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Most Americans are clueless about Sikhs

Rana Sodhi, brother of Baldir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man who was shot and killed on Sept. 15, 2001, speaks at a news conference of the National Sikh Campaign at the National Press Club in Washington on Jan. 26, 2015. Behind him, left to right, are Rachel Laser of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Rev. Leslie Copeland-Tune of Grace and Race Ministries, and Rajwant Singh of the National Sikh Campaign. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks
Rana Sodhi, brother of Baldir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man who was shot and killed on Sept. 15, 2001, speaks at a news conference of the National Sikh Campaign at the National Press Club in Washington on Jan. 26, 2015. Behind him, left to right, are Rachel Laser of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Rev. Leslie Copeland-Tune of Grace and Race Ministries, and Rajwant Singh of the National Sikh Campaign. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

Rana Sodhi, brother of Baldir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man who was shot and killed on Sept. 15, 2001, speaks at a news conference of the National Sikh Campaign at the National Press Club in Washington on Jan. 26, 2015. Behind him, left to right, are Rachel Laser of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Rev. Leslie Copeland-Tune of Grace and Race Ministries, and Rajwant Singh of the National Sikh Campaign. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

WASHINGTON (RNS) Most Americans know little or nothing about Sikhs and many mistake the turban-wearing faithful for Muslims, a new survey shows.

The survey, commissioned by a nonprofit seeking to build positive images of U.S. Sikhism, found that 60 percent of non-Asian-Americans said they had no knowledge of Sikhs (pronounced “siks”). Eleven percent said they were close friends with a Sikh person, and 31 percent said they had never interacted with a Sikh.

“We want to make sure that we pave a way for a conducive environment for our future generations so they don’t have to take off their turban to hide or to feel sorry for their identity,” said Rajwant Singh, a co-founder of the National Sikh Campaign, at a news conference Monday (Jan. 26) at the National Press Club.

When researchers at Hart Research Associates showed people taking an online survey images of Sikhs, more respondents said they were looking at Muslims than Sikhs. No one identified a woman shown without a turban as a Sikh.

Jaswant Sachdev of Phoenix, Ariz., recalled Monday how he used to be called “ayatollah” before 9/11, and was compared to Osama bin Laden after it.

“It is always the turban which causes suspicious fear in the person who has seen me for the first time,” he said, adding that people grew more comfortable with him after he talked to them and “they perceive that you are a human being like anybody else.”

The Washington–based campaign hopes to use the survey results to aid Sikhs in dispelling misperceptions about their monotheistic faith and reducing violence against its members. It recommends that Sikh gurdwaras, or houses of worship, and other organizations emphasize the faith’s focus on equality and explain the turban as an expression of their faith and values.

It has been difficult for Sikhs to communicate those values.

From the "Sikhism in the US: What Americans know and need to know" Report by the National Sikh Campaign released on Monday, January 26. Photo courtesy of National Sikh Campaign

From the “Sikhism in the US: What Americans know and need to know” Report by the National Sikh Campaign released on Monday, January 26. Photo courtesy of National Sikh Campaign

“We hold incredibly progressive values,” said Gurwin Singh Ahuja, another co-founder of the National Sikh Campaign. “Sikhs believe that men and women are equal, that all faiths should have the right to practice, and we have to do a better job of communicating those things.”

Researchers found that when survey respondents were given information about Sikh history and beliefs, their impressions grew from “neutral” to “warm.” Groups with the most significant change in views included Republicans, Hispanics and Americans ages 65 and older.

“When people learn this information, it creates a fundamental change in the way they think about Sikhs and it’s transformative,” said Geoff Garin, president of Washington-based Hart Research Associates, whose survey was conducted in August and September 2014.

Sikhism, which developed in North India five centuries ago, is the fifth-largest faith in the U.S., where Sikhs have lived for more than 100 years. Its key tenets include devotion to God, truthful living and service to others.

From the "Sikhism in the US: What Americans know and need to know" Report by the National Sikh Campaign released on Monday, January 26. Photo courtesy of National Sikh Campaign

From the “Sikhism in the US: What Americans know and need to know” Report by the National Sikh Campaign released on Monday, January 26. Photo courtesy of National Sikh Campaign

Earlier studies have documented mistreatment of Sikhs, including that half of Sikh students are bullied in school. A shooting at an Oak Creek, Wis., temple in 2012 that killed six was one of the deadliest acts of violence against a faith community in the U.S. since the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. Crimes against Sikhs have increased since 9/11.

Joshua DuBois, former faith outreach adviser to President Obama, joined other Christian and Jewish leaders at the announcement of the campaign and recalled traveling to Oak Creek with first lady Michelle Obama.

“Sikhs are beautiful threads in the tapestry of this country,” said DuBois, the founder and CEO of Values Partnerships, citing their contributions to the U.S. military, the medical community and youth service projects.

“I’ve seen what happens when we don’t know the Sikh story,” he added. “I‘ve seen firsthand what happens when ignorance and bigotry reigns. But a new day is dawning in America because we’re finally getting to know our Sikh brothers and sisters.”

