Why Sikhs Serve: The Tradition of Seva as Justice Inspired by Love

Originally published with The Revealer

Rohingya refugees escaping violent persecution and crossing the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh are being met by Sikh volunteersproviding free food, water, and shelter. So are Syrian and Iraqi refugees, many of whom are abandoning their war-torn countries by foot and encountering free bakeries set up and operated by Sikhs.[1]

Despite only making up a small percentage of the global population, Sikhs continue to serve at the forefront of humanitarian crises, from hurricanes and tsunamis to floods and terrorist attacks.

Why is this the case? Their altruism comes from the tradition of seva, a practice of justice work that is at the very core of the Sikh tradition. This piece will explain and explore how seva is articulated and formulated in Sikh teachings, how Sikhs use it to conceptualize justice and activism, and the ways we can witness seva in the world today.

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The Ideas That Ground Seva

The numeral 1 is the first character in the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh scripture), and it is the cornerstone of Sikhi (the Sikh religious tradition). 1 points to the oneness of the world, the connectedness of reality, the intermingling of creator and creation.

The opening numeral is tied to another character, oankar, and together, the characters form 1 oankar, referring to a single divine force. This logic leads to a concept of divinity that connects all that exists.

The Sikh view is that divinity permeates every aspect of our world. Perhaps the most relatable way of understanding this concept is to think on an atomic level: if everything we know is composed of atoms, then think of each atom as being infused with divinity. In the Sikh worldview, all is divine and pure. Nothing is inherently profane or evil.

The logic of this outlook is clearly expressed in a scriptural composition by Bhagat Kabir, a renowned devotional poet of early modern North India.[2]

ਅਵਲਿ ਅਲਹ ਨੂਰੁ ਉਪਾਇਆ ਕੁਦਰਤਿ ਕੇ ਸਭ ਬੰਦੇ ॥
ਨੂਰ ਤੇ ਸਭੁ ਜਗੁ ਉਪਜਿਆ ਕਉਨ ਭਲੇ ਕੋ ਮੰਦੇ॥੧॥

ਲੋਗਾ ਭਰਮਿ ਨ ਭੂਲਹੁ ਭਾਈ ॥
ਖਾਲਿਕੁ ਖਲਕ ਖਲਕ ਮਹਿ ਖਾਲਿਕੁ ਪੂਰਿ ਰਹਿਓ ਸ੍ਰਬ ਠਾਂਈ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥


First Allah created the light and all the people of the world.
If the whole world is born from the one light, then who is good or bad?
O Siblings, don’t be deluded by doubt —
The creator is in the creation, the creation is in the creator – deeply embedded in all space.

The vision of divine interconnectedness extends to a view of all people as divine. There is no such concept as original sin, nor is there any space for social discrimination based on notions of purity. The idea of divine presence is central to the Sikh principle of absolute equality.

The goal of Sikh life is to go beyond any egocentric way of seeing the world and to realize the oneness of the world. Sikh teachings refer to this state of realization with many words, including simran (remembrance), anand (bliss), and sahaj (equipoise). Sikh teachings describe this realization as a form of deep love that is joyful, self-effacing, and all-consuming.

This notion of love as the end-goal appears throughout the Guru Granth Sahib. For example, the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan Sahib, writes:

ਰਾਜੁ ਨ ਚਾਹਉ ਮੁਕਤਿ ਨ ਚਾਹਉ ਮਨਿ ਪ੍ਰੀਤਿ ਚਰਨ ਕਮਲਾਰੇ ॥

 

I don’t want power, and I don’t desire salvation. All I want is to be in love at your lotus-feet.

A Sikh aims to live with love through a daily practice of experiencing love and oneness within one’s own life.

Oneness and love are the two building blocks of Sikh living.

Seeing the world as divine informs the ways that Sikhs aim to interact with the world. One can honor the creator by honoring the creation. One can serve Vahiguru by serving those around them. The two are one in the same.

Service, for Sikhs, becomes a way to express love. Service is prayerful action. Service is worship manifest.

As I already mentioned, the Sikh tradition has a specific term for this work, seva. Except, Sikhs will say that “service” and “activism” are not adequate translations of that term because they fail to sufficiently capture the logic and spirit underlying it. Thus, Sikhs have generally translated seva into English as “selfless service,” which does a better job of articulating the distinction between activism and seva.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, let me put it like this: activism is about the action itself, whereas seva takes into account the motivation as well as the action. In the Sikh tradition, it’s not the action alone that constitutes seva – the intention is just as important. True service is motivated by love.

