Q&A: A Sikh community leader shares what we can do to reduce religious discrimination
Posted November 4, 2016
It's hard to miss Simran Jeet Singh, even in the midst of a bustling student union. His deep red turban and full, black beard make him stick out, and that is one of the reasons why he's always talking about them.
"I am asked every day about why I look the way I look," he said.
Singh, 32, takes strange looks and random questions in stride because he wants to educate people about Sikhism, in particular, and religious diversity, in general. He's been a senior religion fellow with the Sikh Coalition for the last three years, working to increase awareness of the discrimination faced by many members of America's minority faiths.
Most male Sikhs wear a turban and grow their hair from a young age, making them targets of bullying and other hateful actions. In the wake of 9/11, Sikhs are increasingly confused for Muslims and attacked, such as when six people were shot and killed at an Oak Creek, Wisconsin, temple in August 2012.
Such violent episodes spurred Singh to get involved in efforts to address religious discrimination.
In public speaking engagements and interviews, he draws on his personal history and professional research. Singh holds a doctorate from Columbia University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. He's an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, where he specializes in South Asian faiths, including Hinduism and Islam.
Singh was in Salt Lake City last week to participate in "U Remembers," a multiday event at the University of Utah focused on religious violence. He drew on his academic background to discuss the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. and share potential solutions to this troubling trend.
Singh reflected on the role religious prejudice has played in his life and offer insights into how to increase understanding between people of different faiths. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get interested in working to address religious discrimination?
My personal experiences really shaped the direction that I've traveled. Growing up as a brown-skinned, turban-wearing Sikh in Texas, I had regular experiences with racism — from being bullied in elementary school to being told by soccer referees in middle school that I couldn't play.
After 9/11 in particular, when I was in high school, my relationship with this country changed in many ways.
One of those changes was recognizing the fact that I was seen by my appearance as somebody who was dangerous or threatening, and so I became interested in challenging those stereotypes and addressing that.
As I got into my graduate work in the study of religion, I became increasingly aware of both the dangers of anti-Muslim sentiment and the ways of addressing it that I was not seeing as part of the larger conversation.
I wanted to help people understand what's going on, why it's happening and the urgency of it. That's really sort of what brought me into this space.
What are some of the key ways we see religious discrimination in the U.S. today?
It happens in all sorts of ways. There are what we can call minor forms of racism and major forms of racism.
The major form that's the most extreme is hate violence, which we see directed at people who look like me on almost a daily basis. There's also hate speech, which we're hearing all the time.
There are also institutionalized forms of racism. For example, federal guidelines tell us that when somebody walks through airport security with a turban, we should treat them as suspicious, racially profile them and do a second screening simply because of the turban.
And there are minor forms of racism that I experience every day. I met some people today who were trying to be kind. They said, "Welcome to Utah. Here are the best Indian restaurants for you. These are the ones we would recommend."
The intention is good and people are well-meaning, but there is still some racism embedded within that. It makes people feel like it's OK to make certain assumptions because of a person's background or appearance.
Where does religious literacy fit into this discussion of racism and discrimination?
I think one of the real problems we're seeing in this country is we just don't know about our neighbors' cultures and religious traditions.
In our public schools, we don't teach world religions. I'm not talking about teaching people what to believe. I'm talking about understanding different ways of thinking.
In many university systems, students never take a religion course. We're setting up a world where we have adults coming into the work force and starting their own families who have no way of engaging with difference. We can see the violent consequences of that.
Of course, you are going to fear people who you don't know and who believe things that are different unless you start to interact with that in some way.
If we can start imparting that knowledge and creating more religious literacy, getting to know about one another and making the unfamiliar more familiar, I think it would go a long way toward resolving some of these issues.
Why did you decide to study religion in college?
My interest was actually in English literature. That was the major I was committed to when I started getting into religious literature. It was a move primarily from Western literature into the devotional literature of Sikh, Islamic and Hindu traditions.
I remember I didn't know what my career path would be, but I found joy in understanding difference and celebrating differences, so studying religion was a very helpful way for me to understand other worldviews than my own and different ways of living and thinking.
Were you exposed to a variety of religions growing up?
Religious minorities in this country are in a position where we don't have a choice but to learn about our own traditions and what is normative: Judaism and Christianity in America.
In many ways, we can connect this (situation) to a conversation about privilege. In this case, religious privilege.
When you have clear identifying markers of a religious tradition, you don't have any option but to own that publicly. I am asked every day about why I look the way I look. And I don't mind it. I think it's a good thing for people to have these conversations.
You mentioned that 9/11 was a powerful turning point in your life. Has our country been able to address the religious tensions created by that event?
In some senses, we have come a long way since 9/11. In other ways, we have fallen quite a bit.
There are as many, if not more, hate crimes now than there were in 2001. People have a lower opinion of Islam in America than they have had since 2001. If we had made any progress, we're sliding quickly back into a very problematic space.
My experience has anecdotally confirmed that. For the last year, and especially since the presidential campaigns ramped up, I've been regularly coming across people who are willing to articulate or express their negative feelings towards me because of my appearance.
Political rhetoric and the national discourse has shifted and it has become OK to target an entire group of people based on their religion. That's emboldened people to act on their (negative) feelings.
Religious violence and faith-based prejudice sometimes feels like an unsolvable problem. What can we do to help?
If the problem is dehumanization, then the solution is humanization. That's a low bar to set, but treating people with dignity because they're humans is a baseline that we should all be at. And it's in line with our values as a country.
It's in line with our various religious values, but it's not something we're practicing right now.
The second thing I would say is that it's important for people who are against discrimination to recognize that if you are not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. By being a neutral bystander, you're complicit.
There are always going to be ways in which you can show up as an ally, especially when you witness any sort of derogatory or hateful speech or actions.
We all have a responsibility to step forward in those moments and really demonstrate what our values are and the type of people we want to be.
Does meeting with students ... help you feel good about the direction America is headed?
Speaking with college students is spiriting for me. My sense is that our students, our young people, have a far better understanding of how to treat other people as complex human beings.
It has to do partially with their understanding that identities are intersectional — we all share certain aspects of our lives and our identifies with other people. That's not (an idea) that all of us were brought up with, but it's a very important aspect of connecting with other people.
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