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The Sikh turban: at once personal and extremely public
Harmeet Singh Soin (Left) and his brother Harkirat Singh Soin (Right) differ on wearing the Sikh turban.
August 8th, 2012
04:48 PM ET

The Sikh turban: at once personal and extremely public

By Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN) - Harkirat Singh Soin remembers a day in 1999 when, after much contemplation, he finally took a seat in a barber's chair.

All his 18 years, he'd worn long hair, first in a top knot, then in a dastar, or turban. It was an expression of his Sikh faith and a distinct mark of his identity.

As his locks tumbled to the floor, Soin felt ashamed.

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He thought of his upbringing in a suburban Milwaukee neighborhood by Punjabi parents who emigrated from India. He grew up on meals of homemade roti and daal makhani and sessions at Sunday school that instilled Sikh values. He thought also of how his mother had taken time to maintain her boys' long hair with love and care.

With every snip of the shears, he felt, he lost not just hair but parts of his being.

But he was tired of not fitting in, of being teased. Once when he was in elementary school, he was even beaten with sticks by neighborhood troublemakers, he says.

"I am guessing that they turned on me because I was different," says Soin, now 32 and studying for his U.S. medical license in Illinois after finishing medical school in China.

He became the first member of his family to shed the most visible signs of his faith. His father and older brother still wear a turban and beard.

He is like thousands of other Sikh men who have abandoned turbans to avoid discrimination or from fear of incidents like the shootings this week at the Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee. Others simply feel they are old hat and interfere with modern lifestyles.

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The turban, tied in distinctive fashion, was a way to manage long hair and serves as the most instant way to recognize recognition of a Sikh.

Sikh men have worn turbans since 1699, when the last living guru bestowed a unique Sikh identity based on five articles of faith. Among them were a steel bracelet signifying a reality with no beginning or end; a sword representing resolve and justice; and unshorn hair as a gift of God and a declaration of humility.

In India, Sikhism's birthplace, the turban was first abandoned in large numbers in anti-Sikh riots that erupted after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, says Manjit Singh, a leader of a Sikh nationalist political party in New Delhi.

Explainer: Who are Sikhs and what do they believe?

Even more Sikhs unraveled their turbans for good after the September 11 attacks in the United States. They felt vulnerable after some Sikhs were mistaken for Muslims and targeted by revenge-seeking zealots.

Just four days after the Twin Towers collapsed, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was shot five times and killed by aircraft mechanic Frank Roque. Roque was later found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. On appeal, his sentence was reduced to life in prison.

In the years following, the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based advocacy group, reported more than 700 attacks or bias-related incidents against Sikhs.

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That was certainly cause for concern in the Soin family.

They displayed an American flag and bumper stickers on the family car that said: "Proud to be American" and "Sikh American."

"It was to show people that we are with you," Harkirat Soin says. "We are not who you think we are."

"We are not radical Muslims."

Soin's younger brother Manmeet stopped wearing a turban six years ago. Older brother Harmeet still wears his and has not been spared the sting of ignorance.

Harmeet Soin says he has been called "Osama" on the streets. And when he travels for his banking job, he gets called out at airport security every time, he says, even though he is a frequent flyer and has executive status with various airlines.

10 years after Sikh murder over 9/11, community continues to blend in and stand out

He says he, too, wanted to cut his hair when he was in school. But his father sat him down and asked: Is that the answer to your problem? Will you no longer be different then?

He realized then that the turban was as much his identity as his skin color.

"I am very proud of looking different," he says. "I am proud of my identity."

Harmeet Soin says he was disappointed when his brother first cut his hair and took off the turban. But he understands that Harkarit is an adult who has to be comfortable with the choices he makes.

The turban is a decided mark of difference for which Sikhs may have paid a heavy price last Sunday when gunman Wade Michael Page began shooting his way through a gurdwara, or Sikh house of worship, in Oak Creek, a suburb of Milwaukee.

Police have yet to define a motive, but in the Sikh community, the fear is that they were targeted by someone who knew little about their beliefs.

Lehigh University English professor Amardeep Singh wrote on his blog this week that the turban amplifies the hostility felt by some.

"The turban that Sikh men wear is the embodiment of a kind of difference or otherness that can provoke some Americans to react quite viscerally," Singh wrote. "I increasingly feel that visible marks of religious difference are lightning rods for this hostility in ways that don't depend on accurate recognition.