ਏਹ ਕਿਨੇਹੀ ਚਾਕਰੀ ਜਿਤੁ ਭਉ ਖਸਮ ਨ ਜਾਇ ॥
ਨਾਨਕ ਸੇਵਕੁ ਕਾਢੀਐ ਜਿ ਸੇਤੀ ਖਸਮ ਸਮਾਇ ॥੨॥

What kind of a servant is that in which fear of the master does not dissipate?
O Nanak, the real servant is the one who always remains connected with the master.

Serving with love is not just about eliminating fear. It is also about eliminating the sense of self. This is what Sikhs mean when they describe seva as selfless service. It ties directly to the idea of realizing divine oneness by effacing human ego. To truly serve with love is to not see a distinction between the self and the other.

ਚਾਕਰੁ ਲਗੈ ਚਾਕਰੀ ਨਾਲੇ ਗਾਰਬੁ ਵਾਦੁ ॥
ਗਲਾ ਕਰੇ ਘਣੇਰੀਆ ਖਸਮ ਨ ਪਾਏ ਸਾਦੁ ॥
ਆਪੁ ਗਵਾਇ ਸੇਵਾ ਕਰੇ ਤਾ ਕਿਛੁ ਪਾਏ ਮਾਨੁ ॥
ਨਾਨਕ ਜਿਸ ਨੋ ਲਗਾ ਤਿਸੁ ਮਿਲੈ ਲਗਾ ਸੋ ਪਰਵਾਨੁ ॥੧॥

 

If a servant performs service with ego and anger and excessive speech, the master will not be happy.
If one performs seva while removing the sense of self, the honor is obtained.
O Nanak: One who serves with love receives honor and is truly accepted.

The tension here, of course, is that this love is not just about loving the other. It is also about loving the self. So how can we define service as selfless when it is also, in a way, self-serving? Sikhs answer that question by flipping its attendant assumption – when one sees the world through a lens of interconnectedness, then what is the difference between the self and the other?

When one sees no difference between the self and the other, it becomes crystal-clear that our experiences are interconnected. And if my liberation is tied to your liberation, and if your suffering is tied to my suffering, then the only way forward is through loving, selfless service – or seva.

The Sikh idea of seva, then, brings together the realms of spirituality and justice. This concept is so central to the tradition that Sikhi coined its own terms to articulate this worldview. For example, some of the first vocabulary words I learned as a child included seva-simran (service-remembrance), miri-piri (political-spiritual), sant-sipahi (saint-soldier). Every Sikh is expected to live in a way that holds together these seemingly disparate aspects of life; every Sikh is expected to cultivate their own spirituality while also serving the communities around them.

As with all ideologies, this worldview sounds theoretically sensible but one might want to ask “Is it achievable? How does it play itself out in the real world?” Like many other religious communities, Sikhs look to the lives of their prophets to see how these ideas manifested themselves by exemplars of their faith.

One striking example is that of Guru Nanak (d. 1539 CE), the founder of the Sikh tradition. One of the first anecdotes (sakhis) that Sikhs learn about his life recounts that, as a boy, young Nanak’s father gave him some cash to go invest in the town. Nanak then walks to the town and on his way comes across a group of spiritual mendicants (sadhus). He gives this group all of his money with the understanding that they need it more than him. He returns home, and his father becomes furious upon learning that his son had wasted all his money. Young Nanak simply replies by asking, “What could be a better investment than giving to those who need more than us. This is the true investment (sacha sauda).”

This memory of Guru Nanak as a young boy continues to be invoked by Sikhs to share the importance of charitable giving and of recognizing one’s own privilege. And the term Guru Nanak is purported to have used – sacha sauda – remains a common term in Sikh vocabulary to refer to a form of generosity tied to a feeling of connectedness and love.

Another example central to Sikh memory comes from the life of the ninth guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur (d. 1675 CE). According to Sikh traditions, Hindu hill rajas came to seek his help when they were being persecuted by the Mughal state, which at the time was under the leadership of Aurangzeb (d. 1707). Sikhs were not, themselves, being oppressed, but Guru Tegh Bahadur recognized the persecuted Hindus as siblings in humanity. He protested the state’s attacks on Hindus, and for his troubles he and other Sikh disciples were detained, executed, and tortured.

