Discrimination experienced after the 9/11 terrorist attacks forced Sikhs to defend and define their faith. Three years later, this growing community has raised its profile in cities, workplaces and on campuses across the country and stepped up its fight for civil rights.
Sikhs, whose men wear turbans and beards, are often mistaken for Muslims. Sikhism, however, is a distinct religion that originated in India in the 15th century and draws on elements of Hinduism and Islamic Sufism. Family and moral purity are prime values; the union of each human spirit with God’s is believed to end a karmic cycle of rebirths.
This year Sikhs are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the revelation of their scripture and the opening of a Sikh Heritage exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
There is a relatively small number of Sikhs in the United States; estimates range from 190,000 to 440,000 (worldwide, there are 18 million, making it the world’s ninth-largest religion). Their struggles and successes are noteworthy because they are shared by every minority faith that tries to retain distinct religious practices in a predominantly Christian culture.
Why it matters
As the number of Sikhs in America grows, they share struggles with other immigrant and minority faith groups: how to nurture and preserve their faith in a different culture, how to protect their right to practice it, how to organize, and how to decide who will speak for the community.
Questions for reporters
Several developments in the U.S. Sikh community provide story angles:
• After the 9/11 attacks, violence and hate crimes against American Sikhs spiked. As a result, community outreach organizations formed on the local and national levels to increase awareness of Sikh culture and religion.
• The number of Sikh Student Associations on American college campuses has risen; there are at least two dozen. A prime goal is to further awareness of Sikh culture.
• Museums are recognizing the importance of Sikh art and culture in American society. In July 2004, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History opened “Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab,” which will run indefinitely, and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco currently has the only permanent Sikh art exhibit in the West.
• This year, India appointed its first Sikh prime minister, Manmohan Singh. This could be significant in future negotiations with Sikh nationalists over a proposed Sikh homeland, Khalistan. American Sikhs widely praised the appointment.
• Sikhs are easily identifiable by some of the “Five K’s,” religious symbols or articles of faith that many wear at all times: Uncut hair (kesh), a wooden comb (kangha), a steel bracelet (kara), special underwear (kachehra) and a ceremonial sword (kirpan). Some Sikhs say these symbols make them obvious targets of hate crimes and discrimination.
• Religious discrimination cases are becoming more common. In late July, two Sikhs were offered reinstatement to their jobs as New York traffic enforcement agents after they were initially told they could not wear turbans. The number of Sikhs is estimated at 190,000 to 440,000 in the United States and 18 million worldwide.
• More than 300 hate crimes against Sikhs in America have been reported to the Sikh Coalition since the attacks of 9/11, including the murder of a Sikh man in Mesa, Ariz., whose attacker said he mistook him for an Arab.
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• The Sikhism Homepage is an online resource of all things Sikh – essays, history, culture, holidays, scripture, including a complete English translation of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, considered the spiritual guide for all Sikhs.
• The Sikh Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto, Calif., that promotes Sikh culture, art and heritage, especially in the West and to young people.
• The Sikh Network is a site maintained by Western Sikhs that attempts to link Sikhs all over the world. The site contains news and information on gatherings nationwide and ads for seeking Sikh spouses, among other things.
• The Sikh Coalition in New York is an umbrella group established by several Sikh groups across the United States after the 9/11 attacks to help protect Sikh civil rights.
• Sikhpoint is a California-based information clearinghouse for all things Sikh.
• Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force is a news and information site for Sikhs run by an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
• The Council of Khalistan is a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., that wants to establish a separate Sikh homeland in India.
• The Sikh American Heritage Organization promotes fellowship with the American mainstream and with minority communities while maintaining Sikh values, heritage and identity. It is based in Chicago.
• SikhWomen.com is an advocacy organization for women’s equality in the Sikh community.
• Harpreet Singh is the director of the Sikh Coalition, an amalgam of groups representing the nation’s Sikhs. Amardeep Singh is the legal director. The group was founded after the attacks of Sept. 11 when Sikhs became objects of suspicion at airports and elsewhere. Contact Amardeep Singh, press representative, 917-628-0091, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Diana L. Eck is the director of Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, which studies the religious diversity of America. She is an expert on the many religions of India, including Sikhism, and can discuss how Sikhism has taken root in America. Contact 617-495-3295, email@example.com.
