Our VoiceCulture

Again, the Town Square

Guest Blogger • Feb 19, 2009

By Paul Russell

With a transforming worldview and new administration, Americans are hungry to redefine the middle-ground of the dynamic between church and state. Almost everyone, outside of President George Bush’s fundamentalist-base, feels ignored and hurt. The fact is that the U.S. is home to growing religious populations. Increasingly, these faithful Americans live in an environment that dismisses them from fully participating in the social, political and economic spheres. The landscape is ripe for increasing intolerance and violence towards our neighbors.

Recently, in Queens, NY, Jasmir and a friend were walking home. A few young men taunted them, threatening to cut Jasmir’s hair. Because of Jasmir’s Sikh identity, he keeps his unshorn hair in a bun atop his head. Jasmir fled to the nearest store; “Call the police!” The young aggressors pulled him back outside and delivered a brutal assault.

One boy stabbed Jasmir in the eye with a broken glass bottle.

As one of the most rapidly increasing minority religious groups in the U.S., Sikhs are at the intersection of growing religious populations and an American secular renaissance. Even as religious diversity grows fewer Americans feel that religion should have any presence in our political discourse.

These growing trends and my personal experience suggest that secular-American dogma will progressively ostracize its small but growing religious communities.

In the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, it was a practicing Sikh, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was first killed, based on his identity. Sikhs are regularly mis-identified as Muslims or Arabs. They are taunted with ‘Osama bin-Laden!’ or ‘Terrorist!’ by their fellow Americans. Last year, a young boy’s turban was lit on fire at school. The Sikh community cultivates its spiritual pursuits without proselytizing; alleviates fundamental human needs, like hunger, through service; promotes an egalitarian society. But as far as dispelling prejudices go, it has its work cut out for it.

We all came to this country fleeing persecution and seeking opportunity. Today’s immigrants increasingly encounter hostile attitudes towards religion in society and politics: in these spheres, religion is considered taboo. What if your religious commitments demand you wear a turban? What if your state frowns upon your religious display?

In France, dogmatic secularism drove a ban on wearing any religious symbols in state-run schools. Young Sikhs, the children of 2nd class citizens, are forced to pay for a private education. Some flee the country. The French ban which strives for egalitarianism actually penalizes a minority group. (After all, how could a ban ever be egalitarian?)

We can learn from the mistakes of individuals and countries that actively silence community members just because of their religious identity. A purely secular approach to our nation’s growth will not realize a pluralistic and tolerant society.

Paul serves as the Director of Development for The Sikh Coalition - a New York City based non-profit. Paul spent two years in Kazakhstan, serving in the Peace Corps. He attained a Master of Arts in Sustainable Development where he spent a year in Sri Lanka, investigating the multi-dimensional aspects of poverty and the livelihoods of women. He is a retired jazz musician, hiked the Appalachian Trail and received the President’s Volunteer Service Award. Paul resides in Sugar Hill, Harlem and works to secure a just and sustainable world.
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