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Ameek Singh Headshot

Sikhism Needs Liberal Democracy

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The West is the last place Sikh leaders have looked to for institutional guidance.

To those who know our story, this should come as no surprise. Our parents immigrated to western countries in search of a better life for their children. Like most Indian parents, Sikh parents told my generation to study hard and pursue profitable career paths. As a result, Sikh youth became much better versed in calculus and chemistry than in the liberal arts.

I consider myself lucky, having had the chance to pursue an unorthodox professional path. Before working in management and consulting, I was able to study the constitutional development of the western world while in college.

Having studied successful economic and political institutions, it has become evident to me that Sikh institutions lack the ability to educate and engage my generation. And I believe the application of liberal democratic principles can largely remedy these institutional shortcomings.

The best historical parallel to illustrate my point is the beginning of America's constitutional development. America's first attempt at government, the Articles of Confederation, lacked the ability to collect taxes, organize a single army, or practically reach consensus. As a result, individual states pursued their own interests rather than uniting under common purpose.
To create a more workable social contract, the American Framers first embraced liberalism, loosely defined as limited government. They engineered a federal government centralized enough to tax and raise one army but one that afforded citizens a plethora of individual liberties. They also adopted a presidential form of democratic rule, convinced that laws would be accepted more broadly if people representing varying factions would be forced to compromise.

Interestingly enough, Sikhs today are organized similarly to the early American settlers.
Individually, Sikhs have largely lived out the American dream. To the credit of our parents and the economic opportunities available to us, we have become powerhouses in the worlds of medicine, finance, and law. Taking full advantage of a robust civil society, Sikh nonprofits have individually made important progress in protecting our religious liberties and educating the broader public on Sikhism.

However, Sikh institutions, similar to the Articles of Confederation, are proving ineffective due to their inability to establish and execute common goals.

Unlike the Catholic Church, Sikhism has no standard religious curriculum the equivalent of catechism taught in Punjabi class. This creates large, unquantifiable knowledge gaps amongst Sikh youth. Unlike other faiths, there is no religious training required to be become a Bhia Saabs, a Sikh priest. This makes it difficult to verify if council given in Gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, is complete and accurate.

Most importantly, Sikhs have no clearly defined procedures to influence a common agenda with Akal Tukt Sahib, the Supreme Court and highest worldly authority in Sikhism. This makes the larger Sikh population detached and sometimes distrustful of those who speak for our faith.

It is to be expected that Sikhs vary in their degree of religiosity, as is the case with all people of faith. But it is hard to deny that successful organizations, whether secular or religious, have large-scale plans in place to educate and engage their members in ways that Sikh institutions have not.

Accordingly, I believe the mis-allocation of our worldly resources can be fixed by embracing liberal democratic principles. In the spirit of liberalism, we need to establish common education goals while encouraging grassroots innovation and participation. In the tradition of presidential democracy, we need transparent democratic processes that link governing progress to principled compromise.

Only an overarching institution answering to all Sikhs can enact such reforms. No individual person or nonprofit, however well-intentioned or competent, has the scale or consent to do so.
In my view, the only credible way to enact these institutional reforms is to host some kind of constitutional convention, similar to the one held at America's founding. The exact requirements for Sikh education, the financial mechanisms to fund them, and the overall agenda for Sikh progress can only be reached through vigorous debate amongst a diverse collection of Sikhs.

Being a student of public policy, I am aware that compromise can be an excruciating process, whether it is in Washington D.C. or in a local gurdwara.

Frankly though, it is doable in our generation's lifetime. We do not carry the burden of starting over in a new country like our parents, or enduring the hardship of colonialism like our grandparents. We have the luxury and the duty to give Sikhism a great debate over the ordering our religious institutions to achieve common purpose.

Sikhism's experience with modernization is unique, but the challenges of effective administration are not new to human development. It is my hope that Sikhs recognize the need to reform our institutions in the tradition of liberal democracy in order to move our faith forward.