American Sikhs have been ridiculed, harassed, and beaten all because of their outward appearance. It is long past time to stop the ignorance.
Earlier this month, a New York physician and his mother were attacked by youths while walking home from dinner through their neighborhood in Roosevelt Island. This followed an incident a few weeks before in Queens, where a 29-year-old Sikh man, Sandeep Singh, was hit and dragged by a pickup truck after an exchange involving the driver calling the man a “terrorist” and telling him to “go home”. Both events highlight the Sikh community’s sense of vulnerability to hate crimes, discrimination, and religious persecution.
UPDATE 8/19/14: Joseph Caleca has been arrested as a suspect for hitting Sandeep Singh with his truck.
Hate Crimes against American Sikhs
The Sikh Coalition, a New York-based civil rights advocacy group, called both incidents “hate crimes” and wrote a letter to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio requesting them to be publicly labeled as such. The Sikh Coalition felt that if the first incident had been promptly treated as a hate crime, it may have helped deter the second incident.
A few days after the second incident, the victim identified himself to the Huffington Post as physician-scientist Jaspreet Singh Batra, and shared that although the experience was understandably difficult, he forgives the teens who assaulted him. The Sikh religion is one of promoting harmony with everyone and the wellbeing of all; according to the doctor, this tenet encourages followers of the faith to move quickly through feelings of resentment and arrive at a place of forgiveness.
Hateful Ignorance and Discrimination
However, both the doctor and his mother, who was visiting from India, experienced real physical and emotional trauma that are still not fully resolved. So the Sikh Coalition has taken up their cause. In addition to requesting the incident be classified as a hate crime, the Coalition’s letter to the mayor claimed that a complicating factor of these hate crimes is the ineligibility of American Sikhs to join the police force in New York. Allegedly, Sikhs are permitted to serve their community in this way in Canada, India, and Los Angeles, but New York actively discourages this demographic from admission.
It may be that the NYPD has not employed a Sikh for practical reasons, for example, if none have applied or qualified on a fair scale, if the religious calendar may be prohibitive of the required police schedule, or even if it would cause more disruption to the community than help. But some of those same arguments were used of black Americans once upon a time. When Samuel J. Battle joined the force as the first black police officer in 1911, he served more than 40 years with distinction as an ambassador helping ease racial tensions throughout the city. Today black Americans account for about 20% of the NYPD, but that would not have happened without someone going first.
In his communication with the Huffington Post, Dr. Batra revealed that his mother, visiting from India, had expressed great surprise and horror that such an attack could occur in the United States. Freedom of religion is a concept promoted so vocally, she did not feel this experience matched the US reputation for civil rights; instead she felt persecuted for her faith.
As a long-term solution, Dr. Batra suggested greater diversity education at the collegiate level, as that is when young people are forming opinions that will shape the rest of their lives. He believes this makes it a perfect time to teach understanding and tolerance of other beliefs.
In India, birthplace of the Sikh religion, members of Parliament have also drawn Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attention to the events in New York. They requested that the PM speak against the offenses and take whatever action possible to protect Sikhs in America as much as possible from a political standpoint.
Of course, youths are bound to commit stupid acts in any culture, and the actions of the teens in Manhattan and Queens do not represent the government or the people of the United States. But culturally, America does seem more on the path to becoming post-religious than religiously respectful. Perhaps religious diversity education, as suggested by the doctor, could benefit the religious and non-religious alike, as all seek to genuinely understand one another.