Some Reflections on the Sikh Dilemma

Nirmal Singh

In this note I am not likely to say anything profound about stereotyping, stereotypes or those who are stereotyped. I may instead ask you to explore with me the tension endured by those who may visually appear to fit a particular stereotype and thus potentially become unintended targets of hate directed at it without in any way being associated with what the stereotype is about.

The case I have in mind is of Sikhs being mistaken as terrorist sympathizers because of the stereotypical image etched in the American mind that terrorists typically look like Bin Laden. It so happens that Sikh males wear long, unshorn hair, keep facial hair and as part of their observance wear turbans to cover their heads – closest an American may come to the images flashed across TV screens or occasionally caricatured by the cartoonists [e.g. Patriot News Sep 28, 06 page A 17] when referring to Muslim terrorism or radical Islam.

Apprehending that such misperception may be at the root of spike in hate crimes against Sikhs post Sep. 11, the Sikhs have been trying to reach out to the mainstream to correct this problem of mistaken identity. Though very sparse, even occasional featuring of news and commentary about Sikhs by print and audiovisual media has been help. Thanks also to active interventions by several groups law enforcement agencies have become more sensitive to various religious and ethnic identities and Sikh experience about their being profiled because of how they look is possibly becoming less frequent. So while there are some positives, a recent incident in the heart of our State may explain my reason for addressing this issue.

A few months back, World Sikh Syndicate, a Central Pennsylvania Sikh group placed a billboard along 78 [N] between exits 15 & 16. The billboard had a picture of a Sikh male and the following message:




The choice of location may have been inspired by the fact that a Sikh Gurdwara [house of worship] is in the vicinity. Last Sunday, Sep. 24th going to the Gurdwara as we sped past the sign my wife got a glimpse of some profane graffiti on the sign and asked me if I had seen it. I was focused on the road so on our return we went back to the spot and stopped by to read what had been written on the billboard. It was a bunch of cryptic hate phrases using four letter profanities directed at Arabs [and Allah].

As we drove back I pondered at the fact that the sign is placed at a pretty high elevation along a busy highway and therefore it would have taken quite some determination and effort on the part of the writer of graffiti to get up there and pen the message – a sure indicator of the depth and intensity of negative emotions felt by the individual. While such an occurrence may be seen as an unfortunate aberration or a sign of inability of the individual to control underlying hatred for what the image stereotype may have meant to the person, the irony is that the incidence only confirms the conclusion that the stereotype has become an unwitting instrument for directing the anger and hate against terrorists at their only American look alike – Sikhs.

How to respond to this misperception is the dilemma faced by Sikhs that I am referring to. Sikhs are Sikhs – they are not Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, or members of any other faith or sect. That is why they juxtaposed a Sikh image with the text message on the billboard. Evidently prejudice created by the image stereotype was way more powerful than the message. No wonder the stereotype won and the message lost.

The incidence does raise certain serious issues. We must recognize the depth of anger and negativity this image stereotyping has created and its implications for the safety and security of the person and property of the very small Sikh population spread out across America. We also should appreciate the moral and ethical dilemma faced by Sikhs in that as believers in Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man Sikhs cannot quite figure out how to present this problem to the mainstream in direct and easily understood metaphor. Lastly we should ask ourselves the question that is it the responsibility of Sikhs alone to remove these misperceptions from the public mind and if not, are those who have the ability and responsibility to inform the public doing enough?

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