Sikhs remember Guru Tegh Bahadur’s death as a form of martyrdom, in which he gave up his life defending the Sikh ideals of religious freedom and the elevation of all humanity (sarbatt da bhalla). These ideals are built upon the cornerstone of love and oneness.

Before his death, Guru Tegh Bahadur wrote a composition called Salok Mahala 9. Among other things, he discussed in it the interplay of love, fear, and action. He wrote:

ਭੈ ਕਾਹੂ ਕਉ ਦੇਤ ਨਹਿ ਨਹਿ ਭੈ ਮਾਨਤ ਆਨ ॥
ਕਹੁ ਨਾਨਕ ਸੁਨਿ ਰੇ ਮਨਾ ਗਿਆਨੀ ਤਾਹਿ ਬਖਾਨਿ ॥੧੬॥

 

One who neither fears anyone nor causes anyone else to feel fear – Nanak says, o listen my heart-mind, recognize this person as wise.

For Guru Tegh Bahadur, a divine life has no space for fear, particularly because it causes one to see division rather than oneness. A true servant, as we said before, is one who is motivated by love.

I frequently reflect on these models and others like them as a way to shape and guide my own justice work. I try to ground my own activism within the core ideals of oneness and love, and I do what I can to practice other Sikh principles that emerge from them – like fearlessness and standing up for the oppressed. Perhaps the most obvious example of this has to do with my work in confronting racism and Islamophobia. I continually stand up for Muslims based on the hate they receive despite the negative consequences I have endured for doing so. While it might be easier to redirect the anti-Muslim hate I encounter towards our Muslim sisters and brothers, I – and many other Sikhs I know – have made the choice to stand with themdespite possible harms, because we believe it’s the right thing to do.

This response is not necessarily a natural or intuitive one. Rather, it is a purposeful decision that Sikhs around the world have made on the basis of our principles and the examples set by our gurus. How can I justify not working for the equal treatment for those who are oppressed and marginalized when Guru Tegh Bahadur ultimately gave his life to ensure equal rights for all? And as we learned in the example of Guru Nanak above, what better business is there than serving those who need it most?

In a context where we are interrogating the inequities embedded within our own systems, it seems prudent that we keep in mind how the Sikh gurus imagined the world and created structures that helped enact these values while challenging existing inequities.

In understanding the Sikh model of justice – seva – through the lens of Sikh traditions we arrive at a better understanding of the Sikh worldview, one in which service emerges as a natural expression of oneness and love. This is a critical point for knowing who Sikhs are and why they act the way they do.

Moreover, the logic that underlies the beautiful spirit of seva is not owned by Sikhs alone. Any Sikh would tell you that they believe that these ideas are universal; Sikhi does not lay any exclusive claim to this worldview they welcome others to take freely from it.

I draw another important lesson from the lives of the gurus that informs my own activism today. The gurus were not shy about social and political critique, particularly when it was focused on issues related to discrimination and inequities. Rather than simply pointing the finger and simply criticizing everything they encountered (as we are often inclined to do), they followed up their critiques by offering practical solutions that empowered the marginalized.

They rejected poverty and caste hierarchies and established the institution of langar, where all people would sit together as equals and be served food. They eradicated last names, and instead gave collective surnames – Kaur for women, Singh for men – that reflected a shared familyhood. These names were drawn from traditional royal names in South Asia, and also indicated to each individual that they were powerful and sovereign.

The Sikhs gurus were builders. The spirit of oneness and love infused their seva – and this enabled them to build institutions beyond divisions, hierarchies, and supremacies.

And this is where the difference between seva and activism becomes significant. I believe that in order to build a more just society, we must build our structures upon the foundation of oneness and love. Seva is about the ethic as much as it is about the action; the inspiration and intention matters just as much as the act itself. Therefore the model of seva helps ensure that we are not simply creating new movements or institutions that carry the same fissures and cracks that we see so clearly today.

