Analysis: Last week, Canadian newspapers reported that a 17 year-old Sikh had been assaulted by a group of five men, who proceeded to rip his turban off and cut his sacred hair, a most cruel violation of his personal being and faith. The reaction from the Sikh community and those appreciative of the Sikh tradition was surely one of disgust, anger, and sadness at these turn of events. These concrete feelings (e.g., anger or sadness) more likely gave way to a series of difficult and draining questions: how could a young man be humiliated in this fashion; why are Sikhs suffering this treatment at the hands of Canadians who fail to understand Sikh identity and the value of hair to this faith; what must the child and his family be going through at this most sensitive of times, etc.?
Still, despite these thoughts, doubt lingered as to whether the incident actually took place, whether the teen fabricated the story in an effort to obtain a purely individual benefit - i.e., to explain to his traditional parents that his unshorn hair was in this new condition not because of his own choice, but because of an unruly gang of White men. The story, it would seem, would free him of his hair, of his obviously negative feelings towards his appearance and/or the treatment he received as a result of it. A selfish act, perhaps. But, then again, any anger directed towards the child would only be justified if this was a hoax.
The truth, it turns out, was that the child did lie. He made the incident up. The injuries he sustained were self-inflicted.
The police had entertained this possibility while still validating the fears of the Sikh population that this incident was not the result of a troubled boy's imagination, but the by-product of a hateful society in which Sikhs are still not socially accepted to the extent that they would like.
A question for Sikhs is, which outcome is preferable, one in which the child lied (resulting in strong emotions directed at the boy and/or his family, embarrassment, a recognition that the community will suffer lost credibility and respect, a recognition that the boy must have endured a tremendous amount of suffering in order to stoop to this level, the 'silver lining' that the boy's surroundings aren't that oppressive, etc.) OR one in which five Caucasian men really did attack this boy (resulting in a unity of identity and brotherhood, calls for political action and the need for awareness, further justification for the proposition that Sikhs do in fact live in a hostile environment after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, validation of our initial reactions, assurance that the Sikh boy told the truth in contrast to other instances, etc.).
This is not the first instance in which a Sikh has lied about having his hair cut off by attackers. The reaction to the incident in New Jersey, as described by one Sikh community leader, was one of anger and disbelief. The anger is understandable, to an extent; we, as individuals, feel taken - our initial feelings were unnecessary and were provoked by someone who lied for his own convenient interests. Disbelief also is expected; how could a person think he could get away with such a story without suffering any meaningful consequences from the greater Sikh community and the authorities?
At the opposite end of the emotive spectrum exists sympathetic souls who feel for the young man, both in terms of what he must have went through in order to reach this decision to lie, and also in terms of how he has embarrassed not only himself but the family which he was so fearful of. The rest of his formative years, and arguably the rest of his life, will be negatively impacted by the events of the last few weeks. While the rest of us will move on and be distracted by the next story, legitimate or not, the boy will have to live with his lie -- a matter of personal integrity -- and his new identity -- a matter of deep religious, social, and familial importance.
Some have called for charges to be filed against the teen, much in the same way that Americans angrily demanded that the "Runaway Bride" be subjected to criminal charges for lying about being abducted (it turned out, she just had cold feet). There is a sense of betrayal that may undergird both situations, the feeling of being emotionally engrossed in a story and then to realize that those feelings were meaningless. Despite any superficial similarity, there are obvious differences that may counsel against any imposition of charges against the Sikh teen. The Runaway Bride was contending with jitters, whereas the boy was seemingly up against an identity he did not like, a religious tradition that he no longer wanted to accept, a family that held on to these traditions, and perhaps a hostile environment that subjected him to cruel jokes, discrimination, and the like.
There is no doubt that it is difficult to be a Sikh these days; the question becomes what should be the proper avenue for Sikhs, particularly Sikh boys, to express their concerns, fears, and problems (thus obviating the possibility that a Sikh in the future will cut his hair and blame it on others)?
Instead of Sikhs asking for charges, demanding answers, or feeling bad about their own over-reactions, perhaps they should engage in a healthy, introspective discussion about ways in which they can help boys in this position -- as there are undoubtedly other Sikhs who have thought about cutting their hair for various reasons, both substantive and aesthetic. In other words, it is incumbent upon Sikhs to support all Sikh boys -- and especially this Sikh teen at this perilous time in his life -- in order to reaffirm their singular identity and their allegiance to each other, regardless of whether the Sikh in question has his hair or not.
That is, perhaps worse than an act of lying by an immature Sikh boy would be for the Sikh community to abandon this person -- and those similarly situated -- when they are in greatest need of support, help, and guidance.
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