Let Sikh Americans serve in the U.S. military

One year ago today, a white supremacist walked into a Sikh place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened … Continued

One year ago today, a white supremacist walked into a Sikh place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire on the congregation. The largest single act of hate-based violence in recent American history captured the attention of Americans across the country and cast the spotlight on a minority community that has been disproportionately targeted by this type of violence.

Sikhs have been in America for over a century now and have contributed to this nation in various ways, from education and medicine to public service and law enforcement. However, Sikh Americans who maintain their turbans and beards are still presumptively barred from serving in the military.

There have been rare exceptions to the prohibition but what is needed is widespread change. Changing this discriminatory policy would help cultivate a national military that better represents the richness and diversity of the American experience. Changing this policy would also send a powerful message to those who narrowly define what it means to be American and engage in hate violence against those they perceive to be “the other.”

A close look at the reasons used to justify the ban of the Sikh articles of faith demonstrates that these arguments are flawed.

One of the more common arguments is that Sikhs are unable to wear helmets and protective masks over their turbans and beards, and therefore, they bring unnecessary risk to themselves and their peers. This claim is outdated and patently untrue – Sikhs have a long tradition of military service and have not had a problem placing helmets over their turbans and uncut hair. Moreover, it has been years since the military developed protective masks that safely protect people with facial hair. This argument may have been relevant in the early twentieth century when the policy was first implemented. At that time gas masks were unable to sufficiently protect soldiers with facial hair. However, this issue has been resolved and no longer justifies excluding Sikh Americans from military service.

Some proponents of the ban cite the risk of disunity that would come with modernizing appearance regulations. However, over the past decade, the Army has granted exemptions to three turbaned Sikh Americans, two of whom have been deployed to Afghanistan and demonstrated exceptional service in the battlefield – Major Kamaljit Singh Kalsi and Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan. Last year Major Kalsi received a Bronze Star Medal, the fourth highest combat award in the Armed Forces, for saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. This honor, along with the centuries-long tradition of Sikhs serving in the military, illustrates that the turban and beard do not inhibit soldiers from performing their duties alongside their compatriots.

The service of these three Sikh Americans also proves that diversity has a place within the military. Certainly there is value in maintaining a shared uniform and discipline for all soldiers, but accounting for and adapting to religiously mandated articles of faith has only served to strengthen the Armed Forces. The Sikh tradition appreciates the importance of maintaining common identifying features and the notion of uniformity is often invoked to understand the distinctive physical identity of Sikhs across the globe. In practice, Sikh soldiers conform the color and style of their religious articles to military dress codes, and groom and tie their beards in a neat and conservative manner, in full compliance with safety requirements.

The service of these three turbaned Sikhs has demonstrated that accounting for religious articles of faith will not undermine esprit de corps in the military. Rather, opening up to diversity will help us focus squarely on whether a soldier can do his or her job.

The presumptive ban on religious articles of faith adversely affects Sikh Americans in other ways as well. In addition to its discriminatory nature, this policy also perpetuates the alienation of religious minorities in this country. Until Sikh Americans are allowed to serve in the military, the general public will continue to see them as outsiders and aliens rather than fully integrated participants in American society. Repealing the ban against turbaned Sikhs will go a long way in preventing future hate violence such as school bullying, workplace discrimination, or mass shootings like the one we witnessed a year ago in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Modern society has come to increasingly accept and embrace diversity. Last September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB1964, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, the strongest and most comprehensive equal employment legislation in the country. Among other issues, this act forbids segregation of individuals who wear religious articles, such as facial hair or head coverings. The U.S. Armed Forces should be ahead of these changes rather than behind them.

The hate-motivated shooting in Oak Creek did not happen in a vacuum. Our nation maintains a number of problematic policies that unintentionally influence many of our misguided perceptions. The presumptive ban barring Sikhs from the Armed Forces is one of these policies, and it is time for the military to reverse this ban. The image of a military that reflects the full diversity of patriotic and contributing Americans would go a long way in preventing future hate-inspired atrocities like the one we saw last year in Wisconsin.

 

Simran Jeet Singh is a Sikh American, social activist, and scholar completing his PhD in the Department of Religion at Columbia University.

 

G.B. Singh is a veteran of the US Army (Retired Colonel). He served in the Army while maintaining his turban and beard from 1979 to 2007.

