Comedian Jay Leno’s recent reference to Darbar Sahib (aka “the Golden Temple” in Amritsar, India, Sikhism’s central Gurdwara) a few days ago on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno has caused a bit of a ruckus in Sikh and Indian circles (and on this blog) and has turned into an international incident. There are even petitions on the web demanding that Jay Leno or NBC offer an apology for his “derogatory” remarks.
I don’t share in this over-reaction by many in the Sikh and Indian communities (American and otherwise), and frankly, I’m a bit disappointed by the reactive response.
We should be clear: the joke that Leno was attempting to make was about Mitt Romney’s wealth, and not about Darbar Sahib. He doesn’t even refer to Darbar Sahib, Sikhs, nor Sikhism by name. They happened to use a picture of Darbar Sahib simply for its appearance as an opulent-looking building.
There was nothing bigoted nor racist about the depiction. Was it a lame joke? Maybe. Did it come from benign ignorance of what they were depicting? Probably. But, this was no slight on Sikhism at all, really.
As a comparison, let me go back to a recent situation involving a comedic portrayal of another faith group: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka “LDS” or the Mormons). Last year, a satirical musical opened on Broadway called “The Book of Mormon” which was about two Mormon missionaries who travel to Africa, and comedy ensues. What was the official Mormon response?
The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.
Instead of denouncing the musical and demanding an apology, the LDS church pivoted off the opening of the musical as an opportunity to educate. While this musical was specifically about their faith, the official statement by LDS had a measured and non-defensive tone and was an invitation for others to learn about their faith. I think they were able to give people a positive impression even when faced with something that could be seen to be mocking their faith.
Now, while Sikhism doesn’t have a mandate for proselytism, I would have loved to see Sikh organizations in this country take a similar approach to use this as an opportunity to educate. However, there has been little formal response from any organization in North America, other than a reactionary fervor among some Sikhs to denounce Leno. It has made us seem insecure and paranoid, rather than exhibit the characteristics of confidence and openness in who we are.
So, let us stop this panicked over-reaction, and instead seize this moment to educate people on what they saw and what it actually represents.