For Sikhs, turban is a proud symbol _ and a target

Law enforcement authorities don’t know why suspected gunman Wade Michael Page burst into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., … Continued

Law enforcement authorities don’t know why suspected gunman Wade Michael Page burst into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., on Sunday (Aug. 5) and opened fire, killing six before he was shot dead by the police.

But many American Sikhs say they do know this: Their community has been targeted by a growing number of hate crimes since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The New York-based Sikh Coalition reports more than 700 such incidents since 2001. The question is: Why?

“The turban is the main issue here,” said Pashaura Singh, a professor of Sikh and Punjabi studies at the University of California-Riverside. “People confuse Sikhs with Osama bin Laden.”

Following 9/11, bin Laden and his al-Qaida associates were often shown in media reports wearing white turbans. Combine that with a lack of basic knowledge about the estimated 500,000 Sikhs living in the U.S. and you get tragic — and sometimes violent — cases of mistaken identity.

“Numerous reports have documented how those practicing the Sikh religion are often targeted for hate violence because of their religiously mandated turbans,” wrote 92 House members to Attorney General Eric Holder in April. The House members called on Holder to begin collecting data on hate crimes committed against Sikh Americans.

Rupinder Singh, a California health care administrator who writes the blog American Turban, has heard taunts of “terrorist” and “Osama” as he shops at the mall. “When I walk into a restaurant or an airplane, all eyes are on me,” he said.

But Singh said he would never consider taking off his turban. “It is such a core part of our identity,” Singh said. “I could never imagine separating from it.”

Founded in India in 1469, Sikhism is often confused with Hinduism or Islam, but is part of neither. The religion teaches that there is one God, but many paths to the divine, and abjures proselytism.

Each of the faith’s 10 founding gurus wore turbans, called dastars, but it was the last guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who instructed all male members of the faith to wear them. (The requirement is optional for women.) The reasons ranged from political to theological.

Sikh gurus rebelled against India’s strict caste system, teaching instead that people are essentially equal in God’s eyes. Turbans, typically worn by the upper class, should be worn by the lower classes as well, the gurus taught, to symbolize that equality.

But it is more than a political symbol. Like Orthodox Jews who wear yarmulkes or Catholic nuns who don habits, Sikhs believe the turban is a visible declaration of humility before God and commitment to their faith.

Out of respect for God’s creation, Sikhs do not cut their hair, instead knotting it each morning and wrapping it in five meters of cloth, which protects the hair as well as the mind, said Pashaura Singh.

The turbans are worn in a variety of styles and colors, with some carrying symbolic significance. White turbans represent purity, while navy blue represent the sky and ocean and are often worn by temple officials. Saffron is the color of sacrifice, and black the shade of political protest, Pashaura Singh explained.

In an increasingly pluralistic America, the turban has also become an emblem of the country’s commitment to religious freedom, a value strongly shared by Sikhs, said interfaith activist Ralph Singh.

“The irony is that in the process of proudly displaying that emblem, we have become a clear target for those who feel that people who are different are threats,” he said.

Ralph Singh has been among those targets. Gobind Sadan, his spiritual community near Syracuse, N.Y., was firebombed on Nov. 18, 2001 in perhaps the first post-9/11 case of mistaken Sikh identity. Singh said he later received a letter from one of the young men convicted of arson.

“He said that if he had known who we are, he never would have done it,” Singh said.

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

  • amirstud

    Is targeting a muslim with a turban ok then? Is that what I am reading between the lines?

Read More Articles

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

noplaceonearth
An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

shutterstock_148333673
Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

shutterstock_53190298
Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

shutterstock_185995553
How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

HIFR
Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

shutterstock_186364295
This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

SONY DSC
Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.