"I am not sure why the reaction can be so visceral - perhaps because wearing a turban is at once so intimate and personal and so public? Walking around waving, say, an Iranian flag probably wouldn't provoke quite the same reaction. A flag is abstract - a turban, as something worn on the body, is much more concrete and it therefore poses a more palpable (more personal?) symbol for angry young men looking for someone to target. Whether or not that target was actually the "right one" was besides the point for the Oak Creek shooter."

Harkarit Soin says his family knew one of the victims well. Satwant Singh Kaleka, who served as president of the gurdwara, had presided over prayers and rituals at Soin's sister's wedding.

"Why are we being targeted?" Soin says. "Despite educating people, it seems nothing has changed since 9/11."

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As the community stands in solidarity after tragedy, Harkarit Soin says he is considering wrapping a turban again.

"I think this was my vanity," he says about cutting his hair. "I wanted to conform. But why should I be ashamed of whom I am? We are a hardworking community. And we have been through a lot."

Soin is proud to be an American, he says. Proud to be Sikh - and of an identity marked by a turban.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Race • Sikh

soundoff (814 Responses)
  1. Vincent

    The Turban Is A Big Issue ... Which Makes Sikhs Different From Society ... And White Supremacists Don't Want To See This In Their Society ...!!!

    August 8, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  2. kaur

    Please go through this link for more information on why sikhs wear turbans and its importance
    http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Turban

    August 8, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • Vincent

      Who Cares ...!!!

      August 8, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Resident Alien

      Yawn!

      August 8, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • LetsThink123

      the reason for sikhs wearing turbans is not rational, but rather traditional/cultural.

      August 9, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • obsthetimes

      triple yawn. how hot does it get under there ?

      August 9, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Keepalog

      Kaur. There is no point trying to wipe off ignorance from the ignored. As Ab Lincoln once said "A person convinced against his WILL, is of the same opinion STILL" If one is raised by a family with values to be respectful to others, to understand their customs, their culture, their faith, to be helpful and if you cannot appreciate then do not make fun of others or let hate and greed breed inside you.... .then that individual will not be asking these questions. So many broken homes, drugs and above all psychological incompetence has lead to the growing number of the IGNORANT and the INTOLERANT.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  3. magnum12

    Is Sikh a peaceful religion or is it based on violence like Muslims?

    August 8, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Vincent

      It's Kind Of Peaceful Like Muslims ... Unlike Jews And Christians (Crusader), Who Killed (And Continually Killing) millions Of Innocent Peoples Around the World.

      August 8, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • A Hindu

      Sikhism was founded on the teachings of Guru Nanak who preached peace and coexistence.

      About 300 years later, the Sikh warrior path was started to counter Islamic plunder on Indian civilization. Sikhs valiantly fought the persecuting Mughal empire. The mughal Aurangzeb was especially ruthless in forced conversions or killings of Hindus and Sikhs in the 17th century. He razed many places of worship to the ground and forced Islamic Shahria.

      August 8, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  4. Sam Yaza

    you know this song fits kinda well here

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3E65x7q-e4&w=640&h=360]

    August 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  5. Jeff Ho

    I have nothing but the highest regard and admiration for Sikh's. This is not the first time they've been targeted and it won't be the last. Through the centuries and in every country where Sikh's have emigrated, they have endured and worn the turban and other symbols of their faith with reverence and pride. We Americans are the ones who should be ashamed, for our utter ignorance, bigotry and the evil that lurks within us.

    August 8, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  6. Reason

    Sikhs looks like Muslims and act worse than fundamentalist Muslims

    August 8, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Gordon Singh

      lol wut

      August 8, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      buy that you mean because their vegetarians who think eating meat is murder, there merciless flower killers

      August 8, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Observer

      How so? All the Sikhs that I know are very responsible medical doctors or engineers. They are very good at what they do. People that identify sihks as Muslim are just plain ignorant. Their turbans are nothing like the turbans worn by Muslims and their faith is Hindu based. What needs to happen is for USA law and courts to come down swiftly on those that promote hate crimes whatever silly reason the criminals have for their hate. This is especially important when the hate is directed by Xtians toward non-Xtian religions (or rarely the opposite). Forcing people to shame themselves before their gods to please the evilangelican community is asinine.

