My best friend is a Sikh. My best friend is also an American. My best friend has never conspired to commit an act of terror. Yet he is sometimes perceived as a terrorist; but he doesn’t waver.
Just over 12 years ago, Osama Bin Laden orchestrated a series of attacks that would forever change the lives of every American, from longer security lines at the airport, to a reduction of privacy from our government. But often overlooked are the consequences that Sept. 11 had on one particular group of Americans: Sikh Americans.
In the aftermath, America has seen an inflated cultural intolerance toward Muslims. This heightened discrimination against Muslims likely stems from citizens jumping to radical conclusions, letting the actions of a few represent the beliefs of an entire group. Taking it one step further, a picture of what a “terrorist” looks like has been stamped into many Americans’ minds: a man wearing a long beard and turban. Unfortunately, this picture describes almost every male Sikh. As a result, Sikhs across the country have faced repeated discrimination, even still today.
Having spent my entire childhood in San Antonio, up through my adolescent years (16 years total), living next to a Sikh family of six, I probably know more about the Sikh religion and culture than the average American. My best friend, Raj Singh, is the youngest of four brothers.
I tend to jump at every opportunity to spread awareness about their religion. In eighth grade, I worked alongside Raj and another friend on a history fair project, which chronicled the so-called “Unrepresented Sikh Nation” in India. In my sophomore year of college, seven years after Sept. 11, I wrote a paper about the discrimination Sikhs had faced in America since the attacks.
While I have had the luxury of growing up virtually living within the Sikh culture, even attending their church services on occasion, most of us have not had this privilege, which is understandable.
A couple weeks ago, yet another Sikh was brutally attacked in Harlem, most likely due to the mistaken association between turbans, beards and terrorism. Aside from a broken jaw, cuts and bruises, Prabhjot Singh was luckily able to walk away from the attack. However, this is not always the case. From a gas station murder in Arizona to the events at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin last year, we continue to see innocent Sikh-Americans lose their lives due to a complete lack of understanding of their culture.
I often read reactions to these horrific acts, ordinarily written by Sikh-Americans, but it’s not often that we get to hear a reaction from someone outside the Sikh community. The recent attack on Mr. Singh in Harlem inspired me to take to the keyboard to hopefully provide a look into the culture of Sikhs from a new and fresh perspective.
Sikhism, the fifth largest religion in the world, originates from the teachings of ten Gurus. The teachings are based on the beliefs of equality and the rejection of the caste system, which was in place for centuries in India. To a male Sikh, his beard and turban are not simply a choice, but a part of the culture, religion and way of life. To Sikhs, every man having a beard serves to embody the ideal of equality. Unfortunately, after the attacks on Sept.11, the wearing of a beard and turban became more than a symbol of equality – it became a target.
What amazes me every time an act of violence against Sikhs is committed is their unwavering determination to turn a horrific event into something positive. Instead of using it to add fuel to the fire, time and again, Sikhs seem to find a way to use it as a vehicle to spread positive awareness. And it stems directly from the beliefs for which they stand.
These senseless crimes occur not out of hatred for Sikhs, but rather, from a deficiency in basic understanding of the religion. So next time you hear somebody, even a friend or relative, mistakenly refer to a Sikh as a Muslim, Hindu, or any other religion, or associate them with terrorism, don’t laugh it off as no big deal. Do what I do: simply take one minute to explain the major distinctions that identify a Sikh male and why it’s important to make the distinction. Maybe, then, we can begin to make a positive change in how we treat our friends, neighbors, and fellow Americans.
Ryan Mieras was born and raised in San Antonio, TX. He earned his B.S. in Ocean Engineering at Texas A&M University and is currently working on his PhD at the University of Delaware.