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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Profiled with Pride

I am a person very proud of his Western heritage and Mediterranean ancestry. I served in the United States Marine Corps in a combat role in Vietnam. I came back from Vietnam a quite demoralized veteran with moderate post-traumatic stress and rejoined a society in great flux: the anti-war movement; civil rights movement; the student movement; hippies and flower children. Despite personal and social turmoil in the late 1960s and early 70s, I got some college degrees and taught history and social science for the past thirty years.

My long-standing curiosity about Eastern philosophies and religions, and developed a deep interest in the Sikh religion that originated in northern India about 500 years ago. I was attracted to the Sikhs’ reputation for brave resistance to injustice and oppression. I also liked the core values of the Sikhs: belief in one universal God; respect for all religions; honest work; full equality between men and women; community service to all mankind....

After having considered myself a Sikh for the last 15 years, it was just two weeks before 9-11-2001 that I decided to be a more “complete” Sikh by not cutting my hair and by wearing a turban. The timing could have been better! The post-9-11 prejudice against anyone with a Middle Eastern appearance affected me greatly and immediately. People, especially men, with any sort of “Middle Eastern” look, became targets of American anger and frustration.

A Sikh, a cousin of a very dear friend, was murdered in cold blood in Arizona days after 9-11. He was neither a Muslim nor an Arab. Wherever I went -- restaurants, shopping malls, city parks, and even college campuses (the so-called bastions of liberalism), I would hear things like “Hey, Osama!”, “Down with the Taliban!” and “Go back to Arabia!” I happen to have been born in New York City. At my part-time job in a bookstore, I was called Gunga Din and Swami by customers.

Should one ignore these verbal barbs, or try to educate the perpetrators? But where does one begin to educate given the narrow-mindedness of many Americans about cultures other than their own? Whether I ignored the verbal attacks, or tried to explain that I am not a Muslim, I regretted it afterwards. Nothing seemed adequate. Thank God, I have never been physically abused or assaulted by anyone, but this may simply be a matter of time and luck....

Again, we are neither Muslims nor Hindus, but we respect Islam and Hinduism. Although Sikhs are closely associated with the Indian armed forces, a young Sikh was recently commissioned an officer in the Pakistani Army.

Sikhism has taught me that of all the virtues, three are most important: love, humility, and forgiveness. The greatest of these is forgiveness, which is also the most difficult to put into practice. I am a work in progress. I shall never forget that it was American freedom that enabled me to explore Eastern ideas in the first place. This is why this remains my country and why I still think it is great. However, like me, it is also a work in progress. [Link]

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