Sikhism Beliefs Explained: A Look Beyond the Turban After Wade Michael Page Shooting

On the morning of Sunday, August 5, Wade Michael Page stormed a Wisconsin gurudwara, or Sikh temple, killing six civilian congregants before taking his own life. While the motives of this “lone wolf” have yet to be substantiated, his affiliations with a white supremacist punk band and his targeting of an ethnic and religious minority have helped reignite the debate on cultural ignorance and racially-charged violence in America.

This debate underscores the need for a greater understanding of Sikhism.

Founded in the South Asian region of Punjab in the 15th century, the monotheistic religion is one of the youngest of the world religions and despite common misconceptions, is fundamentally distinct from Islam and Hinduism. The world’s twenty-four million Sikhs, meaning disciples or students, are followers of founder Guru Nanak and the subsequent nine Gurus. 

Sikhism’s central tenet is that there is one God, “a loving Creator attainable through meditation upon and remembrance of God’s name.” Sikhs are encouraged to lead moral lives with wholesome family lifestyles, to earn their living through hard work, and to be charitable. The religion’s focus is on the present. According to the Sikh Coalition in the United States, “Sikhism preaches a message of devotion, remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, equality between all human beings and social justice, while emphatically denouncing superstitions and blind rituals.”

Many Sikhs wear turbans (Dastaars) over their uncut hair (Kesh). This turban is often the reason Sikhs are mistaken as Muslims or Arabs as some Muslim men do wear different colored turbans, caps, or headscarves in emulation of Prophet Muhammad, although the specific meaning or purpose of this head covering may differ depending on the location and sect of the wearer. What most fail to realize is that 99 percent of turban-wearers in the United States are Sikh, not Muslim. Sikhs are also obligated to sport a ceremonial dagger, known as a kirpan, as part of a commitment to self-defense and as indicative of the individual’s readiness to defend the weak.

Sikhs were among the first Asian Indians to immigrate to the United States in the late 19th century. Today they comprise a population of approximately 700,000. Despite their rather peaceful and socially conscious religious outlook, turbaned Sikhs have often been targeted in hate crimes by school bullies and violent criminal offenders alike. Assaults against Sikhs and Muslims were widely reported in post-9/11 America and Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh male, was among the first killed in 9/11 retaliatory attacks in the United States.

Comprehending these basic philosophies and the humanity of the Sikh American population is an absolute necessity. Indeed, a wider national discussion of religious and ethnic minorities is worth having, and particularly one which attempts to understand and prevent racially-charged violence. 

Yet, it is also important that further discourse not dwell on drawing cultural distinctions between Sikhs and Muslims, as many conversations have done thus far. Discussants should now focus not on who the victims were – or were not – but instead on the crime, the perpetrator, and prevention.

For more information on Sikhs and Sikh Americans, visit http://www.saldef.org/.

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Elizabeth Laferriere

Elizabeth Laferriere is the Legislative Director at the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women. Her research and professional interests include women’s equal right to work, political participation, and social justice, as well as US foreign policy toward South and Southeast Asia. Ms. Laferriere received her MPP in Public Policy from Georgetown University, where she studied international policy as the Wellesley College Margaret Freeman Bowers Graduate Fellow. She spent an exchange semester at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. She received her BA in South Asian Studies and History from Wellesley College, where she graduated with honors in 2010.

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