Faith in identity

Law enforcement still can’t tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslims

Darshan Singh Mundy of the Sikh Temple of Sacramento.

Darshan Singh Mundy of the Sikh Temple of Sacramento.

“We have a big problem in the United States. Ninety percent of law enforcement, they don’t know about the Sikhs. They think we are Muslims,” says Darshan Singh Mundy of the Sikh Temple of Sacramento. In the post-9/11 world, this misunderstanding can have harsh repercussions.

Just last month, criminal charges were dropped against a Sikh-American truck driver arrested for wearing his kirpan (a miniature ceremonial sword worn by baptized Sikhs as an article of faith) in Kern County, Calif. The police officer mistook the kirpan for a concealed weapon and, on the way to the police station, reportedly berated the truck driver with questions like, “Did you ever send money to the Taliban?”

“The case got dismissed because this is a religious symbol,” Mundy explains. “Like Christians wear the cross, we wear the kirpan.”

Mundy has served as board member of the Interfaith Service Bureau since 1992, and after 9/11 joined the advisory board of the Homeland Security of California. His efforts largely have been focused on educating the public about the oft-misunderstood Sikh faith.

Fortunately, no incidents against Sikh people occurred in Sacramento after 9/11. “Nobody hurt anybody,” Mundy says. “The teenagers, they don’t understand and use racist terms, but nothing serious. And then the sad story came on the 15th of September that a Sikh was shot and killed in a Phoenix, Ariz., gas station. It was very sad in the community. I went on the news media and brought up the issue, and then the mayor of Sacramento arranged a function for 3,500 people of all faiths to meet.”

Mundy speaks from his own experience of living under the shadow of war when he told people after 9/11, “What happened happened. It’ll be better one day.” Mundy was in sixth grade in 1965 when his school was destroyed by bombs during a war between India and Pakistan.

“My father was in the Indian army,” Mundy recalls. “We were living close to the base, and every time the siren went on, we went in the trenches. As a kid, I could see the planes flying right there and I was scared. But it happens two or three times and you’re scared, and then after that you’re not scared anymore.

“After 9/11, I said, ‘This is the same thing.’ I was not as scared here as I was in India, because I had experience of hearing the bombs blasting, I saw the damage with my own eyes.”

Mundy reminds others: “We’re all brothers and sisters. We’re different faiths, but there is one God. Believe in God and one day, it’ll be better.”

Mundy and other Sikhs responded to 9/11 by raising approximately $51,000 for charities like the Red Cross and the New York Fire Department. Through his involvement with Interfaith, Mundy was able to build friendships with people of other faiths, affirming that “we learn so much from each other when we come together in peace.”

The Sikh religion is based on 10 prophets, or gurus, who taught principles of equality, service, justice and mercy. The youngest of the world religions, Sikhism teaches that we are all one and respects all religions as different paths to the same God.

“You have God in you, I have God,” says Mundy. “We practice to see the light in every human being. When I see the God, I will not have any bad feeling against you.”

A Sikh place of worship, called gurdwara, or “gateway to the guru,” is open to anybody. Sikhs provide a free kitchen, offering simple vegetarian food as well as free lodging.

The 10th and last guru of the Sikhs in human form brought to the faith baptism and the “five Ks”: external reminders of followers’ commitment to God. These devotional symbols include covering uncut hair with a turban and wearing the kirpan. Mundy believes that law enforcement should be trained to identify people of the Sikh faith and understand such religious symbols, so that innocent people are no longer discriminated against.

“Ninety-nine percent of people with turbans in the U.S. are Sikhs, not Muslims,” Mundy says. “This is our home. Sikhs are peace-loving people. Our women have equal rights. The faith is totally different from the Muslims. If people and law enforcement understand, we will not be harassed. We are patriots also … but nobody has opened our heart and looked at it.”