Which, they are not. In the month after 9/11, more than 300 hate crimes were committed against Sikhs according to the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based community group formed in response to that flurry of misguided reprisal attacks. The mass shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, last year was another disturbing example of the cultural confusion that the 700-year-old South Asian religion causes for some Americans. Although Oak Creek authorities have yet to determine an official motive for the attack, the shooter’s white-supremacist background and alleged claims of an “impending racial war,” left little doubt that he targeted the Sikh community because of their differing cultural heritage.
Just last week, two incidents of mistaken xenophobia were reported: in Manhattan, a mob of 20 teenagers swarmed and beat a Columbia University professor, Prabhjot Singh, supposedly because his turban and beard signaled to the marauding teens that he was a terrorist. Professor Singh’s attackers allegedly yelled, “Get Osama,” before they left Singh with a broken jaw and several missing teeth.
In Mississippi, a judge ordered a Sikh defendant to “remove the rag on his head” or go to jail. The defendant had gotten arrested for carrying a short knife—or a kirpan—which, it turns out, is a religious requirement that some Sikh men follow.
The kirpan is a ceremonial dagger that some Sikh men carry as a symbol of the martial history of the religion and the duty of manhood. Carrying the kirpan is one of the five articles of faith of Sikhism, as established in the 17th century by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth leader of the religion. While advocates at the Sikh Coalition push for better education about their religion and nonviolent, cross-cultural outreach as a means to stop the uptick in violence toward Sikhs in the US, at least one American Sikh sees the legacy of the kirpan as a reason to arm up as a more direct method of deterrence.
Gursant Singh has a solution: he wants every Sikh man and woman to have access to and know how to use a firearm. He details it on his YouTube channel and writes about his disenfranchisement with other white Sikhs in his book, Confessions of an American Sikh.
Gursant was born Clark Harris in 1956 to a proud military family in Southern California. In 1981 he became one of thousands of white converts to Sikhism in American. He is a uniquely American mix of red-blooded gun boosterism and the heritage of a religion birthed half a world away. Get this: he sued the State of California because he claimed its ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines interferes with the practice of his religion, claiming that the articles of faith detailing kirpan-carrying extend to the bearing of large firearms.
Gursant doesn’t speak for the majority of Sikhs in America. The kirpan is regarded by many Sikhs as a potent symbol of duty for Sikh men and part of the muscular tradition of Sikh warriors, but few Sikhs connect that tradition to gun ownership. We decided to talk with Gursant about his outlying beliefs that Sikhs should arm themselves, and how Sikhism might evolve in our pistol-popping, American context.
“Guru Gobind Singh said we should have weapons of all kinds. We should be ready to defend ourselves and defend those who can’t defend themselves. To train with firearms is good for your sense of confidence and responsibility. I think it’s a great way to increase your self-confidence and individual responsibility. I grew up with firearms so they’re very natural to me. But I hear so many people who say they’re afraid of a gun.“
“It’s not the gun that is the thing to be afraid of. It’s the people who are using them. I think it’s important for our society to have the guns that these criminals have or that these hatemongers have. I feel a lot safer and I feel self-confidence that I can go where I want and I don’t have to fear someone attacking me.“
“I just can’t imagine going out without wearing a handgun in today’s society. You’re just really asking for trouble especially in our situation where there are so many people out there who hate us for looking Sikh. It’s a personal defense weapon, and it’s legal to get one. You can defend yourself and your family without too much practice. Take a few classes and get the license.“