DIY Faith Opinion Simran Jeet Singh: Articles of Faith

Why Sikhs don’t throw Muslims under the bus

People hold up a banner during a 'Unity Vigil' against racism and Islamophobia, backdropped by the gates of Downing Street in London, on March 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

(RNS) — Earlier this month I published a column on what I learned teaching Islamic studies in Texas. As I’ve come to expect from all my columns, this one was met with quite a bit of positivity — and also with quite a bit of hate mail. Some accused me of selling out my Sikh roots, others called me a terrorist sympathizer; others, still, called me some very not nice things. Let’s just say that my block button was even more active than usual on Twitter last week.

In response to the misguided messages, I would like to share some thoughts on the anti-Muslim hate Sikhs endure and why I, along with many other Sikhs I know, continue to stand as allies to our Muslim sisters and brothers.

First, I will note that although Sikhs aren’t Muslim, we remain frequent targets of anti-Muslim violence. Other scholars and I refer to the process that produces the negative feelings animating this violence as “racialization.” This process ties directly to how people perceive our visible identity, including our beards, turbans, and brown skin.

Most people in the world don’t know anything, or not much, about Sikhs, despite the fact that Sikhi is the world’s fifth-largest religion. This general ignorance is a huge problem, especially when coupled with Islamophobic racism.


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Over the years, many have asked why we don’t just tell people that Sikhs aren’t Muslims and leave it at that. “Why don’t you let Muslims deal with their own problems?” is a typical one. Or, “Wouldn’t it be easier and safer for you all to just tell people who attack you that they got the wrong person?”

The problem with this response is that it just deflects the hate onto another community. That’s not right, nor is it fair.

Nor is it Sikhism. My faith teaches me to engage in authentic solidarity, to see others’ oppression as our own. It’s just not an option to throw another community under the bus — even if it might make our lives easier or safer.

Canadian politician Jagmeet Singh at his annual community BBQ in 2014 at Wildwood Park in Malton, Ontario. Photo by Harman Dulay/Creative Commons

At a meet-and-greet with constituents in 2017, Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, and a Sikh, was subjected to a racist, Islamophobic tirade and famously responded with love and courage. Afterward he wrote, “Once allowed to grow, hate doesn’t pick and choose, it spreads like fire. Once we say it’s okay to hate someone based on their religion, we’re also opening the door to hate based on race, gender, sexuality, and more. It’s important that we stand united against all forms of hate.”

Jagmeet followed that up with a similar sentiment to what I’ve laid out above: “Many people have commented that I could have just said, ‘I’m not Muslim.’ In fact, many have clarified that I’m actually Sikh,” he said. “While I’m proud of who I am, I purposely didn’t go down that road because it suggests their hate would be OK if I was Muslim. We all know it’s not. I didn’t answer the question because my response to Islamophobia has never been ‘I’m not Muslim.’ It has always been and will be that ‘hate is wrong.'”

Authentic solidarity is both ethical and strategic. It’s ethical because standing with those who are oppressed no matter the consequences is the right thing to do. It’s strategic because confronting hate intersectionally (rather than deflecting it) is the only way forward.

Anti-Muslim racism is not just a problem in what’s termed the Western world. It’s a global phenomenon, with immense and violent implications. We see it in China with the genocidal killing of the Uyghur Muslims. We see it in Myanmar with the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims. Islamophobia is especially bad in modern South Asia, where right-wing nationalists push anti-Muslim propaganda to construct false historical narratives.

Rohingya Muslim men carry a body to a cemetery in Kutupalong refugee camp on Nov. 26, 2017, in Bangladesh. More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fled persecution in Myanmar. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

For instance, it has become increasingly popular to depict all rulers from the Mughal period (an early modern dynasty that claimed a large swath of South Asia) as tyrannical Muslim fundamentalists who demonized and persecuted all Hindus. This is patently untrue, yet it remains the standard story of modern India, disseminated to the children through schoolteachers and “history” textbooks.

This propaganda not only distorts the truth of what we know about the histories of these communities — it’s also putting innocent Muslim lives in danger.

