America is a deeply religious nation. Like the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the Aug. 5, 2012, massacre of Sikh worshipers in Wisconsin shocked the conscience of America and generated a groundswell of sympathy for Sikh Americans. Although most of this support has been unconditional, some have suggested that Sikhs assimilate and avoid danger by removing their turbans.
This is absurd and offensive.
The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak in South Asia over five centuries ago. Sikhs believe that there is one God—universal, timeless, formless—and that all human beings are filled with equal measures of dignity and divinity. Sikhs reject the caste system, gender inequality, and all forms of religious exclusivity in favor of universal equality and religious pluralism. Devout Sikhs express their religious commitment by wearing a turban, which signifies nobility and a willingness to promote justice and freedom for all people. Sikhs are required to be fearless, and the turban is a declaration of Sikh identity, even in the face of persecution.
It is fashionable for people to say that Sikhs are “different,” but this is intellectually dishonest. The concept of difference is inherently relativistic; all people are different with respect to others, depending on your frame of reference, but minorities seem to carry the burden of justifying why they are who they are. This burden-shifting often finds expression in corporate “image” policies, which prevent Sikhs and other religious minorities from enjoying equal employment opportunity, and might explain why Sikh children experience a disproportionate amount of bullying.
A related problem is the “when in Rome” argument – that Sikhs should shed their turbans and beards and begin dressing like “Americans.” The challenge here is to define an “American.” Sikhs have lived in the United States for more than a century. Many of us were born here. Apart from Native Americans, this country is composed of people whose forbears came here—or were brought here—relatively recently from somewhere else. Is there then an objectively “American” way of expressing religiosity?
The notion that Sikhs are more different or less American, on account of their turbans, is a non-starter.
Sikh values—represented by the turban—are consistent with the highest ideals of America. In practice, Sikh Americans have even led efforts to promote these ideals. In recent years, the Sikh American community spearheaded the passage of the first anti-bullying law in New York City; the protection of religious liberty in the U.S. armed forces; the repeal of an Oregon law that prohibited teachers from practicing their religion; the introduction of equal employment opportunity legislation in California; and even the launch of a mobile phone application that allows people to report mistreatment and discrimination against the Transportation Security Administration. These measures, which were inspired by Sikh values and hatched by people wearing turbans, will protect the rights of millions of Americans.
And so, to those who say that Sikh Americans should abandon their heritage, I say - this turban stays on.
Rajdeep Singh serves as director of law and policy for the Sikh Coalition