BILLBOARD PRESENTATION

PA STATE HUMAN RELATIONS COMMISSION

INTER AGENCY TASK FORCE FOR CIVIL TENSIONS MEETING 10/26/06

I wish to thank the Pennsylvania State Human Relations Commission for their speedy response to convene this meeting of the Inter Agency Task Force for Civil Tensions to consider the unfortunate incident of defacing and vandalisation, on or about Sep 23, 2006, of a Billboard that had been placed by the World Sikh Syndicate, a mid state Sikh group along 78 [N] between exits 15 & 16.

My sincere thanks also to Chair and Members of the Commission as also representatives of various Agencies for their interest and for taking time out to attend this hearing. I am also deeply appreciative of the support of Pennsylvania Interfaith Alliance for their support to the Sikh community and for Chairman Rabbi Choper to bring this matter to the notice of the Commission.

I also thank Ms Mickey Singh, A Sikh activist, who with the help of her fellow members in Unity Group filed the initial report on the incident with the Commission.

A FEW WORDS ON SIKHS

I seek your indulgence for a few moments to say some thing about Sikhs and Sikhism. Sikh faith founded in India by Guru Nanak in 15th century has over 22 million adherents’ worldwide. Around 500,000 of them live in the US scattered across the country. They have a history of over a hundred years in the country with their initial immigration to CA. The first Sikh Gurdwara was established in Stockton around 1912. A Sikh, Duleep Singh won election to the US Congress in 1956. Spoony Singh who set up the wax museum at LA was a Sikh and died only a couple of days at age 83. Sikhs have been productive citizens of the country and possibly all precincts would endorse their record as law-abiding community.

Sikhs are a monotheistic faith believing in a loving, sustaining God who takes care of and provides for all the creation. All humans are children of the same God, equal in His eyes and this life is their unique opportunity to merge with the Divine. Spiritual ascent has to be pursued living our normal lives, doing our daily chores, facing real problems without recourse to celibacy, withdrawal, denial or austerities. The persuasion is to work hard even as one’s mind is prayerfully attuned to the Divine; take responsibility for self and family and share some with the needy. Quest for liberation then is not personal but in a sense collective – made possible when Divine grace descends.

The Sikh scripture has an interfaith character. It contains not only the compositions of Sikh Gurus but also the writings of holy persons who were practicing Hindus, Muslim Sufis, and Shudhra saints. The faith accepts multiplicity of paths to connect with the Supreme Reality. No body is denied access to Sikh Gurdwaras or other institutions for being a non-Sikh. Sikhs therefore tend to be respectful of other faiths, are gregarious by nature and would invariably be found to be helpful in a difficult situation even at personal risk. I would not claim that all can or do live by these precepts but most try.

THE INCIDENT

My understanding is that a picture of the defaced billboard showing the tell tale marks of attempted arson and hate graffiti written on it was attached to the email sent by Rabbi Choper to the Commission. I hope the Members of the Task Force and Commissioners have had a chance to look at that picture.

This picture shows the Billboard to have an image of a Sikh male and the following message:

SIKHISM
FREEDOM EQUALITY JUSTICE
ONE GOD

The graffiti written on the billboard consist of a bunch of cryptic hate phrases using four letter profanities directed at Arabs [and Allah] and the words Jesus Saves. It is clear that the Billboard was misperceived to be associated with Muslim terrorism as opposed to its intent to bring clarity on Sikh identity.

I ask you to ponder at the fact that the sign was placed at a pretty high elevation along a busy highway and therefore it would have taken quite some determination and effort on the part of the writer of graffiti to get up there and pen the message – a sure indicator of the depth and intensity of negative emotions felt by the individual. This recognition calls for a sober assessment of the possible negative potential that such emotions could have as flash point for more egregious disruption in another situation.

MEDIA RESPONSE

Considering that there was no violence or loss of life the response of TV stations was encouraging. My approach to Fox 43, CBS and NBC received quick response. Fox crew came over and interviewed me on 26th afternoon and their report appeared in the nightly 10 O’clock news. CBS and NBC assigned their crews and would have likely filmed their interviews on the 27th but by then the Billboard had been taken down and that seemed to dampen their interest even though I did furnish them the picture you have seen.

Shivinder Athwal told me that channel 69 TV also covered the incident in their news in Allentown area.

I also spoke with a Radio station listed in the yellow pages who told me this subject may best be handled by Brian Wade, a TV and Radio host and that he would ask him to get in touch with me. Brian did that and I was guest at his one-hour radio program on Oct 12th. He is likely to cover the incident on his TV 49 show also in the coming days.

Patriot News was very co-operative in covering the incident. I sent in my op-ed piece to the Editor, copied to Mary Warner on Sep 29th. Mary took interest and I connected her with Shivinder Athwal to get information. Her report saying that ‘Sikhs have sometimes been harassed since the terrorist attacks in 2001 because some people confuse the Sikh turban with the one worn by Osama Bin Laden’ came out on Oct 4th.

My op-ed piece was published on Oct 9th – with Patriot News adding in a file sketch of an early Sikh immigrant circa 1916 wearing his turban and neatly supported facial hair. This was a thoughtful embellishment by the Newspaper.

