I am a person very proud of his Western heritage and Mediterranean ancestry. I served in the United States Marine Corps in a combat role in Vietnam. I came back from Vietnam a quite, demoralized veteran with moderate post-traumatic stress and rejoined a society in great flux: the anti-war movement; civil rights movement; the student movement; hippies and flower children. Despite personal and social turmoil in the late 1960s and early 70s, I got some college degrees and taught history and social science for the past thirty years.
My long-standing curiosity about Eastern philosophies and religions, developed a deep interest in the Sikh religion that originated in northern India about 500 years ago. I was attracted to the Sikhs’ reputation for brave resistance to injustice and oppression. I also liked the core values of the Sikhs: belief in one universal God; respect for all religions; honest work; full equality between men and women; community service to all mankind.
When I first told my mother of my conversion to an Asian religion, it dawned on me that I was saying something quite ridiculous. All, not just some or even most, of the major religions of the world began in Asia. Is this a coincidence or is it something more? I am not sure. Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism (the religion of the Parsi people of India), Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and the Bahai faith – all began in Asia. Christianity, of course, Europeanized rapidly as it spread from the Hebrews to the Greco-Roman world. We should not forget, however, that God existed before any of these religions came into existence.
After having considered myself a Sikh for the last 15 years, it was just two weeks before 9-11-2001 that I decided to be a more “complete” Sikh by not cutting my hair and by wearing a turban. The timing could have been better! The post-9-11 prejudice against anyone with a Middle Eastern appearance affected me greatly and immediately. People, especially men, with any sort of “Middle Eastern” look, became targets of American anger and frustration.
A Sikh, a cousin of a very dear friend, was murdered in cold blood in Arizona days after 9-11. He was neither a Muslim nor an Arab. Wherever I went — restaurants, shopping malls, city parks, and even college campuses (the so-called bastions of liberalism), I would hear things like “Hey, Osama!”, “Down with the Taliban!” and “Go back to Arabia!” I happen to have been born in New York City. At my part-time job in a bookstore, I was called Gunga Din and Swami by customers.
Should one ignore these verbal barbs, or try to educate the perpetrators? But where does one begin to educate given the narrow-mindedness of many Americans about cultures other than their own? Whether I ignored the verbal attacks, or tried to explain that I am not a Muslim, I regretted it afterwards. Nothing seemed adequate. Thank God, I have never been physically abused or assaulted by anyone, but this may simply be a matter of time and luck.
As these verbal assaults were happening, the President and his advisors were trying to convince the entire world that America has the best interests of Muslims at heart. We would bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan, but we would also respect Islam and other cultural traditions of the East. There is a clear disconnect between our rhetoric and the reality of our actions.
Many Sikhs, myself included, have great respect and admiration for Islam. Call me a terrorist and you insult me – call me a Muslim and you honor me! The closest friend of our first Guru, Nanak Dev Ji (1469-1539 CE), was Bhai Mardana (1459-1534 CE) – a Muslim minstrel. One of the closest friends and associates of the fifth Sikh Guru, Arjan Dev Ji (1581-1606 CE), was Mir Mohammed Muayyinul Islam (1550-1635 CE), popularly known as Mian Mir, a famous Muslim Sufi saint who resided in Lahore in present day Pakistan. Not only did Mian Mir lay the foundation stone for the most significant Sikh house of worship, known commonly as the Golden Temple, but he also used his knowledge of the Qur’an to help organize the Sikh holy text, the Adi Granth. In our holy book, we use many different names for God, including about a dozen of Islamic origin, including Allah.
As these verbal assaults were happening, President Bush and his advisors were trying to convince the world that America had the best interests of Muslims at heart. We would bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan, but we would also respect Islam and other cultural traditions of the East. There is a clear disconnect between our rhetoric and the reality of our actions.
Several Muslim intellectuals and clerics have made the very good point that Germany, France, and the U.S., for example, have more in common than do Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. Yet, we do not refer to the former as parts of the Christian world, but we do refer to the latter as parts of the Islamic world. A parallel blindness exists in terms of generalizations about India. There is no country more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse than India. An appreciation of this reality is in the best interest of the Sikh minority there and elsewhere.
Again, we are neither Muslims nor Hindus, but we respect Islam and Hinduism. Although Sikhs are closely associated with the Indian armed forces, a young Sikh was recently commissioned an officer in the Pakistani Army.
America’s strength comes from its tolerance and diversity. The great danger to our democracy and our way of life is an ethnocentrism that denigrates non-Western traditions. This prejudice, of course, predates 9/11. Many Americans can neither see nor understand the gulf between our country’s noble principles and the reality of the appalling behavior toward Middle-Eastern-looking people in the post-9/11 era. Thank God, however, many Americans are genuinely friendly and go out of their way to make one feel comfortable despite one’s religious appearance. Yes, there are Americans who take the First Amendment provision for freedom of religious expression seriously.
In high school, I read John Howard Griffin’s book Black Like Me (Signet; 35th anniv. Ed., 1996), the white reporter’s experiences traveling in the Deep South during segregation. Griffin, who had his skin darkened to look like a black man, became a direct victim of racial hostility. I never thought that almost 50 years later, I would tell a similar story. In a forward of the recent Griffin Estate Edition of this book, Studs Terkel wrote, “Regardless of how much progress has been made in eliminating outright racism from American life, Black Like Me endures as a great human – and humanitarian – document. In our era, when ‘international’ terrorism is most often defined in terms of a single ethnic designation and a single religion, we need to be reminded that America has been blinded by fear and racial intolerance before.”
Sikhism has taught me that of all the virtues, three are most important: love, humility, and forgiveness. The greatest of these is forgiveness, which is also the most difficult to put into practice. I am a work in progress. I shall never forget that it was American freedom that enabled me to explore Eastern ideas in the first place. This is why this remains my country, and why I still think it is great. However, like me, it is also a work in progress.