About

Simran Jeet Singh Simran Jeet Singh is the Senior Religion Fellow for the Sikh Coalition and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. He contributes regularly to a wide range of publications, including The Washington Post's OnFaith, Newsweek's The Daily Beast, and The Huffington Post. Simran currently serves as a Truman National Security Fellow and the Rachel F. and Scott McDermott Fellow for the American Institute of Indian Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @SimranColumbia.
  • Zvi

    Sikhs are a religious and ethnic group, a minority – like the Jews – who have suffered generations of persecution and worries about assimilation, intermarriage and keeping the religion relevant to their youth. It is truly a shame that our armed forces do not allow them to maintain their religious traditions and serve our nation at the same time. This group of Americans have a rich history, beyond our shores, of being the soldiers we want in our military, just ask Winston Churchill about how Sikhs helped Britain in two world wars. Having them in the military will also help educate many Americans on the fact that they are not Hindus and don’t attend Sikh mosques.

  • Zvi

    Sikhs are a religious and ethnic group, a minority – like the Jews – who have suffered generations of persecution and worries about assimilation, intermarriage and keeping the religion relevant to their youth. It is truly a shame that our armed forces do not allow them to maintain their religious traditions and serve our nation at the same time. This group of Americans have a rich history, beyond our shores, of being the soldiers we want in our military, just ask Winston Churchill about how Sikhs helped Britain in two world wars. Having them in the military will also help educate many Americans on the fact that they are not Hindus and don’t attend Sikh mosques.

  • larryclyons

    Given the history of Sikhs serving in the Canadian, British and Indian armies going all the way back to WW1, and well before that. The Sikh people have a long and proud history of service. Currently one Sikh-Canadian officer, Lt.Col. Harjit Singh Sajjan is the commander of the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own).

  • larryclyons

    Given the history of Sikhs serving in the Canadian, British and Indian armies going all the way back to WW1, and well before that. The Sikh people have a long and proud history of service. Currently one Sikh-Canadian officer, Lt.Col. Harjit Singh Sajjan is the commander of the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own).

  • Secular1

    “Sikhs are a religious and ethnic group, a minority – like the Jews – who have suffered generations of persecution” Bull crap. Sikhs have not suffered generations of persecutions. The incidents with the past 20 – 30 years are more to do with political horse trading and small section of Sikhs developing a separatist agenda and trying to secede from the union. That followed by a very inept and harsh handling of the situation. Both sides of the controversy had treated the other harshly. And of course the government treatment becomes unjustified and has no room for it. So lets stop this canard, about persecution. Sikhs have always been considered as defenders of India. They are found in disproportionately large numbers in teh armed forces, compared to 2% of the population. They also are disproprtionately represented in the top leadership of the armed forces.

    “and worries about assimilation, intermarriage and keeping the religion relevant to their youth” What is this nonsense. Do you think just because one is born to Sikh parents or Jewish parents or Muslim parents, the society owes that religion of sufficient numbers from here to eternity? Same goes for intermarriage, horse puckey. As to keeping the religion relevant to their youth, no religion is relevant to anything in the real world. Religions are putrid delusional thoughts undeservedly given a seat in the public square. Religion has no place in the public square. People ought to keep their religious delusions out of the public square along with all other delusions

  • Secular1

    “Sikhs are a religious and ethnic group, a minority – like the Jews – who have suffered generations of persecution” Bull crap. Sikhs have not suffered generations of persecutions. The incidents with the past 20 – 30 years are more to do with political horse trading and small section of Sikhs developing a separatist agenda and trying to secede from the union. That followed by a very inept and harsh handling of the situation. Both sides of the controversy had treated the other harshly. And of course the government treatment becomes unjustified and has no room for it. So lets stop this canard, about persecution. Sikhs have always been considered as defenders of India. They are found in disproportionately large numbers in teh armed forces, compared to 2% of the population. They also are disproprtionately represented in the top leadership of the armed forces.

    “and worries about assimilation, intermarriage and keeping the religion relevant to their youth” What is this nonsense. Do you think just because one is born to Sikh parents or Jewish parents or Muslim parents, the society owes that religion of sufficient numbers from here to eternity? Same goes for intermarriage, horse puckey. As to keeping the religion relevant to their youth, no religion is relevant to anything in the real world. Religions are putrid delusional thoughts undeservedly given a seat in the public square. Religion has no place in the public square. People ought to keep their religious delusions out of the public square along with all other delusions

  • bvanvelson

    The main reason that there are not many Sikhs serving in the armed forces is probably that there are regulations on hair. I do not know what the religious motivation behind a Sikh man’s long hair and beard is, so I don’t know if they can keep it trimmed to a reasonable length. The same goes for the turban. Allowing that in place of a standard cover while at their home station could be acceptable, but in a combat or deployed environment, if it cannot fit under a helmet, they shouldn’t be wearing it.

