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Poet, Singer, and Activist

Religious Diversity in Multicultural America

The other day I was reading a fascinating article in The Economist called One Nation,with Aunt Susan. With so much of the news these days highlighting how our political affiliations or religious leanings divide us, it was refreshing to hear about how our religious diversity is a “powerful source of American unity.” The article discusses the latest work of two social scientists, Robert Putnam and David Campbell from Harvard University and the University of Notre Dame, respectively. Their focus is on “the unifying force” of religion.

My son, Navdeep Singh Dhillon, teaches Writing and Literature at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the world where people from virtually every race and religion can be seen. A month or so ago, he showed the class several images, one of those was an image of a turbaned and bearded man for an assignment on identity, and surprisingly every single one of his students thought he was Muslim. They were equally surprised to find out that the man, Tanmit Singh, was  a) American  b) Sikh, not Muslim c) a hip-hop artist!
Despite the misplaced anger and grief some fellow Americans have had towards other Americans of other faiths, particularly after September 11, I have always felt that America, at its core, is a nation that embraces diversity. So I found the question posed in the article very interesting: “Having intense religious beliefs but belonging to many different faiths and denominations as Americans do, could in theory produce an explosive combination. Why doesn’t it? Ask the authors, Messrs Putnam and Campbell.”

As Americans, we have so many different identities that we balance, that it is difficult to relegate it to just one. I am Sikh and I am American. But I am also many other things. As a Punjabi poet, I have a strong tie to Punjabi as a language, but also towards the culture and the ethos of Punjabi culture (Punjabiat). Similarly, a Jewish friend of mine, whose family has lived in America for generations, is American and Jewish, but he also has strong ties to Israel, without ever having lived there. The points that the article brings up is that one reason is that the U.S. Constitution protects it.  But also that a person’s religion provides Americans with a “sort of civic glue, uniting rather than dividing.”

So who is Aunt Susan?

The authors give a lot of credit to Aunt Susan, who they describe as My Friend Al factor. They clarify this by saying, “You befriend Al because, say, of a shared interest in beekeeping, and later learn that he is an evangelical Christian. Having an evangelical Christian in your circle of friends makes you warmer to other religions in general”.
It was an interesting idea, connecting with people through things other than religion, and it took me back a few decades, when I lived in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.

Pashaura Singh Dhillon

Pashaura Singh Dhillon

As a Senior Landscape Architect, I joined the Dubai Municipality Planning Department in 1987. I was the only turbaned Sikh in the senior management predominantly of Muslims. Although a fresh arrival, since I was a technical advisor on landscape matters, I had frequent meetings with the Director of the Planning Department and, as became evident, was noticed by others in the office, including the secretary and people in personnel, who I was always cordial with. One morning as I was sitting at reception, waiting for the Director to arrive, other sectional heads from the Town planning, Roads, Public health etc also arrived, wished each other good morning in Arabic, and sat quietly in wait. To break the ice, an Egyptian colleague named Mohamed Gad sitting next to me suddenly asked me, “Pashaura Singh. Tell me about your religion and why you wear this thing on your head.” He asked pleasantly but curiously both questions at once.
I was preoccupied thinking about my meeting at the time, and it was not something I was used to answering. I was thunderstruck and momentarily drew a blank. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the answer, but I didn’t know where or how to begin to answer that question without appearing rude, or giving a long history lesson in the significance of the turban and Sikhism, to everyone else in the room, who were also eagerly awaiting my response. But before I could say a word, Zainab, the secretary sitting at the reception desk interrupted. “Mohamed, I do not know his religion either,” she said and paused slightly as if thinking. “but whatever it is,” she continued, “it must be good.” Everyone seemed to be satisfied with this response, including Mohammed. Everyone laughed.  I looked over at her and thanked her for the quick response. Then it was time for the meeting.

But what was interesting about the whole situation was that despite not really knowing about my religion, they knew me in my other identity, as a landscape designer, and as a person, which is why they were satisfied with that response. Many of the friends I made in Dubai who happened to be Muslim became my friends because of shared interests, not through a discussion of religion. We did, of course, talk about our religious beliefs sometimes, but this came much later.

Balbir Singh Sodhi

Balbir Singh Sodhi

On September 11, 2001, I watched the attack on the twin towers on my television and shared the shock, disbelief, and grief of my fellow Americans. A few days later, on September 15, I watched the devastating news that Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American, had been killed in the first hate crime because of his turban and beard, who many people thought looked like a follower or sympathizer of Osama bin Laden. And my heart sank again.
Americans who “looked” like they were from the Middle East were being attacked, and even though the Sikh religion has nothing to do with the Middle East, Sikh-Americans bore the brunt of it because of their turbans and beards. And ironically, none of the 9/11 hijackers had beards or turbans. Sikhs have lived in the United States for the past 120 years, but were the first people to be attacked after September 11 by fellow Americans. In fact, there were Sikh Americans at Ground Zero, some of whom were there to help rescue people.
This is not the result of any ill-will, but a lack of understanding. And there have been some very positive steps taken to help build bridges. The California Legislature unanimously passed an Assembly Concurrent Resolution 181(Logue) very recently, which will help tremendously to lead to more understanding.  This November was designated Sikh-American Awareness and Appreciation Month in California, a bold step, aimed at recognizing and acknowledging the significant contributions made by Californians of Sikh heritage to our state and afford all Californians the opportunity to understand, recognize and appreciate the rich history, shared principles, religion, faith and role Sikh Americans play in furthering mutual understanding and respect among all peoples. There was an excellent article written on Experience Clovis by Rand Green called Celebrating California Sikh Awareness Month where he uses the analogy of a man accidentally shooting a sheepdog, mistaking it for a wolf, in an attempt to protect the sheep. This was a great analogy to use to segue into talking about the real issues affecting all of us today: a lack of understanding of one another’s beliefs.

Balbir Singh SodhiWhile the death of Sikh-American Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first hate crime after 9/11, there was also a ray of hope. There were many other Americans who knew him as their own Aunt Susan or My Friend, Al. Many of them didn’t know about his religion, but they knew he was a good person simply based on their interaction with him. The outpour of support at his funeral was very moving, where Americans of all colors, and of all religious backgrounds were there to support one another.
And despite how many people may feel about George W. Bush’s politics, the one thing that is undeniable, is that as an American, George Bush made very powerful speeches after 9/11 condemning attacks on other Americans on the basis of their religion, country of origin, and race. He appealed to everyone to take this one element of our identity, being American, and have it unify us, rather than the other elements in our identity to divide us.

Do you think in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society such as the one we live in today, we should do more at the elementary/middle/and high school level, in exposing our younger generation by teaching learning sensitivity of all ethnicities now living in America? As always I would be happy to have your comments.

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