In the spacious, sun-lit prayer hall of the Gurdwara Sahib of Rockville, Md., a teenager practices tabla with a bearded man in a blue turban and crisp white Kurta. In one corner, a woman sits surrounded by pre-schoolers, their heads covered with colorful scarves and little turbans. She switches between fluent English and Punjabi, asking them to repeat after her as she gives an alphabet lesson in the latter — the language spoken by Sikhism’s 10 Gurus and its holy scripture. In the room’s center on a raised platform, sits the holy book itself, covered in ornate red shawls under an embroidered canopy.
In Punjabi, Gurdwara literally means door to the Guru. Founded by the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation of America, the Rockville Gurdwara has served as a spiritual center for Washington suburbs’ Sikh American community since 1985. Like all Sikh houses of worship, it welcomes people of all faiths. And in America’s current politically charged climate, it also preaches a unique message of interfaith harmony that finds its roots in the religion’s history in a caste-ridden society.
Sikhism was founded in the 15th century in modern-day Pakistan by Guru Nanak, who was born to a Hindu merchant class family.
“He was someone who from a young age was keen to seek answers about the universe, and questioned the discrimination and caste system prevalent in that society,” says Bhai Gurdarshan Singh, the Gurdwara’s prayer leader.
Guru Nanak rejected the social caste system from an early age, refusing to wear Janeu, a sacred thread that would have marked his passage into Hinduism and identify his caste. He founded Sikhism along a message of kindness, peace, oneness of god and universal equality. His teachings and poetry, along with those of nine subsequent gurus comprise the Guru Granth Sahib, which is worshipped as the faith’s Supreme Authority. The book’s most unique aspect is perhaps that it represents not one, but various multi-faith voices.
“When we bow to our scripture, we don’t just bow to our Guru. There is Baba Farid in it who was a Muslim Sufi; there is Bhagat Ravidas who was a cobbler from the “untouchable” Hindu caste. It quotes people who were rejected at that time from the society,” says Bhai Gurdarshan.
Despite its singular history and peaceful message, the Sikh community has had its share of conflict and persecution in India, with Mughal and colonial rulers as well as the post-independence Indian government. Persecution in India was behind most Sikh migration to the U.S., starting as early as the 19th century.
Today, it is estimated that there are between 200,000 and 500,000 Sikhs living in the U.S. Due to their characteristic turban and beard, they began being mistaken as Muslims or Arabs following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and subsequent other terrorism related activities. As a result, many Sikhs have been subject to hate crimes including murders and bullying. An Intercept article earlier this year reported that assaults, threats, and vandalism against Sikhs are rising, with the Sikh Coalition reporting 18 such incidents in December 2015 alone. Xenophobia endorsed by politicians such as Donald Trump has not helped.
The worst of these attacks was in 2012 when a white supremacist shot and killed six congregants at a Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wis., wounding several others. Sixteen-year old Hana Kaur Mangat, founder of a Sikh-American youth advocacy initiative called Sikh Kid 2 Kid, was 12 at the time. She remembers the day clearly.
“It was big shock because it had never occurred to me that someone might target my community in America,” she said. “I had heard about bad things happening in other countries but America was the one place where everyone was accepted. And I was born and raised here, I am American, so I didn’t really understand how this could happen to us.”
The next day of the shooting Kaur spoke at a vigil outside the White House. She talked about how some in the community had said that the gunman came into the Gurdwara thinking he was killing Muslims, and that it was just a mistaken identity case.
“But in my mind I was confused as to why we would be alright with him killing Muslims. Nobody should be killed. That’s something Sikhism taught me,” Kaur said.
Later that night a Muslim woman came up to thank Kaur.
“She told me that everything she had seen in the Sikh faith led her to believe that we don’t let anyone else take the blame,” she said.
Kaur was recently invited to a round table discussion at the White House with the then Secretary of Education on preventing bullying of Muslim, Sikh and Arab children in schools. She says she is glad that the government is acknowledging the challenges teenagers like herself face in American schools today.
“I think it’s wonderful that they are finally taking into account this Islamophobia, this fear of people with different colored skins and the problems that kids of South Asian descent are facing.”
Bhai Gurdarshan remembers the fearful days after September 11, when smoke was still coming from Pentagon. That week, President Bush had declared national prayer day, and the Sikh community of DC was invited to pray alongside him and people from different faiths at the National Cathedral.
“As I walked away from the service, there was a man holding a sign saying Jesus would take care of the world. He thought I was Muslim and started following me, saying Muhammad would not help you,” he recalled.
“I finally said to him, listen, the problem has become much bigger now. Jesus alone can’t help us. Every prophet will have to come together to solve this.”
Bhai Gurdarshan emphasized that communities and religions across the world must unite to fight hatred.
“The world is being torn apart, and people do not have faith in each other,” he said. “Each community and each religion has to play a role. They should not treat religions as if in a wrestling ring…(arguing) which religion is older or which has a deeper philosophy. Each religion has truth, and that truth has to be lived and truth has to be told.”