Opinion

Often persecuted and wrongly profiled, Sikhs among most patriotic Americans

Sikhs in Boise and U.S. say: “We are Americans.”

Though Mehar and Paramvir Singh of Boise are U.S citizens, their ethnicity and outward expressions of their faith often result in more intense scrutiny from people who don't understand their Sikh religion and who wrongly profile them as would-be t
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Though Mehar and Paramvir Singh of Boise are U.S citizens, their ethnicity and outward expressions of their faith often result in more intense scrutiny from people who don't understand their Sikh religion and who wrongly profile them as would-be t

So far this year we’ve witnessed gunmen shoot first and ask questions later as they targeted innocent people who didn’t fit the physical description of what they consider “American.”

“Go back to your own country,” was the message a Sikh man in Kent, Wash., heard Friday during an altercation at his home — which ended with him shot in the arm. The suspect apparently drove a pickup, brandished a gun and took aim at the Sikh man possibly because of his beard and turban. No arrests so far by police or the FBI, which has been called in to help determine whether this was a hate crime.

Last week’s shooting came just after a man from India was killed and another wounded in a shooting at an Olathe, Kan., establishment. Mistaking the two men for Iranians, the suspect was heard to shout “get out of my country” before firing at the employees of a local tech company.

I can’t know the cowardly motivation of someone who would shoot unarmed people. But I do know this kind of thing has been going on for far too long.

Both Sikhs — pronounced Sic — and people from India have been choosing to become U.S. citizens for generations. Though I am not as familiar with emigration from India to the U.S., I came to know a Sikh community in central California that established itself on American soil more than 125 years ago. I can tell you that the United States is their country and the Sikhs I have met are as patriotic and invested in the freedom and prosperity we cherish as any other Americans.

Do some of them look different? Yes. Observant Sikhs — a religion dating to the 15th century in the Punjab region of what is now modern India — manifest their religion by displaying several articles of faith, according to the the website of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund: kesh (uncut hair), covered by a turban, kara (a steel bracelet), kirpan (a religious sword), kachha (undershorts) and kanga (a comb). The Sikh defense fund estimates that 700,000 Sikhs live in the U.S. — though probably only dozens in Idaho.

I learned that some of the Sikhs in California arrived as early as the late 1800s and established a temple, or “gurdwara,” in Stockton in 1913. As a congressional staff member, I came to know and befriend several Sikhs who were active in business and politics. Their ancestors began as did many others who came to America seeking jobs and a better life — building the railroads and farming, eventually buying and developing agricultural tracts.

Sadly, I learned of the persecution the Sikhs have endured throughout history — and tragically, time after time in the U.S. After the 9/11 attacks Sikhs were murdered and abused because some mistook them for Middle Eastern terrorists. While I served in a Sacramento congressional office in 2011, two Sikh grandfathers out on a walk were gunned down in broad daylight — a likely hate crime that has never been solved. A year later, six Sikhs were killed by a political extremist while they worshiped in their Wisconsin temple.

The recent shooting in Kent and the vandalism of a Spokane, Wash., temple a year ago have kept Sikhs on edge throughout the Northwest.

Mehar Singh and his son, Paramvir Singh, are members of a Sikh family in the Treasure Valley who are in the restaurant business. Though neither has ever been the victim of a hateful incident, they live their lives feeling ostracized at times.

Paramvir and a younger brother decided to cut their hair after 9/11 and stop wearing their turbans because they did not want to be the targets of miscreants. Though the restaurant where they work has been successful, Paramvir Singh said he had to close a small-town business elsewhere in the Treasure Valley “because people thought of me as a Muslim.”

Paramvir’s sister, Simranjit Kaur, is a deputy district attorney in San Joaquin County, Calif. Their father is still nearly always pulled out of airport security lines so he can be searched, patted down and asked to remove his turban.

The Singhs and most other Sikhs just wish they could be accepted for who they are: peaceful and patriotic Americans. They agree to be interviewed so that one day that might come true.

“Help us make people understand,” said Paramvir. “My father asks if you could please run this article every six months.”

Robert Ehlert: 208-377-6437, @IDS_HelloIdaho

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