I get hate messages from right-wing nationalists daily that push this propaganda, Sikhs and Hindus alike. They call me a traitor and a fake Sikh. They say a true Sikh would hate Islam because that’s what Sikhi teaches. They say the Sikh gurus would be ashamed of me for standing against Muslim hate.

As a historian of religion in South Asia, I know this isn’t true. There is ample evidence to which I could point to make my case, not least the strong relationships between the early Sikh gurus of the 15th and 16th centuries and Muslim leaders of the time. The founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak Sahib, was so close to his Muslim friend Bhai Mardana that they traveled together for years throughout South and Central Asia.

Guru Arjan Sahib, the fifth Sikh guru, was so close to Sain Mian Mir, a prominent Sufi from Lahore, that Guru Arjan Sahib invited him to lay the foundation stone for Darbar Sahib of Amritsar, the most historically significant gurdwara (place of worship) in the Sikh tradition.

The sixth guru in the line of the founder, Nanak, Guru Hargobind Sahib established a mosque in his town for Muslims who had no other place to pray. Aptly named “Guru Ki Maseet” (the Guru’s Mosque), it is still standing in Punjab today.

The Sikh gurus incorporated the writings of another prominent South Asian Sufi — Baba Farid — into their compiled scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib. Centuries later, Sikhs continue to sing, recite, and honor Baba Farid’s work on a regular basis.

Each of the examples above makes it clear the Sikh gurus did not hate Muslims — nor did they see befriending Muslims and respecting Islam as antithetical to their teachings. Their lives show us that. History shows us that.

Equipping ourselves with knowledge like this is a critical tool for protecting ourselves from propaganda that gets thrown our way. In a time when anti-Muslim tropes are used increasingly for political machinations (especially from our sitting president), it becomes increasingly important for us to reflect on our own values and to know what we stand for.

It’s also critically important that we dig into our own histories and reflect on what lessons we can learn from them, because failing to do so often means being deluded and manipulated by others with ulterior motives.

At the end of the day, I believe we know in our hearts what is right and what is just. I think we also know intellectually how hard it can be to do the right thing when the stakes are high and the outcomes are uncertain. This is why Jagmeet Singh received so much love for his compassionate response to hate. We all admired him for sticking to his values and showing authentic solidarity in the toughest of moments.

And if he could do it when his career and his personal safety were on the line, perhaps we can try doing it while the stakes are a little lower. Let’s commit to standing with our fellow sisters and brothers who are being demonized and marginalized. Isn’t that the least we can do?

About the author

Simran Jeet Singh

Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar of religion currently based at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. He is also senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.

27 Comments

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  • The article contains unsatisfactory gaps.

    First, it mentions two Sufis, Sain Mian and Baba Farid. Sufism has its own problems. It is not seen as authentic Islam by many Muslims.

    Second, the article speaks of Sikhs singing and honoring the Sufi, Baba Farid. The article is silent on the question of reciprocation: are Muslims (at least Sufi Muslims) returning the favor by singing and honoring Sikh Gurus?

  • Are you critiquing the article of as a fellow Sikh or are you another outsider, like me, but who wants to degenerate and disrespect rather than learn? I need to know where your criticism comes from to know whether to see any credibility in it.

  • Many Muslims especially Sindhis honour the Guru Granth Sahib and keep the holy book in their homes and recite hymns from it. But, you miss the point Sikhs don’t respect other religions in the hope of gaining respect back from them. They just do it!

  • Given the checkered history of Muslim treatment of non-Muslims in northern India and the horrible treatment of Sikhs by Muslims during the partition of India, this man has risen above it all to defend the good Muslims from discrimination.

    Sikhs are their own religion with many good qualities of self discipline, generosity and educational achievement. I was given an impromptu tour of a gurdwara (a Sikh house of worship) in India and was impressed the hospitality such as the massive meal program and openness to non-Sikhs such as Christians and Hindus without proselytizing .

  • This is very good to hear. It is a bigger step for Muslims than for Sikhs. This is because the standard Islamic theology has exclusive truth claims, whereas Sikhism does not have exclusive truth claims.

  • Thank you for this information, one to understand Sikhs and two for your faith’s defending Muslims. I know that it may be hard, but we all serve one Creator. and are one race, Human. May the Creator bless your people and keep all faith safe from the hate monitors .

