Rethinking assumptions

We have the tendency to make quick assumptions about others without knowing them. So when a bearded man with a turban walks down the street, he is quickly assumed to be a religious fundamentalist — most likely an Islamic one. This is what happened recently in New York when Columbia University Professor, Dr. Prabhjot Singh was assaulted by a group of twenty men while walking around Harlem late in the evening. Dr Singh is a practicing Sikh; he maintains a long beard and wears a turban — an appearance that led his assailants to shout anti-Muslim statements, call him a “terrorist” and “Osama” and brutally beat him until passers-by stepped in.

I was filled with contradictory emotions as I read this: I felt surprised that in a city as diverse and inclusive as New York, such hatred could exist towards those who looked different, or appeared to resemble others  who look a particular way.  But I also felt a sense of familiarity, for Sikhs have experienced such prejudice before, both in India, the religion’s place of origin, as well as abroad.

As a Sikh girl, I have not experienced this firsthand. I am often asked about my uncut hair or the metal bangle (the kara) on my right wrist, but these questions stem from curiosity rather than from preconceived assumptions. The men in my family, however, have experienced situations similar to Dr. Singh’s; this may be because Sikh men stand out more conspicuously than Sikh women do.

Anti-Sikh sentiments, in many cases, have arisen due to a mistaken identity; this is usually due to a lack of awareness about the religion and its philosophy. My grandfather, while on a business trip to Saudi Arabia, was stopped by airport authorities and questioned by the police because he was wearing a turban. He had to spend a few hours explaining, among other things, that a religion called Sikhism exists predominantly in northwestern India and that the uncut beard and the turban, in Sikhism, stand as appreciations of the perfection of our natural selves. Having confirmed that my grandfather’s appearance and religion, in terms of practice and philosophy, did not pose a security threat, the authorities finally let him pass.

Other times, anti-Sikh sentiments have arisen due to it being viewed as a blend of Hinduism and Islam, and therefore taking sides between the two during communal conflicts. This is far from the truth. Sikhism is a very young religion that emerged to resolve the constant friction between Hinduism and Islam, by offering an alternate way of life which advocated tolerance for all faiths and beliefs. The tenets of Sikhism are sewa (community service), kirat karo (earning an honest living), chardi kara (joyous spirit) and an equal treatment of men and women.

The rigidity of our quick, initial assumptions that lead us to believe, speak or act in hurtful ways that threaten another’s freedom of choice does not only affect Sikhs; it includes all those who may differ from societal expectations —  religiously, sexually or ethnically. A continuous dialogue should exist amongst people to make them cognizant of the different faiths, ethnicities and beliefs that are present in their communities, and to be aware of the several different schools of thoughts that exist. Knowledge-based curricula should be formulated within educational institutions to ensure that the right to hate others, without knowing anything about them, is wrong and can trigger uncontrollable violence.

Another important aspect that is often not stressed upon is the openness to being asked questions. Questions on race, religion, gender, sexuality and ethnicity should not be frowned upon but encouraged. By answering such questions, we force others to redefine their assumptions. In fact, in a press conference, when Dr. Prabhjot Singh was asked what he would say to his attackers if he had the chance to speak with them now, he responded, “I would ask them if they had any questions.” This remarkable response reiterates the need to actively reach out to those who act on false assumptions or misinformation.

Our first assumptions are often cautious, and this is a good thing that our forest-wandering selves evolved to beware of potential predators. But to be cautious and to be aggressive, as Dr. Singh’s attackers were, are very different — especially in a case devoid of facts. To define everyone’s initial assumptions is unachievable and  perhaps even, morally incorrect, but to inculcate an open mindedness, flexibility and empathy towards others so as to be able to rethink our initial assumptions is something that can and should be achieved.

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