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Stupidity, Xenophobia, and Tragedy

By James Utt
By James Utt

Quick, name five members of the Kardashian clan. Feel free to include spouses. I bet you did pretty well. Now, list the top five religions in the world. Unless you are like super Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings, or a professor of comparative religions, this question, no doubt, proved to be much more difficult.

America is the most religious country among the industrialized nations of the world. But, paradoxically, we have an embarrassing lack of knowledge about our dominant religion, Christianity.

For example, over 50 percent of Protestants do not know that Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation. When the discussion turns to religions other than Christianity, the lack of knowledge is appalling. Perhaps, students tune out when foreign religions are being taught. Or, even more worrisome, they attend a school where comparative religions are not taught at all. (Don’t want my child learning about any false gods!”)

But, there are tremendously important reasons why we in the United States should know at least some of the tenants of the world’s major faiths. This brings us back to the question of the top five religions in the world. They are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and in fifth place, with 27 million followers is Sikhism. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that there are about as many Sikhs living in this country as there are people in Wyoming. Our own state has tens of thousands of Sikh residents. Locally, there is a Sikh temple in nearby Santa Ana, and Sikhs who live in Laguna Beach.

Sikhism began in the Punjab region of India. Major tenants of the faith are a belief in monotheism, reincarnation and karma. The founders stressed the universal qualities of equality and brotherhood. Sikhs serve God by serving others and they see it as their duty to defend the oppressed. Sikh men do not cut their hair. Doing this, they believe, would be going against the perfection of God’s creation. Their uncut hair is wrapped in a turban. Since hair is an integral part of the faith, beards are also prominent. These distinctive features, coupled with a somewhat darker completion, have to their great misfortune, caused Sikhs to become the target of hate crimes. Mistaken for Muslims, they have suffered indignities, assaults, and death.

It is heinous enough when law abiding Muslim-Americans are victims of hate crimes perpetrated by ignorant xenophobes. More is the tragedy when Sikhs are mistaken for Muslims and attacked, have their hair cut, or simply shot to death.

Soon after 9-11, a man in Arizona told a waiter he was going to go out and shoot “some towel heads.” He also said that all Arabs should be shot. He obviously did not know that “Arab” is not a religion, but an ethnicity, and that many Arabs are Christians. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner and Sikh, was outside his business, turban proudly on his head. He was shot dead by this man.

In August of 2012, neo-Nazi Wade Page entered a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and murdered five men and one woman. In March of this year, two Sikh men were shot and one died. A recent Los Angeles Times article made reference to the “swelling ranks of Sikhs targeted, in many cases, after being mistaken for Muslims.” The article also mentions that Sikh community leaders have noticed an uptick in attacks and harassment since the election of 2016. This is not hard to understand when we reflect on the overheated rhetoric coming from certain politicians.

A good friend and Laguna resident, Christine Fugate, a professor at Chapman’s Film School, went to London to film Sikhs for the Sikh Lens Program. She was there during the attack on London Bridge and Borough Market. When the police allowed citizens to lay flowers near where people had lost their lives, among the first to do so were Sikh Londoners.

Let me leave you with some words from Prabhjot Singh, a practicing doctor and professor at Columbia University. He and a friend were set upon and beaten by youths who were shouting, “Terrorist! Get Osama!”

As reported by CNN, Mr. Singh asked, “Why are we being attacked for being Sikh? My tradition teaches me to ask what are we doing as a community to have a far more welcoming embrace of people who are different from us?”

We all could learn a thing or two from the world’s fifth largest religion.


James Utt hopes we can come to realize that the measure of a man is more than a turban and a beard.



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  1. Excellent column. We’ve come to expect nothing but the best from you. I hope you write another column that pricks our collective conscience.


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