  • Why should we honor their gurus just because they honor some Sufi saints? Let me give you an example. Your neighbor comes to your house and gives you a gift – let’s say flowers. You take the flowers out of being polite, even though you don’t need them, and thank your neighbor for his kindness. Then your neighbor says, “now that I gave you a gift, I hope you will reciprocate and give me your expensive car”.

  • I agree that this article leaves so many gaps and inconsistencies that its almost baffling that this person calls himself a professor.

    Simran laments, “Most people in the world don’t know anything, or not much, about Sikhs” but then shows how he consciously and deliberately chooses not to take a moment to educate others on who Sikhs are when they confuse him for being a Muslim. I am not at all implying that he, or anyone else, should guide hate towards others but how else will others learn about Sikhs if we, as Sikhs, do not educate them? The message could be positive, such as, “I am not a Muslim. I am a Sikh. But regardless, most Muslims are good, God fearing people”. What is wrong with educating others, while at the same time showing solidarity with Muslims?

    He then goes on to state that its not Sikhism…blah, blah, blah. I ask Simran why he wears a turban and uncut hair? Why did Guru Gobind Singh WANT his Sikhs to stand out in a crowd? Why did he want his followers to have a distinct appearance?

    If Simran is a scholar of Islam he must have met a lot of Muslims through his tenure and education. Can he honestly say that if a Muslim was called a “Sikh” they would not correct the misrepresentation? The response would most likely be “Alhamdulillah, I am a Muslim”. If you think otherwise, you’re greatly mistaken.

    He skirts the issues of Muslim Rulers (Mughals), their Jizya tax, the persecution of Sikhs (the large and small holocausts) and instead gives three examples of the Sikh Gurus getting along with Muslims. Sloppy transition there professor.

    Simran states “Equipping ourselves with knowledge like this is a critical tool…” He wants us to equip ourselves with knowledge but when it comes to imparting knowledge to others (educating others on who Sikhs are) he is silent, in fact, he takes the opposite stand.

    As opposed to taking the populist view that most “snowflakes” have, he probably could have done a better job exercising his academic brain.

    And the the poster below (JK2020), those Sindhis you are referring to are NOT Muslim, they are Hindus and some call themselves “Nanakpanthis”. No Muslims in Sindh keep a Guru Granth Sahib at home.

  • Please state your source.

    I suggest you read, T”he Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts” by Prof. Ishtiaq Ahmed and then get back to us.

  • I am not asking Muslims to change their behavior. I am asking social science professors, op-ed writers and movie scriptwriters to change their behavior. I want them is to insert your point of view when they write textbooks of social science, op-ed articles and movie scripts.

    In other words, let the public learn Islamic theology as it is. (If there are multiple variants of Islamic theology, let social science professors, op-ed writers and movie scriptwriters present those variants of Islamic theology that are in sharp contrast.)

    PS

    There are other posts in which I do request Muslims to review their theology. But we can discuss that another time. Not this time.

  • America’s hate of Islam is a recent phenomenon. I remember in the 70’s and 80’s the American media and education system were favorable to Islam. Most texts in high school referred to the Hindu numerals as “Arabic numerals” or “Hindu/Arabic numerals”. There was nothing Arabic about them.
    The media wasn’t frothingly hateful of Islam. Today after so many wars in the Middle East and with the rise of Global Islamic terrorism in response to our wars, Islam is painted in the Ugliest manner.

    It is the flip flopping by America that is most scary. Anytime a group America considers in a nice light could end up as the arch villian if things sour with America. That is now the case with China. Back in the 80’s and 90’s China was endlessly praised. today due to Trump’s economic war, :China is condemned. Today Sikhs are respected untill some Sikhs bad things to Americans.

  • Nobody is asking you. This is where you show your ignorance. Guru Nanak Dev Ji is highly honoured and respected by Muslims. Sikhs are not asking you to honour their Guru Jis. Its a shame that you even ask the question. Just goes to show the narrow minds that dwell in your’s and the Hindu heads.

  • Look at the remnants of destroyed Hindu, Jain and Buddhist temples throughout northern India all done in the name of Islam. The number of Sikhs that had to flee what is now Pakistan. Believe whatever Islamist propaganda you want, but only the truth will set you free.