      August 8, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Josh

      And in other news...you're an i d i o t.

      August 8, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • Caihlyn

      Huh? What source of information are you using to make this comparison?

      August 8, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Simran

      Please dont bother to reply to Reason. REASON is still trying to Reason out his own name, then he/she will come around to reason out what he/she says.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  7. Jeffision

    Perhaps religions should reconsider the idea that clarity somehow lies in one's choice of clothing and hats. Symbols aren't needed for clarity of mind and a compassionate heart, and there is no rational reason to proclaim one's religious beliefs through visible symbols. In a crowded fearful modern society, these symbols act as a judgement against others and they promote division and anxiety. They set up a "this, not that", "us, not them" mentality...divisions of this nature always give birth to conflict. Any faith that depends on a public display via clothing, jewelry, and hats is a very weak and insecure faith. Religion should be a private affair.

    August 8, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • Gordon Singh

      Sikhism knows very well that your appearance has little to do with your character. The turban is a personal choice. However, the symbolism is important, and while it doesn't represent our character, it is meant to influence it. The turban serves as a constant reminder of who we are and the equality we need to protect.

      August 8, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • kaur

      Hey, I was going through david c and jeffison's comments , I wanted to put up a general post than replying specifically. jeffison,jumping to conclusions without full knowledge and depth of understanding is the reason which gives rise to conflicts rather than putting the blame on physical appearances 🙂
      Why don't you go ahead and check out the link http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Turban so that you are more able to see through the cloth into the lives of these beautiful people who in their daily prayer ask for 'sarbat da bhala' which implies God bless the whole world, the entire humanity , unlike Just "god bless America' at the end of a speech here; why not God Bless the whole world , and thats what we ask for!
      Their 9th Guru "Guru Teg Bahadur was undisputedly the first martyr for human rights. His martyrdom was unparalleled in world history as never before somebody had laid down his life to defend the right of followers of another faith to practice their faith. http://www.reeditor.com/columna/4498/16/historia/the/first/human/rights/martyr

      If it wasn't for the Sikhs the diversity that one sees in Asia would not be there . The Muslim Rulers wanted to convert everyone into followers of Islam by force . The Sikh Gurus ,followed by innumerable sikhs laid down their lives for the right of others to live freely and practice their faith without persecution. Neverthless , Sikhs always saw the presence of that one divine light in all , be it a Muslim or a hindu or anyone ; They only opposed tyranny, not faiths,nor people!
      Their scripture is the only scripture in the world which gives place to compositions of people of different faiths without prejudice.
      The tradition of Red cross was first started by Bhai kanhaiya, a sikh , much before henry dunant http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhai_Kanhaiya ....these are just a few facts , there are so many more.....beautiful ones, either spend time researching about someone's faith or don't be judgemental 🙂

      August 8, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • Csense01

      Kaur has answered comprehensively. Another way to understand the Sikh articles of faith is to consider why a policeman or solder wears a uniform. Every time that individual wears that uniform it is a reminder to that person of their duties and a register of that role by on-lookers. They expect someone dressed in a uniform to perform in a certain way. Sikh Guru's believed that like all humans we have weaknesses and we can go astray: keeping the long hair and turban and the other articles is a daily reminder. When the last Guru's father was killed by Moguls, no one was prepared to recover the body: people were afraid of being killed if they professed following Sikhism. I believe the last Guru chose these prominent, visible symbols so that Sikh's never abandon their faith. And for the past 300 odd years it has worked pretty well. The requirement is not dogmatic: it is a slow learning process for a Sikh (=Student) to learn from teachings of the Gurus (=Teachers). Becoming a Sikh is a life-long process.

      August 8, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • Jeffision

      Thank you for your thoughtful and informative replies. I still am of the opinion that in a crowded fearful world, these symbols, which are used as crutches, in all religions, must now be replaced with a private strength of heart and mind in order to not contributed to a world destroying itself by division. The reminders must be internal now, in this dark time.

      August 8, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Simran

      What I choose to wear is a very private affair Jefferson. "there is no rational reason to proclaim one's religious beliefs through visible symbols. In a crowded fearful modern society, these symbols act as a judgement against others and they promote division and anxiety." Well, then in this crowded fearful society, there should be no temples, churches, mosques, gurudwaras etc etc. Is that going to solve the problem of fear? Then someone will say, Oh they should change their color too!!!

