Why American Sikhs Think They Need A Publicity Campaign : NPR

Given Canada’s large Canadian Sikh population, likely more awareness, but polling shows fewer Canadians view Sikhism positively compared to other religions, save Muslims and Mormons:

Nearly 60 percent of Americans admit knowing nothing at all about Sikhs. That lack of knowledge comes at a deadly cost. In the wake of recent incidents from the 2012 Oak Creek Massacre to a shooting of a Sikh man in Washington this March, the Sikh community is taking a more vocal stand against hate.

This month, the National Sikh Campaign, an advocacy group led by former political strategists, launched a $1.3 million awareness campaign, “We are Sikhs.” Funded entirely by grass-roots donations, the campaign’s ads will air nationally on CNN and Fox News as well as on TV channels in central California — home to nearly 50 percent of the Sikh American population — and online.

Some young Sikhs like Sabrina Rangi, a medical student at Michigan State, are optimistic about the potential impact of the campaign. “I think after years of struggling to find the right words, this campaign is getting it right,” says Rangi. “This initiative embodies everything that Sikhism represents, especially its emphasis on shared values and equality. I see this practiced in the gurdwara, where all of the participants sit together on the floor, beneath our holy book, to symbolize that regardless of gender, race or social standing, we are all one.”

Founded over 500 years ago, Sikhism is a monotheistic religion centered on the teachings of 10 spiritual gurus. Guru Nanak, the founder of the faith, rejected India’s caste system and declared all human beings equal. During Guru Nanak’s time, Indian women were considered property with little social standing. Nanak denounced the sexism of the day by proclaiming women equal and encouraging them to participate in all aspects of the gurdwara, or Sikh temple.

The 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, also promoted the principle of equality. During his time, family names signified social status and caste. To break this tradition, Guru Gobind Singh gave all men the last name “Singh,” meaning lion, and women the name “Kaur,” meaning princess. Sikh turbans, the most visible symbol of the faith, are also a rejection of hierarchy of the caste system. Worn historically by South Asian royalty, the Sikh Gurus adopted the practice of wearing the turban to demonstrate a public commitment to maintaining the values and ethics of the tradition, including service, compassion and honesty.

But the turban’s symbolism is lost on most Americans. According to Ahuja, “Our turbans, which are often perceived as symbols of extremism, are actually representations of equality.” Following Sept. 11, images of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida associates wearing turbans circulated frequently in the media. Heightened national fear in combination with poor awareness of America’s Sikh community has often made Sikhs the victims of anti-Muslim hate crimes.

Valarie Kaur, a Sikh civil rights activist and lawyer, warns that violence against Sikhs is not only cases of mistaken identity. Attacks against Sikhs in the United States pre-date the Sept. 11 attacks. In 1907, a group of Sikh immigrants were driven out of town by xenophobic mobs during the height of the American nativist moment. Whether 1907 or today, according to Kaur, “it appears to matter little to perpetrators of hate crimes whether the person they are attacking is Sikh and not Muslim. They see turbans, beards and brown skin and it is enough for them to see us as foreign, suspect and potentially terrorist. It’s time to retire the term ‘mistaken identity.’ It’s a dangerous term, because it implies that there is a correct target for hate.”

Source: Why American Sikhs Think They Need A Publicity Campaign : Code Switch : NPR

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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