Last weekend's brutal attack on Prabhjot Singh, a young Sikh professor at Columbia University who has campaigned against bias, is just the latest symptom of a society infected by hate.
Since Sept 11th, the Sikh community has stepped up its efforts to educate the general public about our faith, but we cannot compete against a media and a culture which breeds hatred and violence against "others."
Those who committed this horrendous act and the uncounted others against Sikhs in this country and around the world -- classified as mistaken identity -- may not be concerned about who their victims are; they have been educated to lash out at anyone who is different.
Sikhs have bent over backwards not to say "Don't hit us, we are not Muslims," so as not to condone Muslim bashing. However, for the most part, the rest of the world has been quite content to have the Sikhs as their fall guys. Tracking hate crimes against Sikhs is just one small, but important piece, to recognize Sikhs' distinctive appearance.
Historically, Sikhs have been known as champions rather than a persecuted minority. There was an expression, "A Sikh has come, now we can sleep peacefully." The great philosopher and former President of India, S. Radhakrishnan, remarked, that modern India owes its existence to Guru Gobind Singh and the Sikhs. Not simply because they stopped the terrorist invasions and created a Kingdom at peace, but because the political extension of their teachings "recognize all people as one human race," under-girded a pluralistic, democratic order, in which people of all faiths and classes lived side by side. Guru Granth Sahib, revered as the Eternal Guru, opens with the numeral "1," so there can be no confusion that regardless of the myriad names we use and forms of prayer, it is the same One from which we all came, to whom we return, and the same Spirit which dwells within all Creation. Equally important is the call to serve all humanity -- "everyone is part of my community, I see no one as an outsider."
Ours is a Turban for Peace -- it stands for everyone's rights to pray publicly or in private (or not pray) without fear of persecution, it stands for the rights of the poor, the downtrodden, the elderly, and those who our modern world has marginalized, to feel part of community again.
It is ironic that Sikhs, as one of the most visible people of faith, are invisible to the majority of people.
While public education may be the solution, our education system bears a large share of the blame. Sikhism is the 5th largest religion in the world, yet our institutions still proudly proclaim the 5 major religions. Well-meaning interfaith and ecumenical groups often perpetuate a pantheon of symbols which exclude Sikhism. This funnels down to text books, which at best have Sikhs as a footnote.
When asked, the response is so often heard, "we can't include everyone." But "everyone" is not subject to continuous attacks because of the ignorance perpetuated by these scholars. I would like to hold every scholar and publisher culpable who excludes Sikhism from their curriculum and books.
I've spent my life educating children (and adults) about bullying -- and nurturing a culture in which we honor diversity by sharing each others' stories. We have a state law, as most do, about bullying -- and while schools are complying, what about the rest of us? What about the media?
Following 9-11, our temple, Gobind Sadan, USA, north of Syracuse was the first victim of an attack on a religious house of worship. Kids got drunk and mistook our turbans for followers of bin Laden and torched the place.
We forgave them, with a powerful statement from Baba Virsa Singh ji channeled through me, and transformed their lives and changed much of the culture in our region from one of hatred to a possible peace. Today wherever I go, people still remember, "You are the ones who forgave those children, you are the ones whose Holy Book didn't burn."
One of the key points in deterring bullying is to understand there is no such thing as an "innocent bystander." Any student who witnesses a bullying incident and does nothing is subject to the new law. And the use of media (social or otherwise) to incite bullying is a crime.
We are all bystanders because we are too busy to stop what we're doing to say, "I've had enough."
As a people and a country we are at a critical crossroads. If we are to survive and flourish we must overcome this climate of fear and the hatred it spawns.
While we are focused on common core and dignity in schools, let us not forget that the media is the textbook for the masses -- and if we don't focus on blunting messages of hatred we will continue to tear our country apart.