The notion of oneness allows us to celebrate diversity while being inclusive and intersectional. To see our own lives as intersecting and being bound up with people we do not know and may never meet – this is what compels Sikhs to do what’s right, whether it is rallying for racial justice or creating community food banks. It is in this spirit of authentic generosity that seva has become the signature of Sikhs all over the world.

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[1] The Sikh volunteers have continued this work, despite the fact that some of the refugees they are serving have mistaken them for members of the Islamic State.

[2] While the Guru Granth Sahib was compiled by the Sikh gurus, it is not exclusively comprised of their writings. The scripture is an anthology that includes writings from more then a dozen other spiritual figures of diverse backgrounds.

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Victories to savor for Sikhs & us all

Opinion piece originally published with New York Daily News

On New Year’s Day, I will take my 2-year-old daughter to the mayoral inauguration in Hoboken, N.J. Why? I want her to celebrate Hoboken’s new leader, Ravi Singh Bhalla, who is one of the first turbaned Sikhs to be elected mayor in American history.

Bhalla was elected in November, just days after racist flyers were distributed around Hoboken that showed a photo of Bhalla with the message: “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town.”

This was not the first time Bhalla was attacked for his unique appearance, and he was ready to respond with his values. As he wrote to his followers, “Of course this is troubling, but we won’t let hate win.”

Bhalla’s victory, along with three groundbreaking wins for Sikh American women on the West Coast, comes in a context of increasing xenophobia across the United States. But bigotry is not new to Sikh Americans.

Sikhs first came to the U.S. more than a century ago. Soon after their arrival, America witnessed its first anti-Sikh race riots, in 1907 in Bellingham, Wash. Back then, Americans knew so little about the Sikh religion that even reporters who covered the violence referred to the targets as “Hindus.”

More than 100 years later, little has changed for the Sikh community. Despite being the fifth-largest major world religion, Sikhism remains largely unknown in the American context. According to a 2013 study, 70% of Americans cannot identify a Sikh man in a picture as a Sikh.

That Americans are largely unaware of their Sikh neighbors has had disastrous consequences for the Sikh community. The first casualty of a post-9/11 hate crime was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American in Mesa, Ariz. In 2012, a white supremacist entered a Sikh place of worship in Oak Creek, Wis., and opened fire on the congregation, murdering six. According to the Sikh Coalition, Sikh Americans continue to remain hundreds of times more likely to experience bias or backlash than other Americans, from racial profiling and workplace discrimination to school bullying and hate violence.

For decades now, Sikh Americans have felt overlooked and excluded from the American experience. But the election of Ravi Bhalla, Manka Dhingra, Preet Didbal and Sawinder Kaur represents a signal shift. Didbal, of Yuba City, Calif. became the first Sikh woman to serve as a mayor. Dhingra won her special election for a Washington state Senate seat, and Sawinder Kaur now serves on the Kent, Wash., City Council just six months after a Sikh was shot in her town and told to go back to his country.

These victories indicate that anyone can serve in public office no matter how they look or what they believe. More importantly, their democratic election sends the message that many of our fellow citizens are able to look beyond outward appearances and measure people on the content of their character.

My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. At the time, my father was the only turbaned Sikh in South Texas, and my brothers and I were the only kids with turbans in our schools. We grew up in a world with diverse heroes from various backgrounds — athletes, writers, actors, and civil rights champions — but none of them looked like us.

When my parents first moved here, they could not have imagined that one day a major city in New Jersey would elect a Sikh with a turban and beard. And knowing now that my daughter will grow up with civic heroes who share her background and look like her father gives me hope that she will view her Sikh identity as an asset rather than as a liability.

I know that we still have a long way to go before we reach true equity in this country, but, for now, I am going to take a moment to enjoy this milestone. It’s a victory for Bhalla, Dhingra, Kaur and Didbal and it’s a victory for the Sikh American community. But let’s remember that it’s also a major win for all of us who reject white supremacy and care deeply about the values of diversity, tolerance and inclusion. In that sense, it’s a victory for us all.

 

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Sikh Scholar Harassed Over Photo of Another Man in Turban

Article originally published in Inside Higher Education

Simran Jeet Singh, an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University in Texas and senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition, faced a torrent of hate messages on social media this week after Campus Reform ran a story claiming he’d once tweeted a picture of himself raising both middle fingers to Trump Tower in New York City. The thrust of the piece was that Singh was a problematic pick for leader of an upcoming Trinity webinar on “navigating hate and xenophobia in modern America,” as someone who’d flipped President Trump’s building the double bird and otherwise criticized him on social media.

