Today’s online and print versions of The New York Times includes an article describing the challenges Sikh Americans are facing when attempting to join the US military:
“Folks say, ‘If you really want to serve, why don’t you cut your beard?’ ” said Major Kalsi, a doctor who is the medical director of emergency medical services at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. “But asking a person to choose between religion and country, that’s not who we are as a nation. We’re better than that. We can be Sikhs and soldiers at the same time.”
By tradition, Sikhs are expected to be soldiers in accordance with the sant-sipahi (“saint-soldier”) ethos started by the sixth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Hargobind (1595-1644). It was with this martial tradition rooted in the Sikh faith that Sikhs rebelled against oppressive rulers of the Indian subcontinent in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries and established their own kingdoms in Punjab, until the British asserted a hold over all of Punjab by the second half of the 19th century. After that time, many Sikhs served with distinction in the British and then Indian militaries post-independence, though in the spirit of combating oppression, still other Sikhs sought political freedom and rebelled against unjust rule during these times as well.
The Sikh martial heritage surpasses that of simply military service — we does not exist to wage war, but to exercise Sikh values of equality, justice, and defense of the weak. Yet, it is from this martial heritage that military service is so heavily favored among Sikhs today. Thus, it is no surprise that many Sikh Americans seek to serve in the US military despite policies preventing these individuals from doing so — policies that are antiquated and therefore provide no real benefit to the US military. Sikhs with turbans and beards can wear helmets and gas masks, and have gone “above and beyond” to maintain their appearance according to regulation.
Many would argue that recent military campaigns are not consistent with the sant-sipahi ethos, and certainly there is a validity to this argument. However, we must also not allow ourselves to confuse issues that results in an abdication of our own rights. We should be able to both call into question the rationale behind recent engagements and ensure that we are not discriminated against as a people, particularly by one of the country’s largest employers. Whether or not we agree, a Sikh should be allowed to serve alongside any other American should he or she choose. As House Representative Joseph Crowley from New York states in today’s The New York Times article:
“If they want to serve, we should let them do it.”
And, in doing so, perhaps we will take one step forward from distinguishing between “they” and “we.”