The paper also published letters to the Editor by Rev Cynthia Maria, Interfaith Center of Greater Harrisburg, Middletown and by Rev John Lamb, Pastor, Our Savior Lutheran Church, Harrisburg. The letters expressed disapproval of the incident and expressed empathy and solidarity with the Sikh community in their right to live here in our nation without harassment.

Omer Bin Abdullah Editor, Islamic Horizons Magazine evinced interest and got in touch with me through Mary Warner. I also understand from Shivinder Athwal that Reading Eagle had published a report on the incident soon after its occurrence.

INTER FAITH GROUPS RESPONSE

I was to speak on Sikhism at the meeting of PIA on Sep 26th when I took the opportunity to apprise them of the incident. The meeting was unanimous in condemning the incident and asked Rabbi Carl Choper, Chair PIA to take follow up action. Rabbi Choper sent out his thought provoking and powerful message on Oct 4th saying “Ever since September 11, 2001 many Sikhs have experienced discrimination and harassment – – – When I saw this picture it immediately occurred to me that it was not only an attack upon the Sikh community. On a basic level it is an attack upon the whole idea of a multicultural society – – – I am sending this out to you for your information and possible action. In particular, since Christianity is the dominant tradition in our society and because Christianity was invoked in this instance in such an ugly fashion, I would hope Christian communities might find a way to tell the world how offensive this is.”

The letter evoked considerable response and messages of support were received from Joan Broadfield, Peace & Justice Coordinator, PYM, Ron Edins, David Weisberg, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg, Brooks Mountcastle” bmountcastle@conservefish.org,  “Diana Henne” <dianahenne@blazenet.net>  and Jeffery D. Roman Assistant Regional Director Anti-Defamation League.

We are thankful to all of the above and several others who have expressed their distress in person at this unfortunate incident to me and several other Sikhs.

PUTTING THE PROBLEM IN CONTEXT

Sikhs did experience certain amount of prejudice even prior to 9/11. Following 9/11, Sikhs started experiencing heightened incidence of harassment, taunts, vandalisation of property and even some incidents of arson at Gurdwaras. A Sikh was shot dead in Phoenix, Arizona in a rage of hatred against terrorists. Since then Sikhs seem to have become the main target of hate crimes.

On their part Sikhs have been trying to reach out to the mainstream to correct the problem of mistaken identity. Thanks also to interventions by several groups law enforcement agencies have become more sensitive to various religious and ethnic identities and Sikh experience about their being profiled is possibly becoming less frequent.

Nonetheless the findings of a study by the Discrimination and National Security Initiative [DNSI], an affiliate of the Pluralism Project at Harvard shows that five years after 9/11 Sikhs continue to live in fear. Its report written by June Han infers that among the South Asian community, 15% of Hindus are concerned about their safety compared to 41% of Pakistani Muslims and 64% of Sikhs. As many as 83% of Sikh respondents said that they or some one they knew had personally experienced a hate crime.

A Sikh group also conducted a survey in late 2005in DC area to gauge awareness about them in the mainstream and came up with dismal feedback documented in a short film titled “The Sikhs on the Street”. My own experience at Lebanon Valley College on Oct 9th where I was invited speaker to their World Religions class bears it out. I asked the students if any of them had had any awareness about Sikhs or Sikhism. Their blank stare only corroborated the DC findings.

This leads one to conclude that there are limits to what can be accomplished thru Sikh efforts at creating awareness about themselves. Another inference is that such incidents have introduced unmerited tensions and insecurities in the lives of average Sikhs.

Looking back it would seem that security agencies and media gravitated to a blur and caricature created imagery that was not demoralizing like the images of crumbling twin towers and yet reminded people of the present and imminent danger that we faced. Some politicians also made comments against persons with towels around their heads. The stereotype therefore seems to have come about through a set of circumstantial factors playing out in the public domain and the media.

Even though this happened at the time unbeknown of its potential to endanger safety of person and property of the Sikh population, experience over the course of last five years leaves no doubt that this stereotype indeed is creating such a problem. 

ACTION CHOICES

I submit that to address the underlying causes we consider taking several steps within the ambit of promoting our pluralistic societal structure. I will therefore attempt to list a few choices to get the ball rolling.

While Sikhs, notwithstanding magnitude of the task, tardy results and occasional eruption of hate incidents should persevere with their outreach efforts they should work in concert with interfaith groups, other voluntary agencies, churches to be more effective.

Some initiatives by the Commission and Agencies represented here might help in some of the following disseminative measures that could help alleviate the situation:

  • Schools are encouraged to draw reference to and clear this misconception when discussing topics relating to Sep 11, terrorism and the like. A package like ‘The Sikh Next Door (SND) Celebrating America’s Diversity in the Classroom’ a Standards-based social studies curriculum package for grades 6-12 could help.
  • Community colleges and colleges in State Universities be likewise encouraged to include reference to Sikhs in their curricula; presently we may find that other subjects apart, Sikhs are not even mentioned when teaching World Religions class in most course offerings.
  • Sensitivity training of public service agencies employees, schoolteachers, academic and administrative staff at Community colleges and State Universities, healthcare services professionals and the like.
  • State and local Governments suggest adding reference to Sikhs to the content for diversity training where such training is advised.
  • Most importantly media, especially TV, persuaded to help correct the unwitting misperception this stereotype is causing by voluntary, appropriate and continuing measures.

Thank you.

Nirmal Singh,

182 Red Haven Road,

New Cumberland, PA 17070

[717] 932 0xxx

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