John L. Esposito: Obama’s Trip to India: Sikhs Are Not Muslims
Talk about losing faith.
News that President Obama may skip a visit to the Golden Temple, the holy shrine to millions of Sikhs on his upcoming trip to India, is a sign of the confused times in which we find ourselves.
Part of the requirement for entering the Golden Temple — a sprawling and serene complex of polished marble that is the spiritual center of the Sikh religion — is that men must cover their heads. Their head-covering has to include a knot because tying carries a spiritual significance.
President Obama may reportedly skip the visit to avoid covering his head and being confused as “a Muslim”! A recent poll found that 20 percent of Americans still believe that Obama, a Christian, is actually Muslim.
Skipping the Golden Temple would be counterproductive on so many levels. Such an action would hurt or even offend Sikhs and Muslims and give in to the staggering religious illiteracy that plagues most of America, when, ironically, Americans are a religious bunch. Boston University’s Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero wrote in Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know that ignorance is perilous because religion carries the double-edged sword of being a force for evil while also having the capacity for enormous good. To be religiously illiterate is to short-change one’s self and society.
Sikhism is a major world religion with more adherents worldwide than Judaism. According to the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, there are 250,000 Sikhs in the U.S. and 252 temples or guruwaras and religious centers. It has a belief structure that draws from Hinduism and Sikhism, but it is a distinct religion. Sikhs are easily distinguishable from the population since the practicing Sikh men wear turbans and beards.
Since the 9/11 attacks, Sikhs in the U.S. have been targets of anti-Muslim discrimination and violence. When a Sikh was killed in Arizona a few days after the attack on the World Trade Center, it was because someone mistook him for a Muslim. In New York after the attacks, cab drivers posted bumper stickers that read, “I am not a Muslim.”
Sikhs continued to launch public-awareness campaigns, but the real issue is that the wave of Islamophobia sweeping across the U.S. is expanding its reach and claiming new victims. The White House is missing a “teachable moment” to advance interfaith relations and literacy. Statistics from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 38 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam, compared to 30 percent who reported a positive view. The Washington Post found that almost half (48 percent) of those polled have an unfavorable view of Islam. Other studies show similar findings and give rise to concerns that interfaith efforts in the U.S. are moving in a negative direction.
It is true that many Americans know very little about Islam, Sikhism or even Hinduism, but we shouldn’t be comfortable there. We have to remember that America is a multicultural and multi-religious society — no matter what others might want to believe.
Building a true interfaith community requires hard work and vision. President Obama will be traveling to India to bolster ties with Prime Minister Singh, himself a practicing Sikh. However, before he arrives, newspaper articles are already emphasizing that Obama’s bypassing Amritsar is as much about not wanting to cover his head and feed rumors that he is a Muslim. This may also send the message that being Sikh is the same as being Muslim, and both are bad.
Let’s hope the president reconsiders.
Muslims aren’t the enemy. Neither are Sikhs. But ignorance and prejudice are!
John L. Esposito is University Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He is co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, and author of the newly released book The Future of Islam (2010). Sheila B. Lalwani is a Research Fellow at the Center.