Also problematic, however, is that Singh isn’t the man in the picture: Campus Reformassumed that another man in a traditional Sikh turban was him. Singh did share the photo, but it’s his brother, not him.

The image that is not the professor, as shown on Campus Reform, is at right.

The website reached out to Singh for comment, but he told Inside Higher Ed that he did not respond for fear that it would not be “constructive.” A number of other scholars who have been threatened and otherwise targeted online recently link the harassment to reports about them on Campus Reform or other right-wing websites. Some of those scholars also allege such sites purposely sensationalize or misrepresent their statements on race or other controversial topics.

Campus Reform revised the story after Singh noted the error, but, again, not before he faced tweets, emails and Facebook posts calling him a “goat-humping” “raghead” who should go “back home” and worse. Singh said he hadn’t faced any physical threats yet, but that he was aware there’s a “real possibility of violence, especially in our current political context. Hate incidents are surging, and people who look like me are particularly vulnerable.”

Trinity told Campus Reform that Singh is an award-winning professor who’s been noted “for the work that he is doing to end racism and Islamophobia in the world. He has been the focus of a lot of hate and a lot of racist remarks and comments, and we’ve not had any complaints from our students about Professor Singh and the other things that he’s been doing on our campus.”

Singh said discussions about academic freedom and free speech on campus are becoming “increasingly contentious” and so raise concerns about the “balance of encouraging critical thinking and frankly acknowledging that hateful rhetoric has real, material consequences, which we are witnessing in the increased violence targeting Muslims and immigrants around the country.” With that in mind, he said he was grateful to Trinity for having his “back in every single moment like this, and I wish that other universities would do the same for their educators.”

Sterling C. Beard, editor in chief of Campus Reform, said the website is working to confirm the identity of the person in the photo, and noted that Singh did not respond to its original request for comment.

“None of this, of course, changes the fact that a professor who is lecturing on hate declared [on Twitter] that ‘all Trump supporters tacitly condone racism,’ told the president to ‘kiss all of our asses’ and [shared] a picture of a man flipping the bird to Trump Tower. We have no need to misrepresent his views, as we have no need to misrepresent any professors’ views. They speak quite plainly for themselves.”

Beard said that Trinity students who support Trump should be forewarned of Singh’s “distaste” for them.

Calling Campus Reform‘s headline, “Prof Who Hates Trump Supporters to Lecture on ‘Navigating Hate,'” irresponsible, Singh said he doesn’t hate Trump supporters, “nor have I ever said that I do.” Addressing accusations that he’s “teaching hate,” Singh said he’s attempting to “demonstrate injustice, to explain functions of systemic oppression and to insist that we do not ignore the very real violence of our current political climate. This is not teaching hate. This is teaching from the heart, with love and justice and service all wrapped up together.”

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I Was Called ‘Osama’ While On a Run, But the Story Doesn’t End There

Essay originally published with NBC News

I had an unexpected encounter with racism Thursday that I wanted to share with you all, mostly because I learned a lot about how one can respond constructively to racial slurs.

I was running along the Hudson River in New York City, heading from my office at NYU to my home on the upper east side of Manhattan. I had my headphones in my ears, yet I could still hear someone shouting at me: “F**king Osama! F**king Osama!”

I turned to see who was yelling, saw a group of three young teenagers, and decided to just continue on my way.

“I told him that it wasn’t funny. Then I told him he had to listen to me for a minute.”

“I told him that it wasn’t funny. Then I told him he had to listen to me for a minute.”

My mind raced back to an incident from the past week, when an older woman called me a different racial slur as she walked by me. In that moment, I remained silent, not sure of what to say. I regretted not confronting her and told myself I would be better prepared next time. I consulted with my friends, asking how I could have responded effectively and constructively. I took their advice to heart, not realizing that I would find myself in a similar situation just a week later.

This entire reflection passed through my mind in about 30 seconds, and I abruptly stopped my run and turned around. I surveyed the scene, decided it was relatively safe, and slowly approached the teenager who had shouted at me. He was a young black man and he avoided eye contact as I walked up to him. He saw me coming though, because when I reached him, he put out his hand and looked up at me.

