By Karis Yi ’16
The election has ended, and President Obama’s administration will stay in the White House for four more years. Demographics have always played a key role in presidential elections, and as Obama’s and Romney’s presidential campaigns attempted to attract the majority of the electorate, it is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Romney had appealed to more minorities. While Sikh Americans do not make up a crucial percentage of the electorate, this group has attracted more attention in recent years due to a number of hate crimes against them for their supposed likeness to Muslims. This discussion of the American Sikh population as a voting group is significant as it sheds light on the importance of integrating minorities into society and signals for future candidates to target lesser-known voting blocs that together can be a sizeable force in future elections.
Sikhism is a religion that is not well known in the United States. While it is the fifth largest religion in the world, the majority of its 30 million followers reside in the Punjab province of India. Founded in the 16th century as a monotheistic religion, Sikhism teaches its members to follow the teachings of their gurus, or holy teachers, who stress the importance of good deeds rather than rituals.
One recent event that put American Sikhs in national spotlight occurred on the morning of August 5, 2012. A gunman killed six people and wounded three others before the police shot him dead at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek. He opened fire during Sunday services upon entering the temple’s kitchen, where women were preparing the Sunday meal. This tragic attack was considered an act of domestic terrorism and has raised awareness for Sikhism in America—and the racial profiling they endure.
This mistake in confusing the Sikh community with the Muslim community demonstrates many American’s lack of awareness in regards to Sikhism. In addition to knowing little about the Sikh faith, most Americans are unaware of the discrimination that many Sikh Americans face. Sikhs are the victims of various hate crimes, profiled at airports, bullied in schools, and denied the ability to practice their faith in the workplace. The vast majority of Sikh Americans are even unable to join the military unless they give up wearing their turbans. At the very least, their distinct religious customs have made it more difficult for Sikhs to integrate into American society at large.
Fighting against discrimination is nothing new for followers of Sikhism. In the 15th century, the founder of Sikh tradition expressed a radical vision of unity, rejecting all social inequalities including caste hierarchies, gender discrimination, and religious persecution. Sikhs from the beginning have worn turbans as crowns that represent their commitment to be saint-soldiers that stand up to fight injustices. “Turbans are [meant to be] identifiers for members of the community and the outside world. It sets Sikhs apart and makes them distinct, reminding Sikhs that when they act, they represent the entire community,” said Keshav Singh ’13, President of Sikhs of Princeton, in an interview with the Tory. Unfortunately, the turban has tragically become a symbol unjustly marking many Sikhs as targets of hate, violence, and discrimination, especially after the Iran hostage crisis, the Oklahoma City bombing, and finally 9/11.
Sikhs have faced persecution since the time of the religion’s founding. In the time of the Mughal rule of India in the 16th century, Sikhs were persecuted for their casteless principles, and prominent Sikh Gurus were killed by Mughals for opposing Mughal persecution of other minority religious communities. However, this persecution has only added to their strong belief in equality for all: a belief that was extremely radical during the time of its founding. In fact, Sikhism was one of the first religions to give women equal rights, and some women were even allowed to vote and join the battalions in the 15th century.
The persecution that Sikhs have faced and the discrimination that they are facing now only fuel their passionate commitment to equality for all, especially for minority groups. It has fundamentally altered the way Sikhs view minorities, also leading to a perceptible shift in their political posture. Sikhs want minorities to be actively integrated into society, and for this to occur, society must exert a conscious effort to facilitate inclusion. However, because the majority is less inclined to naturally act in such a manner, government action is almost always necessary. Such conclusions directly affect the political views and voting behavior of American Sikhs.
According to Singh, American Sikhs span the political spectrum; there is no real political commonality among American Sikhs. “There is an openness to interpretation in Sikhism,” Singh stated. “Our Sikh organization on campus is politically neutral, though our individual members may have strong political beliefs.” Just as anyone else’s political beliefs can be shaped by their surroundings and circumstances, so are the political beliefs of American Sikhs, according to Singh.
From the emphasis on equality arises a natural commitment to minority rights. “Sikhism requires a commitment to minority rights and women’s rights,” states Singh, “and in my opinion, that also includes the commitment to gay rights.” However, as he was quick to point out, many Sikhs come from a more traditional environment, so what constitutes a “minority” is open to interpretation and personal beliefs. The commonality among all Sikhs is the commitment to justice and equality; how it plays out in a Sikh’s actions and beliefs depends on his or her own interpretation.
While there are no studies specifically targeting American Sikhs and their voting patterns, more general data on Indian American voting habits seem to partially contradict Singh’s claims of political pluralism. The Pew Forum’s recent study, “Rise of Asian Americans,” includes information about the perceptions of subgroups within the Asian American community, including Indian Americans. Sixty-five percent of Indian Americans, who form the largest portion of the Sikh community, are Democrats or lean Democrat. While this study may seem to be irrelevant to the voting habits of American Sikhs, Rupinder Mohan Singh, a writer for the American Turban, asserts that this is enough evidence to hint at the American Sikhs’ left-leaning voting behavior.
Because of their commitment to minority rights, it is not surprising that American Sikhs may tend to vote Democrat due to the generally hostile feeling towards multiculturalism, minorities, and homosexuality that some associate with the GOP. Another reason why Sikhs may lean left is because charity, arising from Sikhism’s strong commitment to equality, is also of great importance. One political debate that has been of great interest to American Sikhs, according to Valerie Kaur, producer of Divided We Fall, the first feature film on hate crimes against Sikh Americans after 9/11, is the extent to which the government should become involved with helping the poor. Although there is still an element of openness to interpretation in terms of the government’s role in citizens’ lives, Sikhs come from a background of a redistributionist government. Because Democrats promote a bigger government role in welfare, healthcare, and other areas of need, this appeals to American Sikhs. Lastly, with the recent shooting in Wisconsin, this tragic event highlighted the topic of gun control in the American Sikh perspective, and this may be yet another reason why Sikhs lean towards the left and its stringent gun control laws.
Though Sikhism is a religion that has only recently been on the American public’s radar, Sikhism is not all that incompatible with American society. It lends itself to a host of views, and American Sikhs have taken an active role in American political life. Ricky Gill ‘09, a Princeton alumnus and Republican candidate who sought to represent California’s 9th District this past election, grew up immersed in Sikh traditions, though he preferred to call himself “a nontraditional candidate” and emphasize his education in Catholic schools. Rupinder Mohan Singh saw this as disappointing, interpreting this political move as further proof of the negative reputation of Sikh Americans. He argued that while “it is considered groundbreaking for a Sikh American to run for office, it will only be truly groundbreaking when one runs on the strength of his background rather than in spite of it.” At the same time, for Gill to downplay his Sikh background may not have been an act of disregarding his differences. Many candidates, such as former GOP candidate Mitt Romney, prefer to avoid the topic of religion because it polarizes the electorate. Religion in and of itself is a divisive issue, so an unease with discussing it on the campaign trail certainly did not make Gill an outlier.
Although there is no direct evidence and information on their voting behavior yet, American Sikhs seem to be leaning left for a number of plausible reasons. One thing is certain, though. In order to capture their vote, there must be a strong emphasis on social justice and equality not just for the Sikhs—but for all. American Sikhs have faced injustice, the very thing that they are fighting against, and this has fueled their passion for minority groups. As minority groups grow to be more prominent and as they become a more significant part of the American voting population, candidates will have to face the reality of a no-longer-homogeneous nation to which to appeal.