Who Are the Sikhs?

May 19, 2017

by Terry Schilling


Of the values that drive us at the American Principles Project, two very important ones are our commitment to religious liberty and equality. America is a melting pot of people and faiths and we work to make sure that we represent everyone.

Recently, I met leaders of a new campaign who reminded me that we still have a lot of work to do.

The National Sikh Campaign launched We Are Sikhs to help inform Americans about their Sikh American neighbors in the wake of hate crimes and discrimination against the community.  Despite being the world’s fifth largest religion, Sikhism is not well known in America.  I can certainly say that before I learned about this campaign, I knew very little about the faith. Today, there are about 28 million adherents to Sikhism around the world, with approximately 600,000 of Sikhs in the United States.

To those who know little or nothing about Sikhs (which according to a recent poll is about 60 percent of Americans) their most visible trait is the turban.  Many Sikhs wear the turban as a reminder of their faith and a symbol of their commitment to equality and service to others.  In fact, the reason Sikhs originally wore the turban was as a protest to a cultural caste system in India.  Historically, only the most elite in India were allowed to wear a turban.  Because Sikhs believe all men and women are equal in the eyes of God, the turban became a critical tenet of the faith.

Unfortunately, in the years following the September 11th attacks, Sikh Americans have been the targets of discrimination, intimidation, harassment and hate crimes – often because their turban is mistaken for a symbol of extremism.  These crimes have ranged from the bullying of Sikh school children to the mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, which left six people dead and many others injured.  These types of hate crimes have no place in our country.

Sikhs are our friends, neighbors and coworkers. They work passionately to enhance the communities in which they live.  Following my personal interactions with Sikh Americans, it is clear to me that Sikh values are American values, and that Sikhs are working hard to achieve the American Dream.

Hard work. Commitment to the community. Dedication to service.

In the Sikh community, their place of worship – called a Gurdwara – is the center of community involvement.  Each Sunday they host a community meal – Langar – that is open to all.  Young or old.  Rich or poor.  The point of this meal is not to draw people into the faith.  Sikhs are just looking to share what they have with others.

This is something we, as a country at large, have gotten too far away from and we really should use the Sikhs as a model as to how we work with our neighbors.  Even though Sikhs have been bullied and harassed, they continue their commitment to serving our communities.  While the adversity Sikhs have faced would have likely pushed some to be more insular, We Are Sikhs demonstrates that they are continuing to persevere and keep pushing to show everyone what the religion is really about.

But Sikhs should not have to go at it alone.  It is on us as well as non-Sikhs, as conservatives and most importantly as Americans to learn more about Sikhism and the Sikh Americans that make up our community.


Terry Schilling is executive director of the American Principles Project.

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