Originally published in The Huffington Post on 1.22.2013
A few weeks ago, the British Army and the Scots Guard broke centuries of tradition by allowing a Sikh soldier, Jatinderpal Singh Bhullar, to wear his turban rather than the traditional bearskin cap while guarding Buckingham Palace in London, England. Meanwhile, U.S. policies still bar turbaned Sikhs from serving in the military.
In December, the White House hosted an event celebrating the life of Guru Nanak, the founder and first Guru of the Sikh religion. There a number of national community leaders and public officials recounted their shared commitments to equality and justice for all American citizens. One of the speakers — Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez from the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice — spoke with passion and conviction about the status of civil rights in America. The Assistant Attorney General opened by speaking of his experiences in Murfeesboro, Tenn., a town that received national media attention for the public controversy surrounding a mosque construction. The Civil Rights Division played a key role in ensuring and securing the right to build the Islamic Center of Murfeesboro, which has been the target of protests, arson, vandalism and even a lawsuit claiming that a) Islam is not a real religion and b) Muslims planned to replace the Constitution with Islamic Law. He expressed his disappointment with the ignorance and bigotry still present in this country, and he also praised targeted communities for the poise and humanity with which they have responded.
Perez recounted a story about a member of the Muslim congregation who also happened to be the only interventional cardiologist in Murfeesboro. This doctor was visited by one of the leading opponents of the mosque, who was experiencing a life-threatening heart condition. The patient’s brother was present during this visit, and despite the seriousness of the situation, he adamantly refused to allow a Muslim doctor to administer treatment. During this refusal, the patient’s brother also suffered a serious cardiac condition that proved to be life threatening.
How did the Muslim doctor respond? He saved both of their lives.
The Assistant Attorney General explained that he draws inspiration from this compassionate act and that he sees numerous parallels with the Sikh community’s response in Oak Creek, Wis., which experienced a horrific shooting rampage by a white supremacist this past August. Perez has visited the community numerous times since the hate crime, and he shared his admiration for its resilience, optimism and fortitude. He then repeated a constant refrain he has heard from the Sikhs in Oak Creek: “We love this country and want to show our love for it. But we still aren’t allowed to serve in the military.” The Assistant Attorney General then said he would elevate the Sikh desire to serve in the military to the highest levels of the Obama Administration.
Perez’s commitment to sparking high-level discussion that could end the ban on Sikh service demonstrates a clear understanding of the Sikh American experience. The ban is a double-bind faced by Sikhs in this country: While others continue to look at Sikhs as foreign and alien, Sikh Americans are unable to counter this stereotype by giving their lives to this country.
In the last decade, three turbaned Sikhs have received exemptions from this ban and have been allowed to serve in the U.S. military. In fact, one of them — Major Kamaljit Singh Kalsi — was honored with a Bronze Star for his life-saving efforts in Afghanistan. Rather than having to incessantly argue to receive exemptions from the ban, the Assistant Attorney General, myself and a number of civil rights advocates would like to see a repealing of this ban altogether.
In September of 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, the strongest and most comprehensive equal employment legislation in the country. Among other issues, this act ensures that religious practitioners will no longer be subject to discrimination on the basis of religious articles such as facial hair or head coverings. As legislators around the nation strive to realize these freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, this seems to be of little use if the U.S. Military — one of our largest federal employers and institutions — continues to bar minorities on the basis of religion.
Sikhs have a rich history of military service across the globe — in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others. For example, in 1918, Bhagat Singh Thind became the first turbaned Sikh to be recruited by the U.S. Army to fight in World War I. He was quickly honored for his talent and promoted to Acting Sergeant.
America is becoming increasingly diverse and pluralistic, and our policies must reflect this progress. We hope that Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez’s comments, as well as the Sikh guardsman serving outside the Buckingham Palace, will help spark a movement to repeal the policy that bars turbaned Sikhs from serving in the U.S. Military.