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November 6th, 2010
08:00 AM ET

My Take: How About a Sikh Temple in Delhi, Mr. President?

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Hundreds of Sikhs demonstrated on Tuesday in front of the United Nations, imploring President Obama to take up the cause of Sikh human rights during his three-day visit to India beginning on November 6. They also expressed their displeasure over Obama’s decision to remove from his schedule a possible visit to Amritsar’s Golden Temple, Sikhism’s most sacred site.

When I first heard that Obama was foregoing his Golden Temple visit, I was disappointed but sympathetic. He has a country to run, growing anger toward Islam to manage, and a Pew Forum poll staring him in the face and shouting that 18% of Americans wrongly believe he is Muslim. So why in God’s name would he show up at a shrine where he would need to tie a turban on his head for all his political opponents to see (and photograph)?

But then Manpreet Kalra walked into my office.

Manpreet is a Boston University senior and the president of BU’s Sikh Association. When our conversation turned to Obama’s trip to India she told me that the high hopes she and other American Sikhs had when Obama came into office have vanished. The last straw for her was Obama’s decision to skip his visit to the Golden Temple, which she described as “the Sikhs’ Vatican.”

Although Manpreet agreed with me that it would be political suicide for Obama to be photographed sporting a classical Sikh turban, she explained that he wouldn’t have to wear one. The rules at any Sikh gurdwara, or temple, are straightforward, she told me:  “You take off your shoes and you cover your head.” How you cover it is up to you.

Obama could meet the head covering rule, Manpreet told me, by wearing a hoodie or, better yet, a bandanna with an American flag printed on it.  “So could he wear a football helmet?” I asked. “Sure, go for it,” she said, though she added that such headgear might not seem particularly respectful, particularly (I thought) if it was of the 0-7 Buffalo Bills.

After 9/11, Americans' illiteracy about Sikhism was exposed in graphic and gory detail when a Sikh named Balbir Singh Sodhi was gunned down at a gas station in Mesa, Arizona, by a bigot who mistook him, because of his turban, for a Muslim.

The upcoming presidential visit to India could have provided the American people with an opportunity to avoid future deaths by religious illiteracy–to learn something about the differences between Islam (a product of 7th-century century Arabia) and Sikhism (a product of the Indian subcontinent of the 14th and 15th centuries). This is especially so since the current Indian president, Manmohan Singh, is a Sikh.

Unfortunately, Obama is letting this teachable moment pass by. “I think that by him not going he is giving in to the fact that there is so much ignorance of religious diversity within America,” Manpreet told me. “And it’s sad.”

I am now with Manpreet on this one.  And with Jimmy Kimmel, who, after observing “we’re dumb,” asked the president to “put on the hat and visit the temple.”

We are dumb when it comes to the world’s religions, and instead of coddling this dumbness we should address it. Perhaps the president will respond to recent pleas to visit a Sikh gurdwara in Delhi. I hope so. There is still an opportunity to use his bully pulpit to get across the message that sporting a turban–or for that matter a hoodie or a bandanna–doesn't make you a Muslim.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Houses of worship • India • Islam • Opinion • Politics • Sikh

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Sukhraj

    I am proud to see people like Reality and Bill acknowledging Sikhs and actually knowing who we are. 😀

    -Nirbẖao Nirvair-
    (No Fear No Hatred)

    June 5, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
  2. Jill

    OBAMA is a FOOL!
    He will lose the election!
    Change, huh, What Change, Just HYPOCRACY!
    Proof he doged Sikhs Temple due to Muslim fears, in Muslim Mosque he also did not cover his head and worse he made his Female Michele Obama cover her head. This proves he knows he has to cover his head thats why he had wife cover hers yet he did not cover his, because in Islam, Muslims are allowed to engage in "HOODNA" which means a Muslim may per Islamic Law lie about his fiath or anything if it furthers Islam until Islam ruls the wohole World in a Iron Grip – then no Muslim may Lie about his Faith as no need.

    SO to anyone wondering did Obama realy do some thing so stupid as to cancle a Teachable Moment on who the Sikhs are due to fear of he himslf like the SIkhs woulod be mistaken for a Muslim!

    THE ANSWER IS 100% Yes:
    It is no coincedence that he did not want to cover his Head at Sikh Golden Temple (and Sikh wil not compromise a principle of Equlity even for King Obama the closet Muslim) because yet again when he did go to a Actual Muslim Mosque where he also had to cover his head he did not (because in Islam any and all principles may be compromised to further Islam and powerful people count way more then women or poor) he then turned arround and made his Wife cover her head (cause in Islam Women are less then a MAN)

    So people are not calling Michel Obama a Muslim and thats why Obama had no problem pimping her out to Islam and made her cover her head in Subservence to the Mighty Islam.