“I apologize,” he said.

“No,” I told him. “It’s not that easy.”

“I’m sorry, man. I was just joking.”

I told him that it wasn’t funny. Then I told him he had to listen to me for a minute.

“It hurts,” I told him. “It hurts when people say racist stuff towards me. It hurts when people see me and assume I’m the enemy. And it hurts even more because you know exactly how it feels. You know how messed up that is?”

He responded, “Yeah, that’s true.”

“You know, people in this country used to say hateful stuff to your grandparents…”

His eyes widened a bit as he connected the dots.

“Sh*t, man,” he said. “I’m really sorry.”

He reached out his hand with sincerity.

I shook his hand, asked him to be more thoughtful, and went on my way.

Today I was able to connect with someone who would have otherwise just seen me as the enemy. Thank you all for teaching me how.

You never know how elevating one kid’s consciousness may pay countless dividends. I pray something beautiful grows from this ugly situation

I’m not sharing this to suggest that every encounter with racism could or should go this way. In fact, we should all be cautious in the situations of hate speech, especially after the recent hate-inspired murders in Oregon.

I also do not mean to suggest that dialogue is the key to solving racism. We all know it’s much more complicated than that.

I’m writing this for a few reasons. First, because I consider it a small victory — and we all need some wins against bigotry, especially in this political climate. It means a lot to walk away from that exchange feeling a sense of solidarity, especially knowing how deeply rooted anti-black racism is among Asian-American communities. It also gives me heart to realize that we can make positive change if we’re willing to engage with one another on a human level.

Most importantly, I’m writing this to share my gratitude for those of you who helped me develop a response in this situation. Last week, I felt helpless when I failed to confront the woman who called me a racial slur. But this time, I was able to connect with someone who would have otherwise just seen me as the enemy. Thank you all for teaching me how to do to that.

 

 

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For Trinity Professor, Activism and Scholarship Go Hand in Hand

Front page feature in the San Antonio Express News

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.

 

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A Lesson Learned the Hard Way: Not Every Clean, Late-Model Sedan Is an Uber