YS/LEM END BANKS

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

12 Comments

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  • I am one of those who has been clueless about Sihks and I don’t know anyone personally who shares that faith.

    However, I did Google them and found out that they don’t believe in the Trinity or that Jesus is God or equal to God; so at least, we share something in common.

  • I have to agree that they are our “brothers and sisters” in that thing called the “human family” and we should show love and brotherhood to them; and vice versa.

  • I do not know much about Sikhs but I see few of them when I am in New York. The way two Sikhs are dressed up here in pic, makes my day. The one I have seen were clumsy. “Sikhs are beautiful threads in the tapestry of this country,” well said Dubois. If Sikhs are dressed up like this I don’t see any issue with people not liking you. Very interesting story.

  • Eleven percent said they were close friends with a Sikh person,

    Indubitably drawn from the 11% who have a very fuzzy idea of what is meant by the term ‘close friend’.

  • “I’ve seen what happens when we don’t know the Sikh story,” he added. “I‘ve seen firsthand what happens when ignorance and bigotry reigns. But a new day is dawning in America because we’re finally getting to know our Sikh brothers and sisters.”

    We see here what happens when minor social frictions involving contextually tiny populations are a living for some people. What Eric Hoffer said: the movement decays into a business decays into a racket.

  • I am concious of Sikhs for some time. Just by appearance I take them to be a very proud people. I think I read somewhere they were instrumental in curbing islam in another age. So, here is a big plus. Though I am a strong white christian guy, whenever there is a sikh present, say on the subway, I get a sense of shared outlook on the world– and a sense of being much safer. Very hard to mistake a sikh for a muslim on appearance. Strikingly different comportment. No knowledge of their belief system. Suppose I should learn.

  • I am really tired of finger-wagging at Americans for not knowing much about tiny alien minorities. Why should they know anything? This game we play now, where minorities get victim status and the majority is supposed to feel bad. Waste of time.

    I am a lifelong student of world religions and know a lot about Sikhs, but I am not the slightest bit surprise or alarmed that most people here know next to nothing about them. Life has a lot of other demands on most people.

  • I worked with a Guy who was a Sikhs, it was a very interesting.
    BTW: EssEM, they are not Finger-wagging, some of them have been killed because they were mistaken for Muslim’s. It is NOW in there interest to try to let people know who they are. From the guy I worked with these guys want to leave others alone and be left alone, much like the rest of us.
    -Rich

  • From the beginning of time, all cultures have been tribal. It is bad enough that across the board the mistrust due to the color of your skin, the language you speak, the clothes you wear, and even the food you eat has kept us ignorant of the fact that we are all God’s human creatures. Oh, excuse me, I forgot religion.
    My whole life, even as a child, I could not understand why the other kids weren’t friends with the Black children, the Hispanic children, the Asian children. Even to this day, I ask myself, “Why can’t others see people as I do?”
    A simple answer is: ignorance. Before I was a teenager, (about the time of Abe Lincoln), Caucasian children would tease me and laugh as they pronounced my name and said, “You don’t look Chinese; are you Chinese Ching Wang?”
    When I met somebody who did have a difficult name, I always made it a point to pronounce their name correctly out of respect, not just to them but, to their father and their culture. Not hard to do. I also made it a point to teach myself about cultures other than my own. Is this hard to do? No. Can anybody do it? Yes. The key word is “Don’t be a self centered xenophobe.”
    As a 12 year old, I turned to my father who had been in the Navy and the Merchant Marines, “Dad, isn’t that a beautiful woman across the street?”
    His response, “Son, the world is full of beautiful women. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. You have to find one who loves you and you love her.”
    I realized my father did not pick any one characteristic at all, except for the love.
    Regarding Sikhs, I made it a point long ago to know their history, their dress, their food. One of our family doctors is a Sikh; another is an Indian; another is from Iran; another is from Nigeria.
    If you call yourself a Christian, love ALL God’s children; not just the ones who look like you.
    PS My last name is pronounced the same as in two different cultures which I am proud of. Regarding the bully, he picked on the wrong person.

  • Philip,

    I agree with you that we should show love to our fellowman, no matter where they live, their skin color, their cultures, their beliefs.

    However, human history has been rife with hate, prejudice and racism; even to the point of genocide (Rwanda is one striking example to me)

  • Adalle Banks, Thanks for covering the press release.
    Here is more for my American fellows, please visit americansikhcommnunity.com to learn more about “Sikh Contributions to World Wars” just to build your interest British General Sir Frank Messervy quoted that, “In the last two world wars 83,005 turban wearing Sikh soldiers were killed and 109,045 wounded for the freedom of Britain and the World during shell fire with no other protection but the turban, the symbol of their faith.”
    It is matter of regret that due to the obsession of the present times people are distorting the superior religious and social values. Please google your self Sikhs and World Wars you will get lot of material to read about who gave them this identity and what their religion founders gone thru to keep this identity.

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