    The author very appropriately uses the word “presumptive” when he talks about bans on articles of faith. He presumes that they are not allowed because you never see them when a service member is in uniform. But that’s the very point. Service members, when in uniform are supposed to look like service members; not an individual. The military does make every possible effort to accommodate religious needs, to include wearing religious articles of clothing, but if those religious needs impede the mission or are not conducive to good order and discipline, then the military has no obligation to accommodate it.

    Not to mention that beards and long hair can present problems in a fight. They do mention that Sikhs have long military history, but has that history included tanks and other vehicles or urban combat? Suppose a Sikhs’ helmet was knocked off, their long hair unraveled, and got caught in the tracks of a tank, pulling them forward until they are crushed by the tank treads. Or in urban combat, someone’s beard gets pulled at while they are entering a room, delaying the team from entering and successfully clearing the room, and giving hostiles the opportunity to inflict casualties on our service members.

    These are all very real concerns that need to be taken into consideration before any regulations can be changed.

  • bvanvelson

    The main reason that there are not many Sikhs serving in the armed forces is probably that there are regulations on hair. I do not know what the religious motivation behind a Sikh man’s long hair and beard is, so I don’t know if they can keep it trimmed to a reasonable length. The same goes for the turban. Allowing that in place of a standard cover while at their home station could be acceptable, but in a combat or deployed environment, if it cannot fit under a helmet, they shouldn’t be wearing it.

    The author very appropriately uses the word “presumptive” when he talks about bans on articles of faith. He presumes that they are not allowed because you never see them when a service member is in uniform. But that’s the very point. Service members, when in uniform are supposed to look like service members; not an individual. The military does make every possible effort to accommodate religious needs, to include wearing religious articles of clothing, but if those religious needs impede the mission or are not conducive to good order and discipline, then the military has no obligation to accommodate it.

    Not to mention that beards and long hair can present problems in a fight. They do mention that Sikhs have long military history, but has that history included tanks and other vehicles or urban combat? Suppose a Sikhs’ helmet was knocked off, their long hair unraveled, and got caught in the tracks of a tank, pulling them forward until they are crushed by the tank treads. Or in urban combat, someone’s beard gets pulled at while they are entering a room, delaying the team from entering and successfully clearing the room, and giving hostiles the opportunity to inflict casualties on our service members.

    These are all very real concerns that need to be taken into consideration before any regulations can be changed.

  • 3vandrum

    “Under Public Law 100-180, section 508 (reference (c)), members of the Armed Forces may wear visible items of religious apparel while in uniform, except under circumstances in which an item is not neat and conservative or its wearing shall interfere with the performance of the member’s military duties.
    3.Under this Directive, “religious apparel” is defined as articles of clothing worn as part of the doctrinal or traditional observance of the religious faith practiced by the member. Hair and grooming practices required or observed by religious groups are not included within the meaning of religious apparel”
    For example, unless prohibited by subparagraph C.2.g.(6), below, a Jewish yarmulke may be worn with the uniform whenever a military cap, hat, or other headgear is not prescribed. A yarmulke may also be worn underneath military headgear as long as it does not interfere with the proper wearing, functioning, or appearance of the prescribed headgear..
    This all sounds fine but may create practical difficulties in the long run since this country is fast becoming multi religious and it will very difficult for the military to accommodate every religious group if they start insisting on their religious costumes.

  • 3vandrum

    “Under Public Law 100-180, section 508 (reference (c)), members of the Armed Forces may wear visible items of religious apparel while in uniform, except under circumstances in which an item is not neat and conservative or its wearing shall interfere with the performance of the member’s military duties.
    3.Under this Directive, “religious apparel” is defined as articles of clothing worn as part of the doctrinal or traditional observance of the religious faith practiced by the member. Hair and grooming practices required or observed by religious groups are not included within the meaning of religious apparel”
    For example, unless prohibited by subparagraph C.2.g.(6), below, a Jewish yarmulke may be worn with the uniform whenever a military cap, hat, or other headgear is not prescribed. A yarmulke may also be worn underneath military headgear as long as it does not interfere with the proper wearing, functioning, or appearance of the prescribed headgear..
    This all sounds fine but may create practical difficulties in the long run since this country is fast becoming multi religious and it will very difficult for the military to accommodate every religious group if they start insisting on their religious costumes.

  • Ravi Singh

    Sikhs have suffered persecution. The recent violent agenda of hindu India against SIkhs which violated their human rights. The extermination of any Sikh they thought was against India. The thousands of staged fake encounters. The attack on the Golden Temple and killing of innocent pilgrims during a religious holiday during the army’s attack on the Golden Temple. It was ok for India to have us as defenders of India when they wanted their services. Prior to that, Sikhs were persecuted by the Mughals and this is why Sikhs went to war against them for their atrocities on the non-muslims.

