New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal speaks during a news conference announcing pollution lawsuits filed by the state, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

How 9/11 spurred New Jersey's Sikh attorney general into public service

(RNS) — Last January, Gurbir Grewal became New Jersey's attorney general, making him the nation’s first Sikh to serve as a state's chief law enforcement officer and lawyer, a recognition of New Jersey's status as one of the most culturally diverse places in the country.

Although Grewal, 45, says his faith is not the primary driver of his work as attorney general, its core teachings of service, justice and kindness align well with his progressive approach to policy.

One can hear this conviction when Grewal speaks about justice for all, especially for the marginalized, as he does often. In just over a year in office, Grewal has already taken part in dozens of legal proceedings against the Trump administration, each of which confronts discriminatory, inhumane or inequitable policies.

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Grewal, who grew up in New Jersey, attended Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service before getting his law degree at the College of William and Mary. He was appointed attorney general by Gov. Phil Murphy in 2017 after a decade as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York and as a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of New Jersey in Newark.

He says that growing up as a visible religious minority has given him a sense of what injustice and disenfranchisement do to communities — a view of America that was put in relief by the attacks of 9/11.

I had the opportunity to speak with Grewal about his upbringing, what he draws from his faith and the relationship between Sikhi and public service.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me a little bit about your current role as attorney general and how that comports with your worldview as a Sikh?

I’ve always said that being a Sikh lines up so naturally with being a public servant. It’s exactly what our tradition teaches us to do. But it’s just not that. Being a Sikh also lines up with being a public servant who is specifically focused on the goal of ensuring justice and fairness for everyone. There are so few professions that enable you to serve the public, to ensure justice, and to ensure that everyone’s rights are fully protected.

So much of who I am and what I believe is based on how I was raised, and Sikhi played a big part in that. You want to stand up for everyone. You want to ensure that everyone has a fair shot — and there’s an element of mercy that runs through Sikhi as well.

As a county prosecutor, where I had the ability to set policy and shape the way the office prioritized cases, that belief pushed me to prioritize cases that dealt with justice. For example, I could say we’re not going to lock up people on low-level drug offenses because it doesn’t help them and doesn’t bring justice to anyone. We focused instead on helping these people and their communities.

In my current role, I’m responsible for the entire criminal justice system in New Jersey. I have the ability to set policy and directives that shape how we treat our communities and ensure justice for everyone. My work ties back to everything that I’ve learned and believed about what it means to be a Sikh — to work for justice and to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.

Are there any particular Sikh teachings that you lean into as a source of support or guidance?

For me, it all goes back to the Guru Nanak’s radical egalitarian vision. I see that as the foundation of our religion, and I find so much inspiration in that. It’s central to who we are as a community, especially if you look at the origins of Sikhi.

I also really love the line from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scripture) by Bhagat Kabir, where he says, "Sura so pahichaniai jo larahi deen ke het purja purja kat marai kabhu na chaadahi khet." ("One is called a warrior who fights for the oppressed; one who is slashed and annihilated — yet never abandons the battlefield (of justice)."

That’s been an inspirational teaching to me about what it means to commit to something. The message I take away from this for myself is to have the strength to fight injustice and to fight bigotry and to fight intolerance. Whenever I hear these lines, I feel empowered.

How else do your Sikh values and worldview figure into your work?

There are plenty, especially when it comes to ideas around public service. I always come back to the idea of seva ("selfless service") and serving those around us. I ask myself: “Are we doing the most we can to help all of our communities?”

I’d also say there’s also more to it than just the beliefs. My work is informed by my worldview as a Sikh, and it’s also informed by my experience as a Sikh in America. You know what it’s like to be marginalized, you know what it’s like to be othered, you know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of bias and hate. And while these experiences can be difficult, they can also help teach us empathy.

So there’s the empathy we’re taught to have by our religious teachings, and then there’s also the empathy that’s produced through our experiences with oppressive policies, like racial profiling at the airport. To have experienced those sorts of oppressions, and to have felt that pain, and to now have the opportunity to help fix those issues at a broad level — that plays into a lot of what I do.

How have those experiences shaped your life and career?

The trigger for me was 9/11. At the time, I didn’t have a passion for public service, I hate to say. I was very content then. I went to a decent college, went to a decent law school, and landed a decent job at a law firm. I was just enjoying where I was.

And then a tragedy befalls this country, and I found that I didn’t have the luxury to grieve like the people around me. Immediately in that moment, I was reminded that I was the other. And this was a real point of introspection for me. I was in my mid-20s, felt like I was a part of American society — and yet people on television kept showing people who looked like me, saying we were responsible for the tragedy.

And when they showed Americans, they never showed anyone who looked like me. Especially when they showed public servants, including firefighters and police officers. For me, that was a wakeup call to do something. That’s when I really started to think about what we should be doing.

On the night of 9/11, my mom told me to just get groceries and stay in that night. She thought that would keep me safe. But honestly, that didn’t feel right. That’s not who we are as Sikhs. Our Sikhi teaches us that we stand out by design, so that we’re ready to step up in moments like this one.

It was then that I began to feel passionate about public service. I felt a desire to serve others and began thinking about what opportunities would be good for me. I also realized that public service would help show other Americans what Sikhi is all about. That’s how it all started.