Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that traces its roots back to the Indian state of Punjab. The faith has been part of America’s religious landscape for over 125 years. Despite this long history, Sikhs have often experienced discrimination in America.
The rising tide of Islamophobia has added another layer of complexity to this issue. In the years since September 11, Sikh Americans have been subjected to hate crimes, harassment, and racial profiling. Some people mistakenly assume that Sikhs are Muslims because of the turbans that some Sikh men and women wear.
In a sketch for “The Daily Show,” comedian Hasan Minhaj assembled a panel of experts to try to figure out how to combat this prejudice. Minhaj, a Muslim, jokingly suggested that Sikhs should try harder to distance themselves from Muslims.
“Come on, I mean even Barack Obama was like, ‘Hey, I’m not a Muslim,'” Minhaj said in the clip. “If I were you, I would throw me under the bus so fast.”
Designer and actor Waris Ahluwalia, who claimed he was kicked off a flight in February because of his turban, told Minhaj that this wasn’t an option.
“That’s not the way I was raised,” Ahluwalia said in the clip. “That’s why I wear this turban, as a reminder to myself to treat humanity with care and kindness. I’m not here to point fingers…Hasan, you need to lead with love.”
The turban, or dastaar, is actually a symbol of equality for many Sikhs. There was a time in ancient Punjab, where the faith was founded, when the turban was only worn by kings and royalty as a sign of class status. But the founders of the Sikh religion believed deeply in the equality and royalty of all people, regardless of their socioeconomic background.
Studies have shown that some Americans are still ignorant about the significance of the turban within Sikhism. In a survey commissioned by the National Sikh Campaign (NSC) in 2014, only 11 percent of respondents associated an image of a turbaned man with Sikhism. On the other hand, about 20 percent said that the man was Muslim and 28 percent said that he was of Middle Eastern descent — even though the majority of Sikhs are of Indian descent.
The statistics suggest that attacks against Sikhs are often thinly-veiled racism against all brown folk. In fact, the federal government has investigated over 800 incidents since September 11, 2001 involving violence, threats, vandalism and arson against “Arab-Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South-Asian Americans and other individuals perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin.”
In the end, the Sikhs on Minhaj’s panel believed that instead of trying to distance themselves from their Muslim neighbors, it was better to stand in solidarity with them.
Simran Jeet Singh, an Assistant Professor at Trinity University who was featured in the clip, called the segment a “historic” piece for the Sikh community and hopes it will create awareness about his faith.
“In addition to learning about what it’s like to be a Sikh in modern America, people will also learn about our ethics and our values, including why we are committed to standing against anti-Muslim sentiment, even if it makes our own lives more difficult,” Singh told The Huffington Post.
Watch the segment on Sikhism above.