Ask someone about the Sikh religion and its adherents, and the chances are the response will be a blank stare or maybe a comment about terrorists because the men and boys wear turbans.
That is exactly why Amman Seehra spoke to the township council last week, in an attempt to dispel myths and misperceptions about the Sikh religion. He said it is the fifth largest religion in the world, with 23 million followers.
Nationwide, there are about 500,000 to 700,000 Sikhs – and about 100,000 of them live in New Jersey, Seehra told the governing body at its April 17 meeting. He is an attorney with the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Seehra also pointed out that April has been designated by the State Legislature as annual Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month. The goal is to educate people about Sikh-Americans and the Sikh religion, including the significance of the turban.
Lawrence Township is home to many Sikhs, and has a religious and community center at 282 Bakers Basin Road, Seehra said. About 500 to 600 Sikhs attend services at the gurdwara, or community center, on Bakers Basin Road on Fridays and Sundays.
The gurdwara is a square building, with entrances on each of its four sides, he said. This signifies equality, which is one of the core values of the religion. Sikhs also believe in truthful living, selfless service, social justice and freedom, he said.
Seehra explained that Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that was founded in Punjab, India about 500 years ago. Sikhs stand up for those in need and offers to help them. Sikhs are readily identifiable because of the turbans that the men and boys wear.
“Over 99 percent of people with a turban are Sikhs. The other 1 percent have awesome fashion taste,” Seehra said as some audience members let out a small laugh.
The turban signifies royalty and nobility, he said. All men and boys wear one, and can be treated as royalty.
The turban also is a sign of identity and reminds Sikhs to be good, he said, adding that “if you are in need and you see a man with a turban, go to him for help.”
Yet there is bias against those who wear turbans, especially in the post-9/11 world, he said. Osama bin Laden wore a head covering similar to a turban, and people often confused Sikhs with radical Muslims.
Sikhs have been victims of bias and hate crimes, Seehra said. Police acknowledge that there has been under-reporting of hate crimes against Sikhs, but that is the essence of Sikhism – to have a positive attitude. It does not occur to them to report hate or bias crimes, he said.
Seehra, who lives in Robbinsville Township, said that when he was growing up in Hamilton Township, he “had some issues.” Some people thought he might be hiding a gun inside his turban. About half of all Sikh children suffer harassment, he said, and he is concerned about his 3-year-old son.
And that is why it is important that April has been designated as Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month, Seehra told the council. Six states, including New Jersey, have done so to raise awareness in the community.
“Everyone has gone through this experience. Our story is the story of America, New Jersey and Lawrence Township,” Seehra said.