      August 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Canada

      I agree with you Jeffison, I'm a christian, but you could only tell by what is written on my heart.
      I may from occasion wear a cross, but it's not that definitive.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  8. David C.

    I consider myself tolerant of everyone's beliefs but don't understand the necessity of groups who have to wear prescribed articles of clothing to belong to the group. It is cultish and has absolutely nothing to do with the heart or faith. Sikh men are bearded men of color, do they honestly think that a country like America, which is little educated on any faith besides Christianity, will discern them from Muslims? Good luck with that!

    August 8, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Your lack of understanding seems to contradict your professed 'tolerance'.

      If you were truly tolerant you wouldn't mind what they wear.

      August 8, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • David C.

      Obviously you don't know what tolerance is "Not a GOPER". Big difference between tolerance – I am fine with your choice of lifestyle/belief... AND having the inability to comprehend why it is necessary to wear prescribed dress to show faith...I cannot conceive of any God condemning a believer on the basis of fashion.

      August 8, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • johnv

      Turban = Diaper heads

      Man don't you guys know you look like laughing stock with that chit on your head.

      August 8, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @David,

      I wasn't trying to insult you. You said that you but don't understand the necessity of groups who have to wear prescribed articles.

      Objectively, this is an admitted lack of understanding. People do all kinds of wacky things in the name of faith. Wearing identifying headgear is pretty inoffensive don't you think?

      You may not conceive of a God that requires a dress code – clearly they have a different set of beliefs – recognizing that is key to tolerance, wouldn't you say?

      August 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Observer

      The point is that whether you are a Muslim, a Sikh, a Pagan, a Xtian or a Jew should be of little or no concern to anyone else. The vast majority of social outcasts that ignorantly interfere with another religion in the US come directly from the decidedly ignorant Xtian evangelical and radical Islamic right. What a person chooses to wear or not wear to represent their faith is outside of anyone's concern. Ignorance is NOT an excuse for violent behavior and hate crimes of speech or action against others. The US is NOT a Xtian nation and according to our founding fathers never was meant to be one.

      August 8, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Observer,

      I know it. You know it. Do the 78% of Americans who are Christians know it?

      August 8, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • VS

      What about Christians wearing crosses around their neck. Wouldn't that be considered the same thing.

      August 8, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Sure, or a Jew wearing a yarmulke. No different at all.

      August 8, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • Csense01

      johnv
      You must live in the land of the conformists and home of the cowards.
      Sikhs have come to settle in a place called USA, known as the Land of the Free and Home of The Brave.
      Sikhs don't conform to what you want or what you think looks OK: but they do adhere to the democratic laws of the USA, as required by their faith, to obey the laws of the land in which they live.
      So laugh as loudly as you want, the last laugh is on you.

      August 8, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • Simran

      Yes, America is a country little educated on other faiths, which do form a significant proportion of this country now. The problem is not with what people of other faiths wear or donot wear. The problem is with the lack of education. And the solution lies in the problem. Just saying "Good luck with that" implies that some people donot want to address the problem, they just want to resign to it. Hinders moral progress of the individual as well as the society.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  9. Y'all disgusting

    Indiana Jones had a run in with these guys in The Temple of Doom

    August 8, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  10. gosikh

    Brother Harkarit Soin,

    I understand why you cut your Kesh.
    You are always welcome to grow you kesh again and be part of the Turban wearing Sikh community.
    I will gladly mail you a Turban so you can start wearing one.
    Chardi kala,
    Guri

    August 8, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Resident Alien

      Also, please provide him with haircare supplies continually. A few barrels of shampoo and conditioner.

      August 8, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  11. Antonio De La Ossa

    Unfortunately, if you stand out in public by the way you look, dress or act, you inadvertently make yourself a target of hate, ridicule or discrimination. It is just human nature to "rid" ourselves of people that we feel are not like "us". That is probably why the Neanderthals became extinct! As long as we are human, we will probably never overcome this instinct.

    August 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • rich

      Does anybody has guts to do this in a mosque. Try it guys and you will get the answer. We Hindus and sikhs mind our business, work hard and live a good life in this great country and people like josh and his friends probably not even attended high school envy us. I feel sorry for you guys.

      August 8, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  12. Jim

    Bless his heart. I bet it was hard. Western culture wouldn't understand it offhand; I've been reading about Sikhism recently. Leaving your hair and chin unshorn is respect for God's creation being "perfect" as is.

