Even before President Donald Trump signed executive orders last week temporarily banning Syrian refugees and visitors from six other Muslim-majority nations from entering the country, Simran Jeet Singh was already advocating against the policies.
On Friday, the Trinity University assistant religion professor posted an open letter in support of Muslim communities, along with a template he hoped others would use to reach out to their own neighbors. Rather than reduce the threat of terrorism, Singh believes policies such as those directed by Trump serve to engender fear in minority communities.
Two days later, after chaos erupted at airports nationwide in response to the travel bans, Singh spent his morning writing to his Muslim students, asking how they were feeling.
“When government starts implementing policies that target and mistreat people because of their religious identities, then that sends the message to the American public that you can treat these people however you want,” Singh said.
As both an academic and activist, Singh is uniquely poised to speak out about religious discrimination. Drawing on scholarship and his own experiences, Singh advocates against Islamophobia, discrimination and racial profiling, and in favor of religious expression.
Through his posts to more than 15,000 followers on Twitter and more than 5,000 on Facebook and contributions to national publications, he has made himself highly visible in national conversations on social justice and oppression. Last year, he appeared on a segment of “The Daily Show” about Sikhs being impacted by anti-Muslim sentiment. In November, Auburn Seminary recognized his efforts with the Walter Wink Scholar-Activist Award.
Now, Singh considers his work more important than ever.
A unique voice
Personal experience and brushes with discrimination have propelled Singh’s advocacy.
The pivotal moment for Singh came after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when he was a student at Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Helotes. He remembers the intense backlash against anyone who looked Muslim. Though Singh grew up Sikh, to some, his appearance was all that mattered.
At the time, there were not many people in this area who looked like him. Singh realized that he had an opportunity, and responsibility, to help lift up his community.
“I grew up in a community that did not have its own voice or platform. People haven’t known who we are, and we haven’t had an opportunity really to tell our own stories,” he said. “I wanted to help give my community a voice.”
As an undergraduate at Trinity, Singh established a club for Sikh students. He also began visiting nearby schools, spreading awareness about his faith’s traditions.
After graduating in 2006 and subsequently completing his master’s at Harvard University and his Ph.D. at Columbia University, Singh was asked to come back to Trinity as an assistant professor of religion. He was excited about returning to his alma mater, but his wife had recently started as an anesthesiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College. They decided to remain in New York City, with Singh commuting each week to work.
Spending an inordinate amount of time on planes, Singh has become intimately familiar with issues surrounding racial profiling. Because of his turban, he is consistently pulled aside for additional screening.
Singh is careful about what he does on planes. Much of the time, he avoids preparing for his classes during flights, lest books with titles such as “Following Muhammad” make his fellow passengers uncomfortable. On his way back to Texas in early January for the first week of classes, Singh flew Southwest Airlines, which allows passengers to select their own seats when they board.
He had an entire row to himself.
The Trump factor
Over the last few months, Singh said he has been on the receiving end of more negative comments than he had been in the past several years.
Two days before Trump was elected, Singh ran in the New York City Marathon. As always, he wore a turban in observance of his faith. Throughout the race, he counted four instances where people directed derogatory comments at him. At a water station, a race volunteer refused to serve him water, calling him a “dirty Muslim.” As he often did, Singh tweeted about the incidents. National media outlets picked up the story.
At times, Singh’s social media activity is met with pushback. In 2015, he had just begun teaching at Trinity when the story of a 14-year-old Irving student being questioned by police after he brought a reassembled clock to school went viral. Singh tweeted a photo of himself with a clock.
“Brought my clock to work today. #IStandWithAhmed #Solidarity,” he wrote.
Calls flooded into the university. Some asked for Singh’s resignation.
“It got ugly very fast,” Singh said.
At the time, President Danny Anderson was also new to Trinity. Anderson saw no problem with Singh using research and his own experiences to shed light on challenging issues.
“His goal is not to make any group look bad,” Anderson said. “He’s trying to build bridges through understanding. That kind of advocacy and activism is a great way to think about the impact that a scholar’s work can have in the world.”
After Trump’s victory, students from all backgrounds steadily streamed into Singh’s office on campus. Some were Muslim. Others were immigrants, women, racial minorities, members of the LGBT community. All were worried about the future. Singh tried to offer them comfort, but he shared many of their concerns.
“I’m just scared about raising a daughter in this world,” he said.
Striking a balance
Despite his staunch advocacy, Singh strives for balance in the classroom.
Singh frequently incorporates politics and current events into his discussion, something that makes his syllabus and course planning more fluid. He strives to broaden the minds of his students and their understanding of stereotypes. But he is careful not to let his political opinions impact his teaching. Last semester, he said he made sure that students who supported Trump had as much of an opportunity to speak as those who didn’t.
“Even though we read, we focused a lot on relating it to now,” said freshman Arisha Ali, who took Singh’s class on the Qur’an last semester and is now in his Sikhism class, one of three such courses being offered at colleges nationwide this semester.
During the first day of his Qur’an class this semester, Singh walked up to the whiteboard and created headings for two lists. The first included what his students knew about Islam. The second detailed the perceptions they had heard about the religion.
The second column was soon filled with negative words: violent, misogynistic, terrorism, ISIS. In this class, Singh told students, they would constantly question perceptions, both their own and those of others. They would delve into why and how those words became associated with the religion.
Two weeks later, the class would discuss the visibility of Muslim voices at the presidential inauguration and the women’s marches.
“My role in the classroom, I think, is to push for critical thinking and to push for as much open dialogue as we can manage,” Singh said.