    BTW Asians cover the head as a sign of equality and that God is above all Beings
    BTW Muslims cover the head almost only of Women as a sign of submission to man.
    that is why you almost always only see women of Islam covered up but not the men.

    So Obama can count on Islams vote to win him the election cause Lutherans like myself are going to vote his soory behind out to pasture in Indonesia where he can hear the "most beautiful sound in the world the ISLAMIC call to prayer.

    Most people get a cold evil chill gown there spine when they hear that haunting eeree sound of "allah alloo of Akabar, aloooo whooooo ooooo Akbarrrra" so many birds drop out of the sky to there deaths. Goes nicely with women fully covered up undergoing a death by stoning sentence!

    Who wants to stone a pretty woman, but cover one up in a sack and it looks like a defenceless horse in a sack and the people get a thrill of extacy knowing that it may be there Islamic stone that snufs out the life and feel like they are Allah cause there is no God. And that what "there is no God but Allah means", cause allah and God are not the same thing in Islam, like it says "there is no God" but there is "only Allah" and that is the correct translation, any other is just a ":Hoodna"' that all Musklims may engage in, cause Islam is not just a Religion it is a form of Governance a totalitarian regime of Faith!

    November 18, 2010 at 4:44 am |
  3. oops

    effin

    November 16, 2010 at 12:51 am |
    • oops

      effer

      November 16, 2010 at 12:52 am |
    • oops

      ffing

      November 16, 2010 at 12:54 am |
    • oops

      ef-fing

      November 16, 2010 at 12:55 am |
  4. Voted for oops

    anarchy!

    November 16, 2010 at 12:49 am |
    • Voted for oops

      eff

      November 16, 2010 at 12:51 am |
    • Voted for oops

      ffi

      November 16, 2010 at 12:51 am |
  5. GSA

    @Reality
    Nicely said, I was shocked to hear something positive from you about any religion, much appreciated and goes to show you approach the discussion with good background and knowledge on the subject. The zinger about the bald men need not apply was pretty funny as well, my dad is bald and he can't really pull off the turban look, doesnt' stop him from trying though.

    November 8, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
  6. Reality

    How to become a Sikh:

    "You have to be truly devoted to the religion in order to become a Sikh. Mostly you need to understand the religion. You then drink "amrit", holy water, and then you start wearing the 5 Kakars which are Kes (hair... non cut) Kanga (a comb placed in your hair and then covered with a turban) (Kachera) a knee length under garment, Kara( a steel bracelet) Kirpan ( its a sort of a small sword but not used in a harmful way its just a religious showing) .

    Obviously, bald men need not apply!!

    November 7, 2010 at 11:41 pm |
  7. Kang

    3000 Sikhs killed by the Government(Ruling Party) in 1984 in 48 Hrs and not a single culprit is hanged until now.. What a teethless and impotent justice system. Such a poor level justice system is creating fuel for terrorism.
    Many people who migrated to US to avoid Punjab police were targetted again here ... Just because they had a turban.

    November 6, 2010 at 9:58 pm |
  8. Bill

    I feel so bad for the sikhs. Such a proud, hardworking, good people... and they continue to get punished for stuff that muslims do. Sikhs come here, work hard, and achieve... they should not have to take all this crap because of their religious garb

    November 6, 2010 at 7:24 pm |
    • Jill

      wrong, bald people may especially want to become Sikhs because wearing a Sikh Turban makes any bald person look like they have a plush full head of hair!

      Maybe the SIkh Universal God of all the Universes was trying to make live easier for all his Childern by eliminating the Bald stigma by making all look like Nobel Prince and Kings be they in reality dirt poor of filthy rich.

      I love the SIkh Turbaned look, those Turbans are so Areodynamic must be good for sprinting or horse riding, maybe thats why The Sikh Military under King Ranjit Singh always defeated the British who had conquered all of India and were using Indian Hindus and Muslims enslaved under the British flag to conquer rest of India's peoples. The Maratha and the Punjabies(Sikhs) were the only 2 Nations left until the Sikh King died and then British Spies the "Hindu Dogras" who got high positions of power because the Sikh King did not discriminbate against any religion.

