

This little debate tells us a great deal about the psychology of Sikhs in America today. Although much has been written of what the recent Pew study says about the decline in the Christian population, Sikh Americans don't share the same concern about declining numbers. (The growth of Asian religious traditions is actually quite robust.) Sikhs and other minorities find themselves living in a country dominated by Christians, challenged by secularists, with vocal — and sometimes unfriendly — ideologies. Their major concern is the basic recognition of their beliefs and practices by the general public.

So who are the Sikh-Americans? The vast majority of Sikhs in America are ethnic Punjabis, and many see faith as a way to help their children get in touch with their heritage and preserve their culture and language. Some are twice-migrants from East Africa, the United Kingdom, South East Asia, and — like my own spouse — Canada. Small numbers of converts from other segments of the global population add a little diversity to this largely South Asian community.

New generations of Sikhs use their egalitarian interpretation of the faith to challenge cultural gender and class norms. Older generations are anxious about the watering-down of culture and language and the threat of "losing" their children to trends like intermarriage. A Google search of Sikh-American concerns will betray anxieties about challenges faced in the post-9/11 context by the many Sikh men who grow beards and wear their long hair in turbans. However, a much more ubiquitous concern for the community is its global sovereignty since the disastrous invasion of Sikh sacred spaces by the Indian Army in the summer of 1984, and the related pogroms against Sikhs in Indian urban centers in the fall of that year.

It is with such issues in mind that Sikh-Americans struggle to make sure their faith and culture is properly represented in the media and in the education system. Sikh-Americans care that people know about their religion. They feel that as the fifth largest religion in the world — globally, there are ten million more Sikhs than Jews — they are often overlooked or misunderstood.

The Sikh-American impact already far outperforms Sikhs' miniscule demographic share of the population. The first Asian member of Congress was a Sikh-American: California's Dalip Singh Saund. He was elected in the era before civil rights legislation, gave voice for the rights of black Americans, and proudly served on the prestigious Foreign Affairs Committee during the Cold War. The first female and non-white governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, was born Nimrita Kaur Randhawa to an immigrant Sikh family who faced deep hardships because of their background. Among the many Sikh-American service members are Jasdeep Singh and Jaskiranjot Kaur Brar, siblings who served their country as members of the U.S. Marines. Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany has been a pioneer in science who helped birth the modern fiberoptic era, and has since become a benefactor for Sikh-American representation in art and higher education. The CEO of MasterCard is a proud Sikh.