By Ralph Singh, Honorary NAIN Board Member
The reported decision that the President will not visit the Golden Temple on his upcoming visit to India is not only a defeat for religious pluralism in general, as there is no other religious center so clearly built on, and dedicated to, religious pluralism, but it is another crushing defeat for the Sikhs’ attempt to distinguish themselves from Bin Laden’s terrorist image. I also have to wonder, when Queen Elizabeth and Canada’s Stephen Harper are able to cover their heads and make the visit, something else must be at work.
Obama’s visit to the Golden Temple would have meant instant recognition for Sikhs and would do more to avert any future mistaken attacks on Sikhs than any amount of education the Sikh community could produce and distribute. But unfortunately this may be another opportunity lost.
Over the years, since A.P. first rang the world media bell with the erroneous picture entitled “First Arrest,” of the young Sikh engineer pulled off the train in Rhode Island on his way home to work in Maryland (as airports were closed), people have heckled, beaten, and even killed Sikhs and torched their places of worship. We are one of those victims of arson. It didn’t matter that the man was soon released, and some small apology made in the media. The damage had been done.
One question remains, after 10 years, why when so much emphasis has been put on defending Islam, as it deserves, and Muslims, as they deserve, why has no major media outlet, group of academics, NGOs, politicians, or even Muslims themselves, ever bothered to put a picture of a Sikh up and say, “These are the good guys, don’t attack them.” My feeling is that everyone is quite comfortable with having a fall guy. And Sikhs fit the bill.
The real question to ask fired NPR analyst and now Fox commentator, Juan Williams, was “What do you mean by Muslim garb?” “Can you describe the prototypic person for me?” I’ll wager that the man has a turban and beard. And don’t tell me, women with head scarves make him shiver in his shoes.
In fact, a well meaning, and well funded NGO that prides itself in teaching interfaith understanding created a skit to educate people about Muslims to defuse the prejudice. It goes something like this:
Person A “Describe a terrorist for me”
Person B – “they have a beard and a turban,”
Person A – “but most Muslims in this country don’t fit that description. They are well dressed, don’t wear turbans, and most don’t have beards.”
Did anyone bother to tell the audience, or even the trainers, that they were painting a picture of Sikhs as terrorists? This skit may be fine to deflect attacks on “Muslims.” But there is no mention that those who do wear turbans and beards are Sikhs and they have nothing to do with terrorism, nor are they part of Islam. So bottom line, Sikhs remain the fall guys.
Sikhs have bent over backwards not to tar Muslims in any of their public information. After all there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim. We just aren’t. But at a recent event, I was approached by a media producer who should have known better and asked, “What are you Sikhs doing to distinguish yourself from Muslims?”
I’m all in favor of free speech. But whose free speech gets heard is another matter. That, as we should know by now, is not free. Not free from cost, not free from bias, and not free from political expediency. And Sikhs, who proudly distinguish themselves as honest, hard working, public servants are all too often the fall guy.