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Sonny Singh: We Are All Muslims: A Sikh Response to Islamophobia in the NYPD and Beyond

Sonny Singh: We Are All Muslims: A Sikh Response to Islamophobia in the NYPD and Beyond

As a brown-skinned Sikh with a turban on my head and a long beard on my chin, I deal with my fair share of racist and xenophobic harassment regularly, including in my home of New York City, the most diverse city on the planet. It usually takes the form of someone yelling or perhaps mumbling at me: Osama bin Laden/terrorist/al Qaeda/he’s going to blow up the [insert location]/go back to your country/etc. Less often, someone might threaten me, get in my face, or in one case, pull off my turban on the subway.

My experience is not terribly unique for a turban-wearing Sikh in the United States. Especially since 9/11, we Sikhs have become all too familiar with racial epithets, bullying and violence. Just last month, a gurdwara in Michigan was vandalized with hostile anti-Muslim graffiti. Last year, in what we can assume was a hate attack, two elderly Sikh men were shot and killed while taking an evening walk in a quiet neighborhood in Elk Grove, Calif.

Many talk about the prevalence of anti-Sikh attacks as a case of “mistaken identity.” Sikhs mistaken for Muslims. Indeed, we are by and large attacked because of anti-Muslim bigotry. The Michigan gurdwara was targeted for that reason, and most of us who experience racist harassment as Sikhs in the U.S. experience it through the vilification of Muslims and/or Arabs.

Ironically, many Sikhs themselves vilify Muslims or at least distance themselves from the Muslim community at every possible opportunity. I remember in the days, weeks and months after 9/11, the first thing out of the mouths of many Sikhs when talking to the press, to politicians or even to their neighbors was, “We are not Muslims.” While this is of course a fact, the implication of the statement if it stops there is: You’re attacking the wrong community. Don’t come after us, go after the Muslims! Sikhs believe in equality and freedom and love our country and our government. But Muslims? We don’t like them either.

The roots of anti-Muslim sentiment in the Sikh community run deep in South Asia, from the days of the tyranny of Mughal emperors such as Aurangzeb in the 17th century to the bloodshed in 1947 when our homeland of Punjab was sliced into two separate nation-states. Despite these historical realities, Sikhism has always been clear that neither Muslims as a people nor Islam as a religion were ever the enemy. Tyranny was the enemy. Oppression was the enemy. Sectarianism was the enemy. In fact, the Guru Granth Sahib, our scriptures that are the center of Sikh philosophy and devotion, contains the writings of Muslim (Sufi) saints alongside those of our own Sikh Gurus. Nevertheless, historical memory breeds misguided hostility and mistrust of Muslims, especially in the contemporary global context of ever-increasing, mainstream Islamophobia.

What is it going to take for Sikhs and Muslims to join together in solidarity against the common enemies of racist harassment and violence, racial and religious profiling, and Islamophobic bigotry? Perhaps the recently exposed NYPD spying program (along with the “education” officers have received about Islam) will serve as a wake up call to my community (and other communities for that matter) about how bad things have really gotten. While we Sikhs confront bigotry on a daily basis from our neighbors, classmates, co-workers, employers and strangers on the street, our Muslim American counterparts are systematically targeted by our own government. (I should note that, of course, Sikhs too are profiled by law enforcement in less repressive, though still troubling, ways, especially at airport security).

Sikhism was born hundreds of years ago in part to stand up for the most oppressed and fight for the freedom and liberation of all people. If this isn’t reason enough for us to make the cause of rooting out Islamophobia from the NYPD and other law enforcement and government agencies our own, we only have to return to the bleak reality we Sikhs in the U.S. still face right now in 2012. A time when gurdwaras are still vandalized with anti-Muslim statements, Sikh kids are still being bullied and tormented at school every day, and I am called Osama bin Laden while walking down a Manhattan street for the 258th time (no I’m not counting).

“We are not Muslims” hasn’t been so effective for our community, has it? Even if we do so in a positive way that does not condone attacks on Muslims, simply educating the public about the fact that we are a distinct community and that we in fact “are not Muslim” will not get to the root of the problem. As long as we live in a country (and world) where an entire community (in this case, Muslims) is targeted, spied on and vilified, we will not be safe, we will not be free.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

I hope the NYPD’s blatant assault on the civil rights of our Muslim sisters and brothers propels us Sikhs as well as all people of conscience to action. Perhaps “We are not Muslims” will become “We are all Muslims,” as we come together to eradicate Islamophobic bigotry in all its forms.

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  • NehemiYah

    Let me just begin brother Sonny by saying I feel solidarity with all who are spiritualy conscious. As an African Hebrew Israelite I find that I relate with the expirience of the Rastafarian, Muslim and Sikh. I was just watching you on the Aljazeera show that was addressing the shooting that took place at that Sikh temple in the U.S. Please accept my condolences. I agree with what you were saying on the show and what you are saying in this blog. I believe we are all brothers in the struggle for truth and righteousness and I want you to know that through these very trying times you are in my thoughts brother. Peace be unto you and yours.

