October 1, 2013
Last Saturday, after dropping off his wife and infant son at home, Dr. Prabhjot Singh went for an evening walk with a friend near Central Park. Minutes later, he was attacked by a group of young men who grabbed his beard and beat him while yelling “terrorist,” “get him,” and “Osama.” The attack resulted in several lost teeth and a fractured jaw. At a press conference held two days later, when asked what he might say to his perpetrators, Dr. Singh replied –
“Even more important to me than my attackers being caught is that they are taught. My tradition teaches me to value justice and accountability, and it also teaches me love, compassion and understanding. This incident, while unfortunate, can help initiate a conversation to create greater understanding within the community."
Dr. Singh and his wife, Manmeet Kaur, are Sikhs, part of an independent religion founded five hundred years ago in Northern India. It is the fifth largest religion in the world, with over 25 million adherents. Sikhism is based upon principles of service, social justice, freedom and equality for all. Through my work with the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), and through my friendships and associations with Sikhs, my respect for this community continues to grow.
Among the more prominent indicators of faith for Sikhs (both men and women) is the turban, which has resulted in many misperceptions. Two weeks ago, I attended a seminar at Stanford University titled “Turban Myths,” which unveiled a study of the same name sponsored by SALDEF and Stanford researchers. The study indicated that:
Misperceptions have led some to target Sikh Americans with hate-based crimes such as the Oak Creek, Wisconsin tragedy in 2012, when six Sikh Americans were killed at their temple.
70% of Americans surveyed misidentified turban-wearers as Muslim (48%), Hindu, Buddhist or Shinto, when in fact, 99% all men in the U.S. who wear turbans are Sikh Americans; and
Americans tend to associate turbans with Osama bin Laden, moreso than with named Muslim and Sikh alternatives and more than with no one in particular.
In the wake of Oak Creek and this past week, I have witnessed SALDEF, their affiliates and the greater Sikh community, embrace their crises with a clear message in alignment with their values of Seva (selfless service), Nimarta (respect and humility), Sanghat (community) and most especially Chardi Kala (maintaining optimism and high spirits, even during times of adversity).
They prayed for their perpetrators, seeking not revenge, but compassion and awareness. They did not speak against Muslims, with whom they are mistakenly identified, but advocated for respect and understanding of all faiths. They did not surrender to rage in defense of their freedom of religion and expression, but welcomed questions about their articles of faith and their faith in general. These are actions and values that inherently Sikh. They are also inherently American.
As pundits pummel us with headlines about appropriate responses to the crisis in Syria, the government shutdown crisis in Congress, or the ongoing crises of violence in our own neighborhoods, I hope we can remember the examples of our Sikh friends, and their capacity to embrace a crisis.
In commemoration of the first anniversary of the Oak Creek tragedy, the Sikh community called not for marches and demonstrations, but for a national day of service. Seventy-two hours after he was attacked, Dr. Prabhjot Singh returned to work in Harlem, serving his patients. In Dr. Singh and in the greater Sikh community, I offer examples of fine Americans that all of us can look up to.