Sikhs aim to spread message of service, tolerance

Mark Hicks, The Detroit News

Imaan Kaur is among an estimated 10,000-15,000 Sikhs in southeast Michigan, yet when she encounters others outside the religious group, they rarely are familiar with her beliefs or practices.


The West Bloomfield High School student says she often is mistaken as following another faith, usually Islam. And in retreats with other celebrants, talk turns to intolerance.

“The perception is that we’re outsiders. We need to change that,” the 17-year-old said. “I don’t think that people understand. People need to be more aware.”


That is why she and other Metro Detroit devotees raised funds to help launch “We Are Sikhs,” an initiative aimed at informing the public and its adherents about the monotheistic religion considered one of the world’s largest.


Sikhs attend a Vaisakhi service and celebration on a recent Sunday at the Sikh Gurdwara in Plymouth. Vaisakhi is the festival that celebrates the founding of the Sikh community.

The nonprofit National Sikh Campaign launched the marketing, grassroots and public relations effort this month, coinciding with the Vaisakhi harvest festival that commemorates the formation of the Khalsa, which instructed Sikhs to protect equality and religious freedom for all people.

The project spreads the word via advertisements, a website, social channels and community events. Spots that started airing on CNN and elsewhere show male and female Sikhs of various ages describing their views and showcasing their patriotism.

“We want to make sure that every American understands who we are,” said Dr. Rajwant Singh, co-founder and senior adviser with the National Sikh Campaign.

Organizers say the initiative was spurred in part by six worshipers who were slain at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in 2012, as well as rising reports of discrimination, intimidation, harassment and hate crimes since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In March, a Sikh man told authorities he was shot after a gunman approached his suburban Seattle driveway and told him “go back to your own country.” And this month, a 25-year-old Punjabi immigrant taxi driver was allegedly assaulted and had his turban “violently ripped off” in New York, campaign officials said.

Group leaders attribute some of the encounters to misconceptions about Sikhism, which originated in South Asia and includes more than 25 million followers worldwide, according to the Sikh Coalition. Named after a term that can mean “student” or “seeker of truth,” the religion emphasizes equality among all people and selfless service.


Jeevin Singh Neelam plays the dilruba during the Vaisakhi celebration.

A national survey released in 2015 and conducted by Hart Research Associates found that 60 percent of Americans “admit to knowing nothing at all about Sikh Americans and knowledge of Sikhism is substantially lower than for other minority religious groups in the United States.”

That means some people fail to recognize Sikh values centering around gender and racial equality, racial diversity and religious tolerance, said Gurwin Singh Ahuja, a co-founder and executive director of the National Sikh Campaign. “The truth is Sikh values are American values. Sikhs have spent their whole life fighting for free and open societies. It’s just really unfortunate that people of all stripes don’t know who we are, even though we have these values that are strongly aligned with our country.”

The chance to shift that trend inspired Sikhs across Metro Detroit to collect money for the initiative this year, said Joginder Singh, a regional representative from Bloomfield Hills. “We had a target for $100,000. We ended up around $120,000, which was really gratifying.”

Kaur was among the youths who helped raise about $1,500. Though the teen insists she hasn’t faced hostility related to misunderstandings about Sikhism, she sometimes worries whether the turbans her relatives wear — articles of their faith symbolizing peace — make them targets.

To combat stereotypes and educate others, Kaur hopes to step up grassroots outreach. She enjoys inviting others to her gurdwara, or Sikh worship center, for traditional meals open to the public after Sunday services. “They get a sense that this is a community thing — that everybody belongs there,” the teen said. “They find a lot of similarities.”

Locally, some Sikhs have also floated plans to expand the tradition and set up a food kitchen, Singh said — community service is “a fundamental tenet to our religion. We actually believe that if we help others more than we help ourselves, that is a key to our success.”

Meanwhile, more area students have been introduced to Sikhism while visiting temples through the Religious Diversity Journeys program led by the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

“We learn how much we had in common that we never knew,” said council president Raman Singh, who is also a Sikh. “When we don’t know, we create fear. As soon as we start to learn about each other, the fear disappears.”