Simran Jeet Singh: Activism Not By Choice, But By Necessity
By Rev. Christian Scharen, Ph.D.
Running in his fifth New York City marathon last week, Sikh activist and religion scholar Simran Jeet Singh had the joy of seeing his adopted city at street level, through all five boroughs. Yet the experience was marred by unfortunate racist incidents. At one volunteer rest station, a woman refused to serve him water, calling him a “dirty Muslim.” At another point, a bystander yelled to the runners in front of him that they better run faster because “a guy from ISIS is chasing you.”
Little did they know that for Singh, working against such prejudice and hate is the marathon of his life. Auburn Seminary is very proud to award Dr. Singh the Walter Wink Scholar Activist-Award for 2016. I caught up with him to find out about the origins of his commitment to such activist work, not the common hallmark for a specialist in early modern religions of South Asia. When I asked about his vocation between the academy and the streets, as a scholar and activist, he said:
SJS: “For me, the story really begins with my parents. They immigrated to the US from Punjab, India, and moved to Texas. I was born and raised in San Antonio with three other brothers – four of us in total – and we were the only turban-wearing Sikh kids in the region. So through the formative years of our childhood, we became ambassadors for Sikhism. Part of it was obligation, answering questions people had of us. But part of it was the modeling my parents gave me.”
“There was a moment in elementary school, we went to my older brother’s 5th grade graduation party at a local rollerskating rink, and the manager at the rink wouldn’t allow us to skate with our turbans. You either remove your turban, your religious identity, or you leave the establishment. That was a tough moment for my mom . . . She could have walked out and said we’re not doing this, or she could have said take off turban and be part of the festivities, but instead she organized all the parents and teachers who were there, she told them what was happening, and they all walked out together as a statement of solidarity. That way of working, where it’s not just about you but about something bigger — an opportunity for creating stakeholders, creating a community around you who care about justice – that was really powerful for me.”
“Another part of that story that sticks with me: When I saw my mom crying during this situation, I started crying. It was the first time I saw my mom cry. I started crying and my mom asked me why, and I said, ‘because its not fair, they should let us stay, the same reason you are crying. She responded with something I did not expect. She explained that actually I’m crying because of a happy reason, because of how great our community is, that they are willing to take a stand for us.”
Such situations taught him what it means to engage in justice work, alongside allies, at a local level, but also in working for systemic change. I asked Singh how it was that he became a scholar, and how the career as a professor fit with his advocacy and justice work. He recounted a letter from his grandfather in India giving a very high value to education, undoubtably influencing his father to come to the US for a PhD in the early 1980s. As a college student in the post-September 11th 2001 era, Singh felt the aftershocks of violence, hate crimes, and a constant challenge to defend his faith identity. Yet studying religion in college caused an important shift in perspective. He told me:
“In college I learned to deal with the world in a ways I never had before, recognizing that even though I had always considered myself tolerant, I felt my own views to be right, and others wrong. I began to question my own understanding of how to authentically accept others, and their difference, what you might call pluralist rather than tolerant.”
“At that point, I had a choice—to pursue academic work, as I had become very interested in religious literature, or to do nonprofit justice work. I decided to continue studying at Harvard Divinity School thinking it would be helpful in either direction. I went to study with Diana Eck [Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, and head of the Pluralism Project]. She modeled for me how being in an academic position could allow for one to create an incredible degree of impact publicly. Working with her was a profound experience.”
While Singh continues to write and publish in his scholarly area, focusing on the early modern era when the Sikh faith emerged in Northern India, and to publicly write and speak about racial profiling, Isamophobia, and Xenophobia. A turning point was the 2012 Oak Creek, WI massacre at a Sikh temple there. A white supremacist shot and killed six, wounding four others. Singh said:
“Religion writer and editor Paul Raushenbush reached out and said, ‘You need to write about this, your community needs you.’ In our tradition, we don’t have clergy, we don’t have someone who necessarily has a public voice, a structure for having such a voice. I stepped forward as an activist and a community member and a scholar of Sikh and other South Asian religions. For me, this was a turning point in that I realized how critical it was for my community that I engage publicly. I felt an incredible responsibility to represent those who have been traditionally underrepresented, so I made a commitment to help give these communities a voice.”
I asked about his support for this public scholarship from academic institutions, and he was very positive.
“The level of support I receive from my institutions, Trinity University, Columbia University, and from my mentors, has been very strong. I often receive threats, physical threats, and on multiple occasions people have called the President’s office asking that I be fired. The only type of guidance I have received from them is to keep up the good work, and to continue my scholarship, as well, so that I can have a strong tenure case”
Wondering about his work with the Sikh Coalition, where he serves as Senior Religion Fellow, I asked about perhaps the most high profile public work he’s done to date: a powerful segment on The Daily Show working with Senior Correspondent Hasan Minhaj. Singh said:
“We tend to think of public engagement as tedium, as small victories with little impact, and part of what I’ve learned is there can be a real snowball effect. You never know what part of your work can open up major opportunities and affect meaningful change for society.”
Minhaj invited the Sikh Coalition’s youth program to his performance of Homecoming King on Broadway, and he engaged them in conversation about bullying and discrimination. Then, after the Sikh Coalition supported Sikh American actor Waris Ahluwalia who was not allowed on a flight for refusing to remove his turban (not standard security practice), Minhaj (who is Muslim) reached out to do an episode on Islamophobia and Sikh solidarity with Muslims. The episode highlighted the fact that since 9/11 Sikhs have been profiled as terror threats alongside Muslims. Singh said:
“As a community, we believe it is wrong to target anybody, Muslims or anyone else, simply because of how they look or what they believe. The Sikh community has responded to Islamophobia by committing to protect the dignity of all people and to fighting the problem of discrimination at its core. The episode, one of the most popular of the whole year, was a double victory. For the first time, we told many Americans about our religion, and it also displayed our values of love, service, and justice, which humanizes us and Muslims as well.”
Rev. Christian Scharen, Ph.D. is Vice President of Applied Research and The Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Seminary.