  • M.U. Beg

    Very humane article. It can come only from a true Indian immaterial where he goes and get naturalized. It reflects our culture, a culture of togetherness and acceptance of others faith and believe. Mabrouk Sonny Singh you are really sonny.

  • BuddhaShrink

    Well put! And what an appropriate quote from Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
    We are all Muslims!

  • Lo

    Beautiful. I’ve wondered about the Sikh community’s resentment about the whole Punjab mess before, but I’ve met a lot of Sikhs in my lifetime and it seems like they don’t have a single resentful bone in their body :)

  • Jai

    “Sikhism has always been clear that neither Muslims as a people nor Islam as a religion were ever the enemy. Tyranny was the enemy. Oppression was the enemy. Sectarianism was the enemy. In fact, the Guru Granth Sahib, our scriptures that are the center of Sikh philosophy and devotion, contains the writings of Muslim (Sufi) saints alongside those of our own Sikh Gurus.”

    The Guru Granth Sahib contains literally hundreds of verses from hymns and religious poetry originally written by Sufi Muslim saints; the scriptures also repeatedly use Islamic names for God, as Sikhism teaches that there is only one God and makes it explicitly clear that the God of Islam and the God of Sikhism are one and the same.

    The foundation stone of Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, was also laid by a Sufi Muslim saint (Mian Mir) upon the invitation of the Sikh Guru at the time. The architecture of the Golden Temple itself symbolises the inherent equality & unity of mankind irrespective of people’s religious affiliation and irrespective of the name they call God by; Muslims and Allah are explicitly included.

    One of the later Sikh Gurus even had a mosque built for the Muslims who’d settled in the town he’d founded in Punjab; the mosque (known as “Guru-ki-Maseet”) was recently renovated via a major joint Sikh-Muslim project in India.

    Mian Mir was the main religious instructor of the Mughal crown prince Dara Shukoh, the favourite son & chosen heir of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (the builder of the Taj Mahal). Dara is famous for his extensive efforts to promote unity and mutual understanding between Indians of different faiths. Dara was also given some military assistance by the Sikhs during the war of succession against his brother Aurangzeb after the latter usurped the throne from Shah Jahan.

    These verses from the Guru Granth Sahib demonstrate how highly Sikhism esteems a true Muslim:

    “It is difficult to be called a Muslim; if one is truly a Muslim, then he may be called one.

    First, let him savor the religion of the Prophet as sweet; then, let his pride of his possessions be scraped away.

    Becoming a true Muslim, a disciple of the faith of Mohammed, let him put aside the delusion of death and life.

    As he submits to God’s Will, and surrenders to the Creator, he is rid of selfishness and conceit.

    And when, O Nanak, he is merciful to all beings, only then shall he be called a Muslim.”

    The writings of the 10th Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, also make Sikhism’s positive stance towards Islam, Muslims and Allah explicitly clear. From the Akal Ustat:

    “Someone calls himself a Hindu, another a Turk, someone a Shia, another a Sunni. Recognise the whole of humanity as one race…..

    He the One is the only God of us all: it is His Form, His Light that is diffused in all…..

    The temple or the mosque are the same, the Hindu worship or the Muslim prayer are the same; all humans are the same, it is through error they appear different… is the one God who created all.

    The Hindu God and the Muslim God are the same; let no man even by mistake suppose there is a difference.”

    Guru Gobind Singh also wrote a letter to the fanatical Mughal emperor Aurangzeb which condemned him for not being a genuinely pious Muslim, especially for breaking oaths he’d taken on the Quran. The Guru’s letter, known as the Zafarnamah, also makes his own positive stance towards Islam and the Prophet Mohammad very clear indeed:

    “If the Prophet [Mohammad] himself were here, I would make it my special object to inform him of your treachery…..I knew not that you, O man, were a perjurer, and a worshipper of self, and a breaker of faith. Nay, you keep no faith, nor mind religion, nor know God, nor believe in Mohammed. He who observes the tenets of his faith, he makes a promise but never to break it. You have no idea of what an oath on the Quran is: Nay, you have no faith in the One God.”

    After Aurangzeb died of old age, Guru Gobind Singh gave military assistance to one of the late emperor’s sons during the war of succession and played a major role in enabling the Mughal prince’s victory. The new Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah I, later publicly honoured Guru Gobind Singh with the formal title “Pir-i-Hind”, which means “Saint of India”.

  • Anj

    Great article Sonny! All of us need to work harder in our communities to keep up the warm relations!

  • Nasser

    An excellent article, and a very brave and mature stand to take.

  • leonidas mujahid

    great article, God bless sonny singh

  • mindy1

    Beautifully stated 😀

  • Ali
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