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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 This claim is outdated and patently untrue – Sikhs have a long tradition of military service and have not had a problem placing helmets over their turbans and uncut hair.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.