• Dr. Gurinder Singh Mann is a professor of global and religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is the director of the Center for Sikh and Punjab Studies. He has written widely about Sikhism and other Eastern religions in the United States. Contact 805-893-5115, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Paul David Numrich is a research associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Loyola University, a Catholic university, in Chicago. He is also the co-director of the Religion, Immigration and Civil Society in Chicago Project. He is co-author of Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs in America (Oxford University Press, 2002). Contact 773-508-8709, email@example.com.
• Jared Leland is the media and legal counsel for the Becket Fund, a public interest law firm that works to protect religious liberty. The firm has represented a number of Sikhs, including in lawsuits involving the right to carry the Kirpan and the right to build a Sikh temple. Contact 202-955-0095 ext. 106, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Puneet Singh Chhabra is president of the Sikh Student Association at the University of Illinois at Champaign. He says the post-9/11 attacks on Sikhs have forced Sikhs to raise awareness of their culture and religion. One result is the rise of Sikh Student Associations on American college campuses. Contact email@example.com.
• About Sikh names: Most Sikh names come from the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhism’s scripture. They usually describe an attribute of God (i.e. immortal, most intelligent, ageless). In 1699, all Sikh women were given the last name “Kaur” and men “Singh” by the 10th Sikh guru; the practice continues today. This was seen as a way to end the Hindu caste system in which an individual’s name reveals his or her caste.
• See Beliefnet.com’s Sikhism page for an explanation of beliefs.
• A list of surveys and polls about Sikhs can be found at Adherents.com.
• Harvard University’s Pluralism Project maintains a site of newspaper and magazine articles about Sikhs and Sikhism.
• Read a July 29, 2004, New York Times story about two Sikhs who won the right to wear turbans in jobs as New York City traffic enforcement agents.
• View a 2001 exhibit from the University of California, Berkeley’s library of historical photographs of the south Asians, including Sikhs, in California, from 1899 to 1965.
• Read an article from the New York Daily News about the July 2004 gang beating of a Sikh.
• Read an article about the history and future of Sikhs in America posted on SikhSpectrum.com.
STATE BY STATE
• The Sikh Dharma Page maintains a list of all Sikh gurdwaras (sanctuaries) in the United States.
• The Pluralism Project at Harvard University offers a state-by-state search engine for religious communities, including Sikhs.
• Sarbpreet Singh is a Boston-based coordinator of the Gurmat Sangeet Project, which teaches Sikh children a form of singing worship practiced in some Sikh services. Contact 508-625-1108, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Alwi Shihab is an associate professor at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn., and has taught a course on Islamic mysticism that includes Sufism’s links to Sikhism. Contact 860-509-9500.
IN THE EAST• Harpreet Singh Toor is the president of the Sikh Cultural Society of Richmond Hills in New York. This is the largest community of Sikhs on the East Coast, attracting upwards of 6,000 worshippers to Sunday services. The group has been without a gurdwara (sanctuary) since a March 2003 fire, which also destroyed 15,000 books in its library. Contact 516-794-8429, Singh@sikh.net.
• Sangat Syalee is president of the Interfaith Council of Southwest Queens, N.Y. She is a doctor of medicine and acting president of the Guru Nanak Foundation in New Delhi. She spoke on a panel about Sikh spiritual practices at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona in July 2004. Contact 718-843-1395.
• Dr. John Stratton Hawley is a professor of religion at Columbia University in New York City. He is a specialist in the traditions of Northern India and has written about issues facing American Sikhs. Contact 212-854-5292, email@example.com.
• Ravinder Singh Bhalla is a Newark, N.J., lawyer and founding member of the national Sikh Bar Association. In 2003, he was asked to remove his turban as part of a search before being allowed to visit a client in a New York prison. He protested and ultimately got the Board of Prisons to change its policy on searching religious garments. He is also representing a Sikh graduate of the New York City Police Academy who was denied permanent employment as a policeman when he refused to shave his beard and cut his hair. Contact 973-424-9777.
