Sikhs feel misunderstood, at risk since 9/11

Faith centered on equality and openness

Sikhs held a vigil at the New England Gurdwara Sahib in Milford Monday for the victims of the Wisconsin attack.
Sikhs held a vigil at the New England Gurdwara Sahib in Milford Monday for the victims of the Wisconsin attack.YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF/Boston Globe

The Sikh gurdwara in ­Everett, a house of worship that draws about 300 to weekly services, was locked Monday.

A day after a gunman opened fire in a Wisconsin ­gurdwara, killing six people and wounding three, anyone wishing to enter the Everett worship space had to be let in.

It was a sad moment for the gurdwara, said Mohan Saini, chairman of the Boston Sikh Sangat Society. In keeping with a faith centered on egalitarianism, community, and charity, the doors are normally open from morning till evening, and strangers are welcome.

“That is the beauty of this religion; there is no discrimination,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what color you are, what religion — you feel like going to the gurdwara, the door is open. We serve food to whoever comes inside the temple, and you don’t pay for it.”


Sikhism, a major religion with about 25 million adherents worldwide, remains little known and widely misunderstood in the United States, where turban-wearing Sikh men are often mistaken for Muslims. In fact, said Harpreet Singh, a doctoral student in ­religion at Harvard University, nearly all people who wear ­turbans in the United States are Sikhs.

“We don’t want to say, ‘We are not Muslims,’ because that has the implication of, ‘Don’t ­attack us; attack them,’ ” he said.

But, he said, it has been difficult for American Sikhs to ­articulate the tenets of their faith to the media and the wider public. “It’s really just an ­education issue more than anything else,” he said.

Some of the estimated 500,000 Sikhs in America — includ­ing, by Singh’s reckoning, about 2,000 families in Greater Boston — are converts, but the vast majority trace their roots to Punjab, in what is now Northern India, where the faith arose about 500 years ago.

“Historically and geographically, it falls between the Hindu and Islamic traditions,” said Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh, a Colby College professor, who is not related to Harpreet Singh.


Sikhs are monotheists who believe in one God who is without form or gender and who looks upon creation as one, Harpreet Singh said. The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak — the first of 10 gurus who developed and spread the faith between the 16th and 18 centuries — enjoined his followers to sit and eat together in a religious setting without ­regard to class distinction.

The practice, which is still followed after weekly worship services today, was a radical ­notion in 16th-century India with its entrenched caste system, Harpreet Singh said.

“It brought Sikhs into conflict with both Hindu and ­Muslim ruling elite at that time,” he said.

Turbans were reserved for nobility then, he said; Sikhs wore them to signify that they were answerable only to their own conscience and to the ­divine.

Sikhism also did away with the priestly class, he said, though most contemporary gurdwaras hire readers and trained musicians. Many observant men take the surname Singh and women take the last name Kaur to eliminate caste associations.

The writings of the first 10 gurus, along with those of other spiritual figures, contributed to the Guru Granth Sahib, the religion’s sacred text.

Sikhs believe they must be engaged in the world and work hard, said Kaur Singh, of Colby College. By keeping divine reality in mind at all times through meditation and prayer and by living virtuously, they strive to erase divisions between sacred and secular, Kaur Singh said.


“There’s a lovely verse in Sikh scripture: ‘Truth is higher than everything, but higher still is true living,’ ” Kaur Singh said.

Sikhs wear five articles of faith that identify them as followers: uncut hair, a comb to keep it tidy, a bracelet that symbolizes the unity of the divine, a small sword as a symbol of freedom and autonomy, and an under­garment to promote ­hygiene and respect for the body.

Sikhs must avoid adultery and intoxicants such as alcohol or tobacco. They eschew superstition and empty ritual and ­observe certain dietary rules.

The first wave of Sikhs immi­grated to British Columbia in Canada more than a century ago, Harpreet Singh said; they soon became involved in the railroad and logging industries along the West Coast.

A second wave arrived in the late 1960s and early 1970s when a relaxation of immigration rules opened the doors for a large influx of professionals, mostly doctors and engineers, he said. A third group of largely blue-collar refugees followed outbreaks of anti-Sikh violence in India in 1984; and in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a fourth wave of high-tech workers ­arrived.

Kulvir Mangat, a trustee of the Everett gurdwara, said Sikhs make significant donations to charity by giving away 10 percent of what they earn.

“We always contribute wherever it’s needed,” she said.

The motivations of the ­Wisconsin gunman, a former soldier authorities say may be linked to racist groups, remain unclear.


But many Sikhs have felt more vulnerable since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The first victim of anti-Muslim violence following the attacks was a Sikh from Arizona.

“The news is really reverberating through every Sikh-
American home right now,” said Valarie Kaur, who has documented the violence against Sikhs and Muslims after 9/11 in her film, “Divided We Fall.’’ “This is a deeply personal tragedy for people.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.