Sikh-Americans Forced to Choose Between Being Sikh or American

Driving several hours with a group of buddies to see your favorite professional football team play. Enlisting to serve in combat for your country's military. As a domestic beer commercial might tell you, it doesn't get any more American than this.

Yet, we learned in the news the last few days that for a few Americans, loving football or being willing to die for your country isn't good enough to prove your Americanness. If you're an American if the Sikh religion, you also might have to be open to renouncing your religious beliefs for arbitrary reasons.

Sikhs are, of course, the proud members of a South Asian religion originating in the 15th century. In the United States, they're known primarily for wearing turbans and having beards, which means Sikh men are often ignorantly thought to be Muslim, thanks to Osama bin Laden.

Being mistaken for a Muslim comes with a lot of negative consequences in these tense times. For example, it can mean being asked to arbitrarily renounce your religious beliefs to prove your loyalty to the United States. Take the group of Sikh football fans who piled into a car and drove from Fresno, California to San Diego to watch their beloved Denver Broncos take on the San Diego Chargers. A photo of the friends together at the game offers up a glorious vision of America's multiculturalism and its melting pot -- five brown men decked out in replica navy blue and orange Broncos jerseys sporting turbans matching these colors, surrounded by a stadium of mostly white fans there to watch the athletic exploits of teams with significant numbers of black players.

But it turns out that to get into the game, their faith was put to the test. As they tried to enter the stadium, these loyal fans were told by the stadium's security that they couldn't enter the game unless they took their turbans off, which would have been contrary to their Sikh faith. No explanation seems to have been given for why these men would have to remove their turbans for security reasons, probably because no sane, rational explanation exists. Football fans wear giant, bulky headgear on their heads all the time. What did security think? They had bombs or guns hidden in their turbans? Would they have asked every Green Bay Packer fan wearing a giant Cheesehead to do the same? Of course not. The actions of the stadium security wasn't based on logic or data or rationality. It was based on a feeling. The Sikh-Americans more closely fit the stadium security staff's image of terrorists than their image of normal, red-blooded American football fans. So they were asked to show they weren't terrorists by taking off their turbans. Prove you're loyal to this country by sacrificing your religious beliefs.

Eventually, these Sikh men were allowed entry but were told they couldn't wear their turbans the next time they came to the stadium. What sense does this make? We'll give you a pass this time because it's a religious thing and you seem like okay guys but next time we're not going to give you a pass even though it will involve the same religious thing and you'll still probably be okay guys? It doesn't make sense because it's not based in reason; it's based on feeling.

Even when not mistaken for Muslims, Sikh Americans find their faith challenged by being grouped with others in the category of religions that seem strange to the average American. The New York Times reported last week that an active duty Sikh-American combat soldier, Captain Simratpal Singh, was given an apparently extremely rare, albeit temporary, exemption permitting him to keep his beard, long hair, and turban. The Times article notes that religious exemptions for beards, which are likely most frequently requested by Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish service members, are almost always rejected by the military. The reasons appear to involve a safety rationale and a negative impact on the psyche of the entire military. However, the military has apparently made numerous exceptions for beards when involving medical reasons like acne or sensitive skin and has permitted Special Operations soldiers to have beards. The contemporary image of an American soldier is a clean-shaven white, African-American, or (increasingly) Latino Christian male. Bearded Sikh, Muslim, or Jewish soldiers don't fit that picture. By rejecting their requests to keep their beards on religious grounds while granting such requests on medical grounds, the underlying message is that medical weaknesses can be overlooked but not fitting the image of a normal American soldier cannot. This message is particularly strange in a profession so dependent upon physical capacity and vitality. As with the actions of the security guards at the football game, it seems motivated more by feeling than reason.

Fortunately, the military appears to have, at least temporarily, changed its stance and permitted Captain Singh to retain his beard. But for his previous ten years of service, including while at the United States Military Academy at West Point, he had no choice but to shun his religious beliefs and shave or risk jeopardizing his military career.

Captain Singh and the group of Denver Broncos fans faced choices that no American should ever have to make. No American should have to compromise his or her religious beliefs in order to participate in public activities or make a livelihood, unless the compromise is truly necessary. Shamefully, Sikhs and many other Americans whose religious beliefs are not fully understood or respected, are forced to consider that compromise solely for failing to fit a particular image and look a certain way.