- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

During President Obama’s inauguration, he mentioned four major religions — Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam — plus nonbelievers.

Sikhs, who make up the world’s fifth-largest religion at roughly 23 million adherents, were not amused. The following day at the National Prayer Service, Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, took action. He showed up at the Washington National Cathedral at 6:20 a.m. in a bright yellow turban, just so he could get a seat in the front row in the north transept facing the new president.

“We have a lot of work to do to educate our leaders,” he told me.

This is Sikh Heritage Week in the District, and if the president is so inclined, he can put in an appearance Thursday night at the Library of Congress for a gala dinner, book launch and photo exhibit celebrating the library’s Sikh-American collection. Soni Kaur, 19, a local college student, will sing the national anthem, accompanied by tabla drums and the dilruba, a cross between a violin and a sitar. Visitors are flying in from India and Britain.

Friday in the library’s Madison building, there will be an all-day conference on Sikh history and Sikh Americans. Outside the library, there is little available on this religion and only six Sikh academic chairs in America’s universities.

The Library of Congress’ collection includes 1,199 titles on Sikhs, 882 of which are specifically on the religion. Several dozen are on display in the Asian Pacific room, many of them lavish photo books extolling Sikh customs and culture.

Mirin Kaur Phool, president of the Potomac-based Kaur Foundation, which is co-sponsoring the gala and conference, says her religion is frequently maligned.

Although Sikhs have been in America 110 years — arriving here in 1899 to work in the mills and on the railroads — Sikh children are tormented at school because of the turbans all Sikh males must wear. Sikh men and women do not cut their hair, and the men twist their hair in a knot underneath their turbans.

Children’s turbans have been set afire by their schoolmates, and their hair forcibly cut in public schools. The situation got so bad in New York City public schools, the state Department of Education stepped in last fall to create tougher regulations against religious hate crimes. The Sikh Coalition estimates three out of every four Sikh boys in Queens schools are harassed, but their complaints are often ignored.

The Kaur Foundation came into existence because of the anti-Sikh sentiment that arose post-9/11, when many Americans confused turbaned Sikhs with Muslims, and a Sikh immigrant was fatally shot in Mesa, Ariz.

“Our children were called ‘Osama’ in their classrooms,” Mrs. Phool said. “They were told to ‘go home’; well, this is their home.”

Her foundation has assembled a CD for children on Sikhs that explains the religion and shows a boy having his long hair twisted into a knot and wrapped into a “patka,” a cotton cloth that goes underneath the turban. It’s a sign of the times, she said, that a film has to show what lies underneath the turban so that students won’t feel the need to harass those who wear them.

Howard County schools have snapped up the video for their students. “The principals there,” she said, “are so progressive.”

• Julia Duin’s column Stairway to Heaven runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at [email protected]

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