  • Ravi Singh

    Sikhs have suffered persecution. The recent violent agenda of hindu India against SIkhs which violated their human rights. The extermination of any Sikh they thought was against India. The thousands of staged fake encounters. The attack on the Golden Temple and killing of innocent pilgrims during a religious holiday during the army’s attack on the Golden Temple. It was ok for India to have us as defenders of India when they wanted their services. Prior to that, Sikhs were persecuted by the Mughals and this is why Sikhs went to war against them for their atrocities on the non-muslims.

  • Secular1

    Come on Ravi to equate the centuries old persecution by Shahjehan, Aurangazeb and the rest with the current day undercuts your position. Please don’t just hurl stuff against the wall hoping something will stick. With regards to Golden temple fiasco was a culmination of at least a decade long political courtship of the fundamentalist and lunatic sikhs and Inidra Gandhi. IG used that Brindanwale to defeat Akalis and vice versa. In the process he got carried away and developed a bit bigger opinion of himself than he deserved. He was a lunatic deluded a bit player. He wreaked havoc in Punjab. And converted the temple into a bastion and mocking the government. That said I think what Indira did was absolutely atrocious and she was meted appropriate judgement. I always held the view that all her accomplishments in foreign policy all his career was vitiated by just that one. She very well deserved what was meted out to her. Storming a besieged fortress is a stupid military tactic. When all you needed to do was wait out the besieged. In fact her son did exactly opposite of her given the exactly identical situation another 7 or 8 years later. Again I do not wish to discount the atrocities that followed after her death on Sikhs, either. All that given still I maintain the harmonious relationship between teh two communities before the Golden temple fiasco and all that preceded and after her killing. So please do not spread this canard that Sikhs are persecuted lot in the past 66 years. That is unadulterated horse manure.

  • Secular1

    Come on Ravi to equate the centuries old persecution by Shahjehan, Aurangazeb and the rest with the current day undercuts your position. Please don’t just hurl stuff against the wall hoping something will stick. With regards to Golden temple fiasco was a culmination of at least a decade long political courtship of the fundamentalist and lunatic sikhs and Inidra Gandhi. IG used that Brindanwale to defeat Akalis and vice versa. In the process he got carried away and developed a bit bigger opinion of himself than he deserved. He was a lunatic deluded a bit player. He wreaked havoc in Punjab. And converted the temple into a bastion and mocking the government. That said I think what Indira did was absolutely atrocious and she was meted appropriate judgement. I always held the view that all her accomplishments in foreign policy all his career was vitiated by just that one. She very well deserved what was meted out to her. Storming a besieged fortress is a stupid military tactic. When all you needed to do was wait out the besieged. In fact her son did exactly opposite of her given the exactly identical situation another 7 or 8 years later. Again I do not wish to discount the atrocities that followed after her death on Sikhs, either. All that given still I maintain the harmonious relationship between teh two communities before the Golden temple fiasco and all that preceded and after her killing. So please do not spread this canard that Sikhs are persecuted lot in the past 66 years. That is unadulterated horse manure.

  • freedom99

    Secular1 your knowledge seems to be limited to what you have read written by forces opposing the Sikhs as you have no knowledge or understanding of the what it is like for Sikhs to live in India which is predominately Hindu. When the gov. controls the media and the economical machinery of the common man then how can you ever know what the common man is suffering or is going through when everything is controlled, hidden or easily distorted from people like you. Journalist being kidded out, no visas give to foreign reporters, black out of all news, curfew and selective reporting are all the tactics used. Even in current day the people directly responsible for killing hundred in ’84 atrocities are free ( with perks and promotion bestowed upon them by the gov.) while the victims endure endless suffering. Will these Sikhs ever get justice in your beloved India?

  • freedom99

    Secular1 your knowledge seems to be limited to what you have read written by forces opposing the Sikhs as you have no knowledge or understanding of the what it is like for Sikhs to live in India which is predominately Hindu. When the gov. controls the media and the economical machinery of the common man then how can you ever know what the common man is suffering or is going through when everything is controlled, hidden or easily distorted from people like you. Journalist being kidded out, no visas give to foreign reporters, black out of all news, curfew and selective reporting are all the tactics used. Even in current day the people directly responsible for killing hundred in ’84 atrocities are free ( with perks and promotion bestowed upon them by the gov.) while the victims endure endless suffering. Will these Sikhs ever get justice in your beloved India?

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