By JOE GRIMM
MSU School of Journalism Professor of the Bias Busters program
Shortly after we published our new Bias Buster’s guide 100 Questions and Answers about Sikh Americans, suddenly Americans were reading about abusive treatment of Sikhs as some asylum seekers were forced to take off their turbans by border agents.
The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff reported on August 3, Border officials investigating claims Sikh turbans were confiscated. Miroff reported:
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sent a letter Monday to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus saying the organization since June has documented almost 50 cases in which agents confiscated turbans, denouncing the seizures as “ongoing, serious religious-freedom violations.”U.S. Customs and Border Protection is investigating a new chapter in the complicated story that is immigration on the United States’ southern border.
This now has become an international news story as The Independent’s Josh Marcus followed up on January 6 and reported for his audience in the UK, and around the world: Border Patrol threw away ‘hundreds’ of Sikh migrants’ turbans and told them they could ‘starve’. Marcus reported:
The mistreatment of Sikh migrants at the US-Mexico border is reportedly much more widespread than previously thought. US Customs and Border Patrol agents in multiple sectors have allegedly thrown hundreds of sacred turbans belonging to Sikh border-crossers in the trash, and denied migrants religiously mandated vegetarian meals.
These incidents involve persecution of Sikhs, whose religion, Sikhi, originated in Punjab, India. These experiences of mistreatment at border centers involve both the turbans Sikh men wear and dietary restrictions in their tradition. The turbans signify their religious affiliation and keep their hair, which must be uncut, neat.
Tragically, now, questions are being asked that should have been asked and answered long ago. Who did these border agents think they were detaining? What did they know about Sikhs?
Questions are what we anticipated when a journalism class at Michigan State University created 100 Questions and Answers About Sikh Americans: The Beliefs Behind the Articles of Faith. This guide, published in July 2022, is one in a series of Bias Busters guides intended to increase cultural competence by answering basic questions.
First, a little background. Sikhi is the world’s fifth largest religion with about 25 million people worldwide. It is a newer religion than the larger ones: Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Sikhi, as it is officially known, or Sikhism, was founded in South Asian by a series of gurus.
This is how this Bias Busters guide begins to describe their beliefs:
“’Sikh’ means a disciple, student or learner. Sikhs pursue salvation through the message of God as revealed by the gurus, which promotes prayer and selfless service. Sikhs believe in one God who created the universe. All beings are equal and a part of this entity. Sikhism rejects discrimination based on gender, creed or social standing.”
So, it is cruelly ironic that when some Sikhs reach the United States, fleeing religious discrimination in India, they are greeted with more humiliation.
On Aug. 9, the Sikh Coalition, the faith’s largest American civil rights organization, wrote to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The letter said:
“Sikhs wear an external uniform to unify and bind themselves to the religion’s beliefs and to remind them of their commitment to Sikh teachings at all times. All Sikhs are required to wear external articles of faith, such as a steel bracelet (kara), uncut hair and beards (kesh), and a turban (dastaar) to cover their hair. These articles of faith distinguish a Sikh, have deep spiritual significance, and are mandated by Sikhs’ religious traditions and should not be forcibly removed or discarded.
“… The removal of the turban—which Sikhs view as an extension of their body—is highly personal and sensitive and is akin to a strip search. It is considered a great dishonor for anyone to violate another’s turban by removing it, and it is highly disrespectful to touch it with unwashed hands or by anyone who does not adhere to the tenets of the faith. Forcibly removing or targeting a Sikh’s turban or hair has symbolized denying that person the right to belong to the Sikh faith and is perceived by many as the most humiliating and hurtful physical and spiritual injury that can be inflicted upon a Sikh.”
People at the Sikh Coalition were allies on the 100 Questions and Answers About Sikh Americans guide, advising even before the class began. Then, they and others read it for accuracy. Once again in this border case, the more than 500,000 Sikh people in the United States are viewed through a lens of what is done to them rather than who they are and what they believe.
100 Questions and Answers About Sikh Americans frames Sikhs in their beliefs, ideals, history and practices, rather than in a defensive posture reacting to the most recent discrimination that has long been part of their reality.
To understand what is happening to Sikhs in Arizona and in the United States, we must first understand them. Please consider ordering your own copy of this new guidebook about Sikh Americans and, better yet, share this news and a guide with friends and colleagues.