Last month, after dropping off his wife and infant son at home, Dr. Prabhjot Singh went for an evening walk with a friend near Central Park in New York City. Minutes later, he was attacked by a group of young men who grabbed his beard and beat him while yelling “terrorist!” “get him!” and “Osama!”
They prayed for their perpetrators, seeking not revenge but compassion.
The attack resulted in several lost teeth and a fractured jaw. At a press conference two days later, when asked what he might say to his perpetrators, Dr. Singh replied:
Even more important to me than my attackers being caught is that they are taught. My tradition teaches me to value justice and accountability, and it also teaches me love, compassion and understanding. This incident, while unfortunate, can help initiate a conversation to create greater understanding within the community.
Dr. Singh and his wife, Manmeet Kaur, are Sikhs, part of an independent religion founded 500 years ago in northern India. It is the fifth-largest religion in the world, with over 25 million adherents. Sikhism is based upon principles of service, social justice, freedom, and equality for all. Through my work with the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), and through my friendships and associations with Sikhs, my respect for this community continues to grow.
Among the more prominent indicators of faith for Sikhs of both genders is the turban, which has resulted in many misperceptions. Two weeks ago, I attended a seminar at Stanford University titled “Turban Myths,” which unveiled a study of the same name sponsored by SALDEF and researchers at Stanford University. The study indicated that:
- 70 percent of Americans surveyed misidentified turban-wearers as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Shinto, when in fact, 99 percent all men in the U.S. who wear turbans are Sikh Americans.
- Americans tend to associate turbans with Osama bin Laden, more so than with other named Muslim and Sikh individuals, and more than with no one in particular.
- Misperceptions have led some to target Sikh Americans with hate-based crimes such as the Oak Creek, Wisconsin tragedy of August 5, 2012, when six Sikh Americans were killed at their temple.
In the wake of Oak Creek and the attack on Dr. Singh, I have witnessed SALDEF, their affiliates, and the greater Sikh community embrace their crises with a clear message in alignment with their values of seva (selfless service), nimarta (respect and humility), sanghat (community), and most especially chardi kala (maintaining optimism and high spirits, even during times of adversity).
They prayed for their perpetrators, seeking not revenge but compassion and awareness. They did not speak against Muslims, with whom they are mistakenly identified, but advocated for respect and understanding of all faiths. They did not surrender to rage in defense of their freedom of religion and expression, but welcomed questions about their faith. These are actions and values that are inherently Sikh. They are also inherently American.
As pundits pummel us with headlines about appropriate responses to the crisis in Syria, the government shutdown, or the ongoing crises of violence in our own neighborhoods, I hope we can remember the examples of our Sikh friends, and their capacity to embrace a crisis.
In commemoration of the first anniversary of the Oak Creek tragedy, the Sikh community called not for marches and demonstrations, but for a national day of service. Seventy-two hours after he was attacked, Dr. Prabhjot Singh returned to work in Harlem, serving his patients. In Dr. Singh and in the greater Sikh community, I offer examples of fine Americans that all of us can look up to.
Kevin Kahakula’akea John Fong is a nationally recognized and respected cultural translator, facilitator, trainer, and speaker in transformative justice, leadership development, and organizational design. Kevin founded and previously directed the clinical HIV program and teen clinic at Asian Health Services in Oakland, CA. In recent years, he has been called to facilitate community healing circles around the country. Kevin served on the board of directors of YES! Magazine from 1999 - 2007. A graduate of the University of California, Kevin resides on the traditional land of the Ohlone People (San Francisco) with his husband and their two sons. He can be reached at https://www.elementalpartners.net/