This article was written by Makenna May and Laura Nunez, and reported by the staff of The Princeton Summer Journal.
The Aug. 5 attack on the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin was the latest incident in a decade-long pattern of anti-Sikh discrimination. Since 9/11, American Sikhs have been routinely labeled as Muslims; in the three months following the terrorist attacks, Sikhs suffered more than 300 incidents of harassment, according to the Sikh Coalition, an activist group.
Eleven years later, Sikhism remains badly misunderstood. Several days after the Wisconsin shooting, the Princeton Summer Journal asked approximately 260 people in and around New York’s Central Park several basic questions about Sikhism. The results suggest that, even in America’s most cosmopolitan city, people remain by and large woefully ignorant about the world’s fifth largest religion.
Elizabeth, 44, who majored in religious studies, gave a typical response when asked to define Sikhism. “I want to say it is a form of Hinduism,” she replied. In fact, two-thirds of those interviewed did not know what Sikhism is—and, of the entire group, only 36 people could name a salient fact about what the religion’s adherents believe. (Our standards for this last question were extremely lenient: Acceptable answers ranged from the name of the Sikh holy scripture to “people with hairy faces and things on their heads.”)
When asked to identify Sikhism, many confused it with other faiths. “They believe in Allah,” offered 59-year-old Janelle. “It’s like a branch of the Muslim religion,” said Joseph, 34. One 36-year-old man guessed, “Maybe Buddha ... close to Christianity.” A middle-aged woman named Susan ventured that Sikhism was based “in a yoga studio.” Hannah, a 26-year-old from New Jersey, didn’t bother faking it. “I’m into fashion,” she said. “I really don’t know anything.”
To be sure, the vast majority of those who knew what Sikhism is correctly stated that it is connected to India. And some respondents did know quite a bit more: Rachnaa Baral, 44, invoked the Sikh mantra “to live life in a more disciplined and tolerant manner.” Elizabeth Whitman, 22, knew that the faith was monotheistic, and founded in the 15th century.
Sikhs wear turbans, but they are not Muslim; their faith hails from India, but they’re not Hindu. Indeed, Sikhs have long struggled to distinguish themselves from other religions prevalent in northern India’s Punjab region. Granted, Sikhism was heavily influenced by Hinduism and Islam: Sikhism’s first Guru, or holy teacher, was born a Hindu, and Sikh scripture includes Muslim teachings. But Sikhism is not merely an offshoot of its forebears.
Sikh articles of faith, for instance, embody several distinct principles. To prove their absolute acceptance of God’s creations, Sikhs typically do not cut their hair, but instead keep it in turbans or in braids, which in turn embody discipline and cleanliness. And rather than follow a single prophet, Sikhs seek instruction from ten Gurus, who emphasize the importance of personal purity and self-discipline. Finally, where Hinduism is pantheistic, and Muslims worship Allah, Sikhs believe in a universal but more amorphous deity. "Everything is included in this one divine being," says Nikky-Guninder Singh, a professor of religion at Colby College. “You are not excluding anybody, not somebody of a different complexion. There is no fear of the other.”
In a case that took place days after 9/11, a Sikh in Arizona was killed by someone seeking to “shoot a Muslim.” Government agencies haven’t been immune to prejudicial behavior, either. After the World Trade Center attacks, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority began preventing turbaned employees from working in public unless they branded their turbans with the MTA logo. (The policy was recently ruled illegal after a Sikh subway operator won a suit against the MTA.) “Our identity matches what is held up to knit the social imagination of what to be afraid of,” said Sikh-American activist Valarie Kaur in an interview. “It’s beards and turbans and dark skin, and it marks us as automatically suspect ... and potentially terrorist.”
Sikhism is not exactly a new phenomenon in the United States. Sikhs began emigrating to America around the turn of the 20th century, and now number around 300,000, although estimates vary. What, then, accounts for widespread ignorance about Sikhism? According to Kaur, much of the blame lies at the feet of schools and universities. "You can go through every level of education and never hear the word ‘Sikh’ or ‘Sikhism,’” she said, adding that, when studying at Stanford, she had to create her own Sikhism course.
Raminder Singh Bindra, the educational director for a Sikh temple in Lawrenceville, didn’t disagree, but said that his own community bears some of the blame too. “We haven’t done a good job of telling other people about ourselves,” Bindra said. Before 9/11, “we just didn’t even think about it.”
Bindra is gamely planning school presentations and educational videos. Vigils at his temple and all across the country have drawn thousands of mourners. But if a recent incident is any indication, American Sikhs still face an uphill battle. Just days after the Wisconsin attack, according to Kaur, a Sikh taxi driver was driving home in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where the shooting took place. The man in the car next to him motioned for him to roll down his window, formed a gun with his hand, and warned, “This isn’t over.”
Some of those interviewed in New York were angry about the shooting and general lack of decency directed towards Sikhs. “Thinking one race is better than the other, it’s coming out of hatred and ignorance,” said one man. Others were simply embarrassed about their lack of knowledge. “We’re very uneducated," Mary, 50, said. "I feel very silly."