      Maybe he should have, then traitourous people would have not undone the world 1st Benevolent Kingdom.

      November 18, 2010 at 4:21 am |
  9. Jasmin

    Thank you for writing this! I like how you transition from your initial reaction to the story (because that was exactly the same reaction I gave) to a more understanding approach to the situation. Thanks for writing something positive, it is much appreciated!

    November 6, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  10. Reality

    Why are topics like this one repeated i.e. this topic was discussed a few months ago. The professor appears to be obsessed with everything Sikh!!

    Again to bring everyone up to speed on Sikhism:

    "According to Article I of the "Rehat Maryada" (the Sikh code of conduct and conventions), a Sikh is defined as "any human being who faithfully believes in One Immortal Being; ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak Dev to Sri Guru Gobind Singh; the Sri Guru Granth Sahib; the utterances and teachings of the ten Gurus and the baptism bequeathed by the tenth Guru; and who does not owe allegiance to any other religion".[24] The most common symbol of all Sikhs, because of its simplicity, is uncut hair (including beards for men) and turbans.

    The greater Punjab region is the historic homeland of Sikhism. Most Sikhs are Punjabis and come from the Punjab region, although significant communities exist around the world. Punjabis and the Punjab region's history has been tremendously important in the formation of Sikhism as a religion. One of the most important and very often forgotten beliefs of Sikhism is the non-belief in any caste, group, distinction of any sort within all the human race, which their Gurus (teachers) had left behind. The Punjabi influence is the main reason why Sikhs have, sometimes, been described as an ethnoreligious group outside of India."

    November 6, 2010 at 11:10 am |
    • Jasmin

      You've definitely highlighted the most beautiful and significant points about Sikhism, which I appreciate. However, this article is nothing but a positive push towards Americans and other to learn about Sikhism and other religions of the world and to be open minded. There is no need to start with being aggressive. You seem to be quite up to date on Sikh philosophy, then you must also know that another fundamental aspect of Sikhism is to have no anger. Stand up for yourself and spread the word, but don't get aggressive because it takes away from all the wonderful stuff you wrote, because the negative will stick our more. No matter what wonderful things you state, people will see the negative. Just my two cents, hope it provoked a good thought in you mind.

      November 6, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
    • honestanon

      @ Reality

      "Why are topics like this one repeated i.e. this topic was discussed a few months ago. The professor appears to be obsessed with everything Sikh!!"

      Likely because it's a current hot button topic. It's been 'publicized' that Obama allegedly gave priority to how he appears in the media over the indignity of the Sikh's at his rejection of visiting the Amritsar Golden Temple. Initially a baseball cap was nixed by the Sikh's, however, as reported by Huffington, "We want to make it clear that he may wear anything to cover the head. It may be an appropriate cap also," Jathedar Avtar Singh Makkar, president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the chief representative body of the Sikhs, told The Indian Express Wednesday. We have no objection to his wearing a cap. He is our revered guests and we are already in the process of welcoming him with full honours"

      Now, not to make excuses, but there is usually much that the public is not aware of with respects to Presidential visits. The thing that comes foremost to mind is security; the site may not have been approved by the Secret Service. Transportation and other logistical concerns may have had an impact. We will never know. I don't think that something as superficial as a 'head covering' , which could have been something as innocuous as a ball hat, was the reason. Further, I'm not aware of any official "fear of bad PR from a turban photo op" reason being given by the White House. If there was, I didn't see it.

      What I did read was this article by Stephen Prothero... Come on, professor, politics are more complex than this. Stop shoehorning.

      @ Jasmin

      I didn't read anything remotely aggressive or negative to this religion in Reality's post. I think he just missed connection to the PR storm. A fine post regardless.

      November 6, 2010 at 7:06 pm |
    • honestanon

      @ Mr. Prothro

      When something's in question I always like to go to the source of the offended party, in this case the Sikhs. From the Sikh Siyasat Network:

      http://www.sikhsiyasat.net/2010/10/21/sjf-says-head-scarf-is-a-non-issue-obama-shies-away-from-paying-tribute-to-innocent-sikhs-massacred-at-golden-temple-in-june-1984/

      November 6, 2010 at 7:23 pm |
    • Jasmin

      I wasn't saying that Reality said something negative about the religion, I meant that reality started off the post negatively with being angry about why this is still being discusses... basically i was saying that rather than getting angry about this blog, Reality should appreciate that something nice is being said and not be negative.

      November 6, 2010 at 9:25 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.