"It was very difficult. We wanted to distinguish ourselves from Muslims and educate the public about who we are and what we believe. But at the same time we didn't want to single out Muslims for discrimination or persecution. We were very worried about that. The equality of all people and all religions is central to our faith. We didn't want to seem as though we were saying, 'No! We're not Muslims! Don't attack us! Those guys over there are Muslims! Go attack them!'"
Gagandeep Kaur was talking about the period following September 11, 2001, when many "foreign-looking" people were on edge. Kaur was referring to September 15, 2001, when Frank Silva Roque, a 42-year-old Boeing aircraft mechanic, went on a shooting spree in Phoenix, Arizona, and murdered Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old Indian immigrant. Kaur was referring to the more than 50 "foreign-looking" California residents who in the three weeks following September 11 were subject to verbal harassment, arson, vandalism, or physical assault. At 3:20 p.m. on Sunday, September 30, 2001, at an intersection on Miramar Road, two men on a motorcycle pulled up beside Swaran Kaur Bhullar, a San Diego businesswoman unrelated to Gagandeep Kaur. One of the men jumped from the motorcycle. He screamed at Kaur Bhullar, "This is what you get for what you've done to us! I'm going to slash your throat!" He yanked open the door to her car. She ducked away from his knife. Stabbed several times in the scalp, she survived the attack. The two young men were never identified.
At Frank Silva Roque's trial in October 2003, his defense attorney argued that Roque was insane, that at the time he shot and killed Balbir Singh Sodhi, Roque was "plagued by relentless voices" telling him to "kill the devils." The prosecution argued that Roque at the time of the crime was sane but "consumed by hatred toward Arabs or anyone who looked Arab." Prosecution witnesses testified that Singh Sodhi had immigrated to the United States because he and his family had faced religious persecution in India and that on the day he was murdered, Singh Sodhi had been shopping at Costco, where he donated $75, "all the money he had with him," to the Red Cross relief fund for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. After deliberating for six hours, the jury found Roque guilty and sentenced him to death.
Looking at Gagandeep Kaur, it would be difficult to guess her ethnicity, much less her religion. She's a petite woman, well proportioned, with the rounded shoulders and tiny waist you see in daguerreotypes of 19th-century ballet dancers. She has long, thick, dark hair and large brown eyes and the sort of light brown skin that might place her as coming from Latin America, the Near East, the Middle East, or the Indian subcontinent. She could just as easily be a Roman Catholic from San Juan, Puerto Rico, as she could be a Shia Muslim from Tehran.
"I was born in New Delhi, India, moved to New York in 1973 at the age of three, and moved to San Diego seven years ago," Kaur told me on the afternoon I met her in a conference room at Prudential Financial's Mission Valley offices, where Kaur works as a financial advisor. She wore a black blouse and dark slacks and was sipping coffee from a stainless-steel commuter coffee cup. Her American accent was so neutral that it was impossible to tell that she'd grown up in Queens, Long Island.
"My only experience of discrimination is that I was once walking home from school. I must have been in fourth or fifth grade. I was on my own at that point, walking by myself, and I remember a car driving by and a guy rolling down his window and saying, 'You smelly Hindu. Go home.' And I remember thinking, 'I'm not a Hindu.' But in hindsight, it didn't matter if I was a Hindu or not. It was discrimination. And so, yes, there was discrimination, but it was because we didn't look the same as everybody else, not because I was a Sikh, necessarily."
The Sikh religion, the world's fifth largest, is what Gagandeep Kaur shared with Balbir Singh Sodhi and what Gagandeep Kaur continues to share with Swaran Kaur Bhullar and 24 million other people in India and throughout the world. Gagandeep Kaur feels a particular responsibility toward Sikhs. She recently stepped down after three years at the helm as chairperson for SALDEF, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a ten-year-old Washington, DC-based organization that promotes public awareness of the Sikh religion and advocates on local and national levels on behalf of Sikh legal interests, such as protection against religious discrimination in the workplace.
"Sikh is actually pronounced like the English word 'sick,' not like 'seek,' " Kaur told me. "But we have a hard enough time explaining who we are without our going around and correcting how people pronounce the word. And, anyway, you can imagine the sort of jokes there'd be if people started pronouncing it correctly."
Part of the difficulty Sikhs confront is that, as a faith teaching the equality of all religions, Sikhism doesn't proselytize. Sikhs don't engage in door-to-door pamphleteering, and they don't broadcast television or radio commercials promoting their faith. Another difficulty is that Sikhism originated in a part of the world, and among historical circumstances and controversies, unfamiliar to most Americans.
In the mid-15th Century, a time when Muslim kings ruled large parts of south Asia, a Hindu boy named Nanak who lived in northern India and was born a Brahmin, a member of Hinduism's highest and most prestigious caste, refused to participate in a sacred ceremony that marked his coming of age as a Brahmin. To complicate matters, this unusual boy set out on what became a lifelong mission of preaching to Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims that they look beyond their respective rituals, practices, and dogmas, to seek God within themselves. While this was enough to surprise anyone who bothered to listen, Nanak also advocated equality between rich and poor, and, most radically, equality between castes and equality between men and women. At a time and place when religion, economic status, caste, and gender were absolute definitions of a person's value in the world, these teachings were particularly revolutionary.