Sikhs at a crossroads

Discrimination experienced after the 9/11 terrorist attacks forced Sikhs to defend and define their faith. This growing community has since 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.

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.

Reporting angles

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. A prime goal is to further awareness of Sikh culture.

• Museums have recognized the importance of Sikh art and culture in American society. In July 2004, the year Sikhs celebrated the 400th anniversary of the revelation of their scripture,  the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History opened “Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab,” which was still running in 2013 and is scheduled to run indefinitely. The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco currently has a permanent Sikh art exhibit.

• In 2004, Manmohan Singh became India’s first Sikh prime minister. American Sikhs widely praised the appointment, which was seen as significant in future negotiations with Sikh nationalists over a proposed Sikh homeland, Khalistan.

• 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 2004, two Sikhs were offered reinstatement to their jobs as New York traffic enforcement agents after they were initially told they could not wear turbans.

• 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. on September 15, 2001. His attacker said he mistook him for an Arab. In August 2012, a white supremacist killed six people and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Background

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.

Sikhism online

  • Sikhs.org

    Sikhs.org 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

    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.

  • Sikhnet

    Sikhnet 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. Sikhnet is based in Espanola, New Mexico.

    Contact: 505-814-1523.
  • Sikh Coalition

    The Sikh Coalition in New York is an advocacy group established by several Sikh groups across the United States after the 9/11 attacks to help protect Sikh civil rights.

  • Sikhlens

    Sikhlens seeks to provide an outlet for sharing Sikh heritage and culture with the rest of the world by creating awareness for work that is “Sikh-centric,” showcasing talent, and instilling pride in the community. The festival seeks work from artists in a variety of fields, including but not limited to movies, books, music, and art. It creates appropriate avenues for this work to be shared with the rest of the world.

  • Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund

    The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF – formerly Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force, or SMART) is the oldest Sikh American civil rights, advocacy and educational organization. SALDEF works to empower Sikh Americans through advocacy, education and media relations.

  • Council of Khalistan

    The Council of Khalistan is a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C. that wants to establish a separate Sikh homeland in India. Gurmit Singh Aulakh is the Council’s president. Contact through the website.

    Contact: 202-337-1904.
  • SikhWomen.com

    SikhWomen.com was an advocacy organization for women’s equality in the Sikh community. The site was last updated in 2006 but still contains information journalists might find useful.

National sources

  • Armadeep Singh

    Armadeep Singh is co-founder of the Sikh Coalition, an amalgam of groups representing the nation’s Sikhs. The group was founded after the attacks of Sept. 11 when Sikhs became objects of suspicion at airports and elsewhere.

  • Dr. Gurinder Singh Mann

    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.

  • Paul David Numrich

    Paul David Numrich is a professor of world religions and interreligious relations at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio . He was 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. He is the author of “Marriage, Family and Health in Selected World Religions: Different Perspectives in an Increasingly Pluralist America,” published in 2002 in Marriage, Health and the Professions.

  • Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

    The Becket Fund is a public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., that works to protect the free expression of all religious traditions. Stephanie Keenan handles media inquiries.

  • Religious community search

    The Pluralism Project at Harvard University offers a state-by-state search engine for religious communities.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Dr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh

    Dr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh is a professor of religion at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and a specialist on women and Sikhism.

  • Sarbpreet Singh

    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.

  • Dr. John Stratton Hawley

    Dr. John Stratton Hawley is a professor of religion at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York City. He is a specialist in the traditions of Northern India and has written about issues facing American Sikhs.

  • Ravinder Singh Bhalla

    Ravinder Singh Bhalla is a lawyer, city councilman 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 also represented 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.

     

In the South

  • Anna Barry Bigelow

    Anna Barry Bigelow is an associate 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.

  • Dr. Connie Elsberg

    Dr. Connie Elsberg is the author of Graceful Women: Gender and Identity in an American Sikh Community (The University of Tennessee Press, 2003) and Assistant Dean for Economics, Geography, Psychology, Sociology at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, Va. She specializes in non-Punjabi Sikhs living in the West.

  • Neal Singh

    Neal Singh is the president of the Sikh Students Association at the University of Florida.

  • Nikki R. Haley

    Nikki Randhawa Haley is a Republican who attends both a Sikh and a Methodist church. She is the Governor of South Carolina.

    Contact: 803-734-2100.
  • Dr. Jay McDaniel

    Dr. Jay McDaniel is director of the Steel Center for the Study of Religion and Philosophy at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. He and his students study Jains, Sikhs and Hindus in the Arkansas area. His data suggests that the majority of local Sikhs are not affiliated with a gurdwara (sanctuary) but worship in small groups in private homes.

  • Avtar Singh Dhaliwal

    Avtar Singh Dhaliwal was 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: 423-979-6257.
  • Dr. Harbans Lal

    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.

In the Midwest

  • Cynthia Mahmood

    Cynthia Mahmood is Frank Moore chair of anthropology and professor of anthropology at Central College in Pella, Iowa. Fascinated by religious motivations for militancy, Mahmood specializes in the anthropology of violence, war and peace, terrorism, guerilla warfare, and language and culture. Her signature area of expertise has been upheaval among India’s Sikhs She is author of Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues With Sikh Militants (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).

  • Raymond B. Williams

    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.

In the West

  • Arizona Sikh Gurdwara

    The Sikh Religious Society of Arizona runs the Arizona Sikh Gurdwara in Phoenix.

    Contact: 602-716-0408.
  • Bibiji Inderjit Kaur

    Bibiji Inderjit Kaur is Bhai Sahiba,or 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.

  • Dr. David Christopher Lane

    Dr. David Christopher Lane is a professor of philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. He has written about Sikh gurus.

  • Paul R. Brass

    Paul R. Brass is a professor emeritus of political science and international studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has published numerous books and articles on comparative and South Asian politics, ethnic politics, and collective violence.

  • Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

    The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is the only museum in the Western Hemisphere with a gallery devoted to Sikh art. Contact the director of public relations.

  • Dr. Pashaura Singh

    Dr. Pashaura Singh is a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Riverside. He taught Sikh studies, Punjabi language and Religions of India for thirteen years at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He combines a command of classical and colloquial Punjabi and Hindi languages (including a working knowledge of Sanskrit) and a sound knowledge of traditional Sikh learning with a mastery of contemporary issues in textual studies, canonicity, hermeneutics, literary theory, and history of religions. He is the author of Sikh Identity: Continuity and Change (Manohar Publications, 2001).

International sources

  • Dr. James R. Lewis

    Dr. James R. Lewis is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tromsø and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Wales Lampeter. He edits Brill’s Handbooks on Contemporary Religion series and co-edits Ashgate’s Controversial New Religions series. He is an active, highly-published scholar of new religious movements. He has written about Sikhism.

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