Quoted in this piece by The Wall Street Journal

Musical duo Lexie Jay and Jon Fedorsen had pulled over to check driving directions in downtown Toronto, when two well-dressed strangers opened the hatchback of the band’s SUV and started loading their luggage into the trunk.
Ms. Jay turned around to ask what they were doing, “and they said, with confidence, that they would like to go to the airport,” she recalled. Realizing they must have mistaken their vehicle for a ride-hailing service, Ms. Jay laughed.
The would-be passengers were mortified. “They awkwardly began to extract their oversize bags from the trunk, exclaiming, ‘Sorry, We thought you were our Uber!’” Ms. Jay said.
Ride-hailing vehicles have become ubiquitous in cities around the world, increasing the odds of mistaken encounters between prospective passengers and unsuspecting everyday drivers.
Today, Uber counts more than 1.5 million drivers in its global fleet, while Lyft has about 700,000. The drivers, who get connected through a smartphone app to passengers seeking rides, use their personal vehicles to transport those riders.
That means most Uber and Lyft vehicles look like regular cars on the road, so just about anyone can pass for a ride—though drivers in newer-model hatchbacks, sedans and midlevel SUVs appear most at risk.
After emceeing and performing a 15-minute set at Acme Comedy Co. in Minneapolis, comedian Derek Henkels retrieved his black minivan and doubled back to pick up fellow comedian Tracey Ashley, who had headlined the evening.
But when he pulled up to Acme’s crowded entrance, a couple he didn’t know started yanking on the backdoor handles and knocking on the passenger-side window.
Mr. Henkels shook his head politely to shoo them away but they only became more persistent, and he started to wonder why they didn’t recognize him from his appearances several times on stage throughout the night.
“Maybe what I do is not that important,” he said, reflecting on the incident. “I’d probably do better as an Uber driver.”
Eventually he pointed to a similar minivan up the street and the couple moved on.
Simran Jeet Singh, a religion professor who lives in New York City, said he was waiting for his wife and daughter outside their building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side when an older couple got in the back seat.
“I said, ‘I’m not an Uber driver,’ and they were really confused,” the 32-year-old Mr. Singh recalled. “Then the woman said, ‘Well, we really need to go here, can you take us anyway? We’ll pay you.”
Mr. Singh, who is a Sikh, said it wasn’t the first time he has been mistaken for a ride-hailing driver and he figures it’s at least partly because he wears a turban.
“So many taxi drivers in New York are immigrants and a lot are Sikhs,” said Mr. Singh, who was born and raised in Texas.
He said many of his South Asian and Sikh friends have had the same experience, which has become a running joke.
“At least once a week or so I’ll see a post from a friend on Facebook or Twitter saying, ‘I’ve been confused for an Uber driver again!’” he said, adding that when he mentioned this particular experience to friends, a few joked that he “should have asked how much they were willing to pay.”
For those on the other side of a mistaken ride-hailing connection, the experience can be equally jarring.
Cameron Fox-Revett, a songwriter in Toronto, recalled an early morning last fall when he ordered an Uber to drive him to the recording studio. Wearing noise-canceling headphones, as he often does, Mr. Fox-Revett walked out of his apartment, spotted a Honda Civic parked with headlights on and assumed it was his ride.
It wasn’t until he’d finished loading his heavy recording equipment, including a large microphone and stand into the back seat, that he noticed the agitated driver waving his hands and asking what he was doing.
The driver was “horrified,” he said. “It was a cocktail of emotions.”
Adding to the awkwardness of the moment, after unloading his equipment Mr. Fox-Revett had to wait another four minutes for the ride he’d actually ordered to appear—all while trying to avoid making further eye contact with the Civic driver.
Representatives from Uber and Lyft said riders must remember to check a car’s license-plate number, make and model, and to confirm the driver’s name before getting into any ride-hailing car. Both apps provide that information to the rider as soon as a driver accepts their ride request.
“You technically should be looking at the app before you get into a car,” said Alexandra LaManna, a spokeswoman for Lyft.
Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Uber, advises passengers that getting into cars with drivers that haven’t been vetted by the company could be dangerous.
She also has advice for non-Uber drivers set upon by would-be customers:  “Just politely let the passenger know that you’re not with Uber.”
In a few cities the services recently started using lighted placards—which drivers attach to their windshields—that change colors to match the display in the passenger’s app, making it easier to identify which ride is theirs on a crowded street. Both companies are providing the devices to drivers free of charge.
Not every unwitting rendezvous ends poorly.
Josh Aldrete, a junior at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, had parked his Toyota Prius in a lot on campus before his macroeconomics class when he heard someone open the back door. He thought it might be a friend playing a joke until he heard a young woman’s voice asking if he was ready to go.
Mr. Aldrete laughed and explained to the freshman student that he wasn’t a ride-hailing driver. But when she started collecting her things to leave, he gave it a second thought and offered to take her wherever she needed to go.
Both companies cautioned riders not to get into a car with anyone they didn’t hail through the app, since doing so negates any safety protections provided by the companies—such as GPS tracking—and leaves them vulnerable to scams.
But Mr. Aldrete said he was OK with doing a favor for a fellow student. He said he drove her about three minutes to the grocery store and dropped her off. The conversation was slightly forced but cordial, he said, and she remained in the back seat.
Mr. Aldrete said he has seen her a few times on campus since the ride, though he still hasn’t talked to her since that day.
“I tried to keep it as Uber-ish as possible,” he said.

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Walking With Muslims: An Interfaith Response to the Murder in Queens

Interfaith response for Odyssey Networks, co-authored with Jasleen Bawa

The tragic killing of Imam Akonjee and Thara Uddin has deeply saddened the Sikh community. Their murder reminds us that the current political and social climate has a direct and detrimental impact on Muslims and other minority communities.

We recognize that violence like this is connected to other structural violence in our society. We also recognize that the rise in hate crimes we have experienced the past several months is tied connected to the divisive rhetoric emerging from our political discourse.

Now, more than ever, it is apparent that we must hold our politicians accountable for hateful rhetoric. We must respond to such tragedies by reaffirming our values and principles. We must stand strong together, united and in solidarity. We must remain vigilant but not be fearful. And most of all, we must respond to such acts of hate with unwavering love.

We are all here, standing with you – as allies, as support systems, as fellow human beings. As Sikhs, we affirm that we are all in this together and that we will stand up for your right to practice religion freely in this country.

 

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