Coalition fights discrimination against Sikh religion
Sikh Core Beliefs
Everyone has equal status in the eyes of God. No differentiation in status or ceremonies is made between men and women.
Stresses the importance of leading a good moral life.
Encourages moral and domestic virtues, such as loyalty, gratitude for all favors received, philanthropy, justice, truth and honesty.
A monotheistic faith, Sikhism recognizes God as the only God who is Creator of all people and all faiths.
Moral qualities and the practice of virtue in everyday life are vital steps towards spiritual development. Qualities like honesty, compassion, generosity, patience, humility etc. can be built up only by effort and perseverance.
A modern, logical, and practical religion, Sikhism believes that normal family-life is no barrier to salvation.
Life has a purpose and a goal. Human beings cannot claim immunity from the results of their actions and must be very vigilant in what they do.
The individual has a right to develop his or her personality to the maximum extent possible. The Sikh is essentially a person of action, with an overwhelming sense of self-reliance.
The individual must make a contribution to the social welfare as a sacred duty. The gulf between the more fortunate and the less fortunate has to be bridged.
Source: The Sikh Coalition website
The group of students, professors and other community members who gathered noon Tuesday at Oklahoma Memorial Union's Frontier Room put down their forks when the man wearing a turban and sporting a beard began the lecture with a question.
“By raise of hands, how many of you believe that in your lifetimes you will see a turban-wearing Sikh president of the United States?” Rajdeep Singh asked.
There were more than two dozen people in the room. Not one raised a hand.
That’s ironic, Singh said.
Singh is the director of law and policy of the Sikh Coalition, an organization based in Washington D.C. that advocates for civil and human rights for all people and in particular for Sikhs. The coalition was founded on the eve of Sept. 11.
“Sikhs are, ideologically speaking, in principle and even in practice the most American of Americans,” Singh said.
Sikhs believe in one God and that everyone is equal before God, according to BBC’s religion profiles. Sikhism stresses the importance of living honestly, working hard, treating everyone equally and serving others.
University College freshman Taylor Egbert, who attended the event, said he didn’t know what Sikhism was before Singh explained it.
There are 20 million Sikhs in the world, and most of them occupy the Punjab district where Guru Nanak founded Sikhism during the 16th century, according to BBC’s report. The religion is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak and the nine Sikh gurus who came after him.
The number of Sikhs in this country is not clear, according to a PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life. The 2012 Statistical Abstract of the U.S. estimated about 78,000 Sikh adults in 2008 based on the American Religious Identification Survey. The 2010 Religious Congregations and Membership Study found there are 246 Sikh congregations or gurdwaras in the country. According to the Sikh Coalition, the Sikh population in America is closer to quarter of a million.
Allen Hertzke, OU political science professor, was one of the researchers for that PEW study, and conducted interviews with Singh about his coalition. Hertzke helped organize the lecture and lunch as the Faculty Fellow in Religious Freedom for OU’s Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage.
Advocates like Singh who defend religious freedom and America’s constitutional heritage are heroes of conscience, Hertzke said.
“I’m not a scholar,” Singh said. “I’m not a rising star in the field of civil rights. I’m just a foot soldier in the battle to promote civil rights for all people.”
Singh and his organization spearheaded coalitions to pass equal employment opportunity legislation in Oregon and California, Hertzke said. Singh helped overturn a 1923 Oregon law in 2010, which was originally supported by the Ku Klux Klan to target Catholics, but effectively prevented Sikhs, Orthodox Jews and Muslim women from teaching in Oregon public schools.
In 2009, the Oklahoma State House of Representatives voted 88 to 8 in favor of a bill, HB 1645, which would have banned individuals from wearing religious head coverings in driver license photos.
“The sponsors of the bill were very unshy about telling the world that the motivation was to suppress the rights of Muslims to practice their religion,” Singh said.
Loopholes in the federal laws would have allowed a bill of that nature to pass and withstand constitutional muster in most states, Singh said.
“There are places in this country where it potentially could be illegal to be a Sikh or a Muslim or a practicing Jew, and that’s quite disheartening speaking as an American,” Singh said.
Fortunately, the bill did not survive in the Oklahoma state senate, Singh said. But the battle against religious discrimination is far from over.
“Civil rights and human rights are not settled issues in this country,” Singh said. “There’s still issues effecting millions of people in this country that prevent them from being who they are.”
Sikhs have faced those kinds of issues since they came to America in the early 1900s, and they are still facing discrimination today, Singh said. The violence and bigotry against Sikhs is not a post Sept. 11 phenomenon.
Sikhs have faced job discrimination throughout their history in this country and they still face that problem today, Singh said. He said his father faced employment discrimination when he immigrated to America in 1970.
Singh’s father was an architect but was told by employers that he needed to get rid of his turban and beard if he wanted a job as an architect. Rather than defy his religious identity, his father took his first job as an office boy sharpening pencils for the other architects.
In the post Sept. 11 world, Singh and the Sikh Americans face another kind of discrimination. Their turbans and beards make them stand out.
“More often than not, I’m incorrectly pegged as a member of the Taliban or al-Qaida than as a Sikh by our fellow Americans while riding the metro and going about my business,” Singh said.
During the first week after Sept. 11, about 30 hate crimes were committed against Sikhs, Singh said.
Then on Aug. 5, 2012, white supremacist Wade Page attacked a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six Sikhs. The Sikh Coalition worked with other organizations to successfully petition for congressional hearings about the shootings.
The Sikh community is small and has limited resources, but it is able to collaborate with other organizations to make policy change against religious discrimination, Singh said.
“If the Sikhs can do it with our meager resources, anybody can do it,” Singh said. “Never underestimate the power of will power.”