  • I respect Singh’s integrity, it is admirable, but I think he fails his audience by glossing over the reasons why more and more people are rejecting Islam: its theology. Islam is intrinsically violent. Before he became the ruler over part of Arabia Muhammad terrorized people much like ISIS has done. He stated that Allah had ordered him to fight people until they bend the knee to Islam’s rule. He had people murdered and tortured, he taught that Islam was to rule by any means necessary. These teachings are recorded in the Quran and hadith. That is just one reason why I reject Islam.

  • Singh is ignoring violent history of Islam in the past and now (911 is one example) and what they did to sikhs. Scholars don’t care to be politically correct but give the facts. I don’t dislike muslims or people of any other religion because Guru’s teach me Sarbat da bhalla. Manas ki jaat sabh ek pehchan bo and vichhar gai sabh tat prai and so on.

  • While his views are respectable, there are two important counter points:
    1. There is no need to criticize the act of a Sikh pointing out that he isn’t Muslim. That is a fact and there is nothing wrong in pointing out a fact. Singh is wrong that somehow HE would then bear the responsibility for the hater/attacker holding Islam unfavorably. While, I respect his stand, however, he can’t criticize others who would take the choice of introducing themselves properly. I find that NOT pointing this difference out is a missed opportunity to clarify the confusion of identity.

    2. While he took pains to point out that Sikhism isn’t against Islam, he should actually know the Sikhs don’t hate anyone else either. And history of Sikhs’ origin was in Mughal invaders from middle east forcing people in India to convert to Islam and one aspect if Sikh history was standing against such forerunners of Laden types. Furthermore, the values Sikhs hold dear are the following :- Fundamental Equality and Freedom of every human, Universal love, Respect and fierce equality for Women (against gender discrimination), Absolute Freedom of every individual to follow or unfollow any of multiple faiths, universal community service, helping the less fortunate, belief in one universal God, working hard to earn a life, family life, democracy. If that means we align with other groups or unalign with other groups, let the people judge themselves. Period.

  • u r sadly mistaken, only Sindhi speaking Hindus respect GGSJ and do recite hymns from it and not the Sindhi Muslims. Check ur facts first.

  • The real issue is, this man Simran is as stupid as most of the non-resident Punjabi Sikhs. Post 1984, most of the Punjabi Sikh diaspora have turned against India and the Hindus. They still think that Sikhs in India face the same discrimination as it was during the 80’s. Now people like Simran who has no idea of the ground realities in India is a product of that hatred.

    Another reality is Punjabi Sikhs’ hobnobbing with the Punjabi Pakistanis, Kashmiris, and the Muslims in general, ignoring the facts that these very Moslems were the ones who tortured the Sikh Gurus to death, it was the same Moslems in 1947 who butchered innocent Sikhs in the Pakistani side of the Punjab and it was the same Moslems who in the 90’s and early this century drugged and raped Sikh girls in U.K and then the cases of Love Jihad are plenty in India, Malaysia, and in rest of the world, and also it’s the same Moslems who have forced the native Sikhs in Afghanistan to leave their homeland, it was the same Punjabi Pakistani Moslems who ignited the proxy war in Indian Punjab in the 80’s and the 90’s by exporting arms and ammunition, pumping drugs into Punjab since the last two decades which has resulted many youths leaving Sikhism and drowning into themselves into drugs and alcohol.

    Punjabi Sikhs have ignored all the above facts and what they remember is only one thing that is 1984. These people have no respect for their motherland India. This stupid Simran having posted picture of Rohingya Muslims, the question that needs to be asked to him, does he feels the same pain for the Kashmiri Pandits displaced in the Moslem majority Kashmir Valley? Has he got the guts to answer my question?

    It is in the best interests of the entire Sikh community to join the Indian national mainstream, come closer to the Hindus and stop glorifying Islam, Muslims, and the Ummah.

  • First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
    Simran nailed it when he said you deflect hate to another community that is what will happen!

  • Khalsa Ji thank you for correcting me. We always learn. But I do know that there are a lot of Muslims who revere Guru Nanak Dev Ji. There are Muslim families who keep the Guru Granth Sahib Ji and cherish the holy book.

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