    August 8, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  13. Everett Wallace

    PUNKS!

    August 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Everett Wallace

      are mooooslims

      August 8, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  14. SDFrankie

    It all sounds very poetic. But, in the end, it's just more magical clothing. So silly.

    August 8, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • YBP

      Silly, yes. Also foolish and comical. And on children, abusive. Same with other religions' magical garb. The remedy to religion is education. But this is not really what mattered on Sunday in WI. Those people were gunned down because they weren't white. And because gun-people's 2nd Amendment rights and god-people's religious freedoms somehow trumps everyone else's rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Wake up USA. Stupid and barbaric.

      August 8, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • billdeacons

      I don't know. Somehow he looks taller

      August 8, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  15. Lot12Truth

    An interesting video by BBC on Turbans and its importance for Sikhs – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAQ9i-jqrLs&feature=related

    August 8, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  16. Scholar

    This is not so different from Jewish men wearing the yarmulke in public and the way that orthodox Jews wear their distinctive clothing and the Amish theirs, or the clerics of churches wear their regalia.

    August 8, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  17. PhilG

    I am proud of my country when a man whose religion is so dear to him feels he can wear such a turban and always carries himself with dignity and decency while doing it.

    The people who have a problem with this practice are simply ignorant of the fact that the Sikh's do not do this to inflame anyone-this is their statement that this is who they are and they simply want people to know they are happy and proud to be in the religion and community they have built for themselves.

    This is what America is about.

    Many different people from many different lands coming together and finding a common ground to live together without losing their individuality.

    August 8, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Lisa S.

      Amen!

      August 8, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Yup, it is no different than wearing a cross, or carrying a rosary.

      August 8, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      you know i find an agreement,.. just wish those Christians didn't brake my Pink Suisyo magatama those things cost like 120$ not cool man

      August 8, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
  18. Lost

    Is the white man really the devil?

    August 8, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • truth

      NO, but you will get the devil in spirit form in those who are not SINCERELY in God.

      August 8, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Bill Kilpatrick

      No, the "white man" is not the devil. However, if you walk into a place of worship and start shooting people, you are evil and stupid and insane.

      August 8, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      last time i checked I'm not white let me check,... yup bronze skin, black wings, blue eyes yup the devil is not white,.. עִירִין for life

      August 8, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  19. ProfPalefuddy

    Neo-Natzi's hate Black and Brown, and Jewish people, it does not matter if you are a non Christian, Non Muslim, Non Sikh, the skin color is the motivation, cloaked as White Protection, and Christianity. .

    August 8, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      actually the hate every one excepts them white Christians

      August 8, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  20. Sam Yaza

    "Why are we being targeted?" Soin says. "Despite educating people, it seems nothing has changed since 9/11."

    i feel the same man Christians are hard to change, the oppose it actually, it been about 1700 years for us so you have a long road ahead of you, but we pagans walk it with you

    August 8, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Just hold a jar of goats blood in front of them and Pagans will follow you anywhere.

      August 8, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      ho many time do i have to tell you d!cks i prefer shepherd not sheep or goat but shepherd, cu you priest and fill up a cauldron with his blood and ill follow you any were..

      ps Blood is the best medium for joining the material world and the spiritual world, even Jesus knows he mentions blood more then Love

      August 8, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You're getting old, troll.

      August 8, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Tough sh it. Pick another name so I can pound on that one too, Susie Rottenkrotch.

      August 8, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • billdeacons

      OOOh Tom takes a dose of her own medicine

      August 8, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Awww. Nope. Anyone can spot you, troll. So just keep on, poor bitter little twerp. Obviously, I handed you your ass and now you're all butt-hurt.

      August 8, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And the next time you use my name I'm going to report you to the interweb police. You think you're funny, but you're just being an asshoe.

      August 8, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Pathetic little fvcking twad. You'll never be half the troll that I am, no matter how hard you try.

      August 8, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Ooooh, the inter web Po-po, Mordecai? Whatever WILL I do?

      You so big and scary!

      August 8, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      both of you are being utterly childish,.. that beig said i have to end you two right now

      [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fIjsGF61tWo&w=640&h=360]

      that's trolling on a religious blog,.. yeah Obscenity!!

      August 8, 2012 at 8:51 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.