• Supreet Kaur is president of the Sikh Students Association at the University of Maryland in College Park. In April 2004, the group protested a skit presented by a nearby university’s South Asian Students Association titled “Punjabi Eye for the White Guy,” which redefined the Five K’s of Sikhism to include such things as “keg,” “kar” and “kash.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Rajinderjit Singh has been an educator for 40 years. Since her retirement, she has been involved in interfaith teaching. She is a founding board member of the Long Island Multi-Faith Forum and member of the North Shore Clergy Association and The Sikh Foundation. Contact 516-481-5652.
• Anna Bigelow is an assistant professor of religion at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. She chaired a session on contemporary issues in Sikhism at the Center for Sikh and Punjab Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Contact 919-515-6194, email@example.com.
• Constance Elsberg is the author of Graceful Women: Gender and Identity in an American Sikh Community (The University of Tennessee Press, 2003) and a professor of sociology at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, Va. She specializes in non-Punjabi Sikhs living in the West. Contact 703-933-3968, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Dr. Sabir Singh Bahtia is the faculty adviser to the Sikh Students Association at the University of Florida. Contact 352-392-4591, email@example.com.
• Nikki Randhawa Haley is a Republican who attends both a Sikh and a Methodist church. She is newly elected to the South Carolina state assembly. She lives in Lexington, S.C. Contact 803-951-8960.
IN THE SOUTH
• Jay McDaniel is chairman of the department of religion at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. He and his students are studying Jains, Sikhs and Hindus in the Arkansas area. Preliminary data suggest that the majority of Sikhs are not affiliated with a gurdwara (sanctuary) but worship in small groups in private homes. Contact 501-450-1366, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Avtar Singh Dhaliwal is associate professor of plastic surgery at East Tennessee State University College of Medicine in Johnson City, Tenn. He spoke on a panel about “Pathways to Peace in Sikhism” at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona in July 2004. Contact 423-282-0082.
• Dr. Pashaura Singh is a lecturer in Sikh studies and Punjabi language at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., and author of Sikh Identity: Continuity and Change (Manohar Publications, 2001). Contact email@example.com.
• Dr. James R. Lewis is a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He has written about Sikhism. Contact 715-346-3803, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Cynthia K. Mahmood is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic university in Notre Dame, Ind. She is author of Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues With Sikh Militants (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996). Contact 574-631-7604, Cynthia.K.Mahmood.email@example.com.
• Raymond B. Williams is a professor emeritus of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordville, Ind. He is co-author of Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs in America (Oxford University Press, 2002) and says the primary issue for Sikhs in the United States is the establishment of personal and group identity. He said that U.S. Sikhs’ attention to affairs in India, including the Khalistan movement, is as much about their identity here as there. Contact 765-361-6336 (during school year), 765-362-2446 (during summer), firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Jay Paul Singh is a member of the Sikh Students Association at the University of Texas at Austin, which held its first “Sikh Awareness Week” in 2003. Contact 434-243-1896.
• The Sikh Religious Society of Arizona runs the Arizona Sikh Gurdwara in Phoenix. Contact 602-716-0408.
• Dr. Harbans Lal is an emeritus professor of pharmacology and neuroscience at the University of North Texas Health Science Center and president of the Academy of Guru Granth Studies in Arlington, Texas. He is a frequent speaker on issues involving Sikhism. Contact 817-654-0844.
• Bibiji Inderjit Kaur is chief religious minister of the Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere. She is a public speaker, lecturer, counselor and teacher on Sikh issues worldwide. She lives in Albuquerque, N.M. Contact 505-266-6374.
IN THE WEST/NORTHWEST• Dr. David Christopher Lane is a professor of philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. He has written about Sikh gurus. Contact by email only, email@example.com.
• Paul R. Brass is a professor emeritus of political science and international studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is an expert on the Sikh separatist movement. Contact by email only, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• There are Sikh students associations at many California universities, including the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, San Diego; San Jose State University; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Southern California; California State University Sacramento; the University of California, Riverside; and the University of California, Davis.
• The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is the only museum in the Western Hemisphere with a gallery devoted to Sikh art. Contact Tim Holman, director of public relations, 415-581-3711, email@example.com.