When Vaisakhi Is More Than a Holiday

Darbar Harmandir Sahib - the "Golden Temple"

Darbar Harmandir Sahib – the “Golden Temple”

Have you ever wished someone a happy Vaisakhi?

Most people have no idea that the Pentagon is holding a major celebration to celebrate Vaisakhi. Or that Vaisakhi is the birthday of the world’s fifth largest religion. Why? Because the Sikh community as a whole, is often ignored in this country. The time has come to know more about our Sikh neighbors.

Let’s start with the FBI’s most recent Hate Crimes Statistics (released 12/2014) because the findings are telling. Race is still the leading cause of hate crimes in the U.S., followed by sexual-orientation and religion. Among major religious groups, Jewish people are most likely to be attacked (60.3 percent) followed by Muslims (13.7 percent) and people from “other religions” (11.2 percent). Unfortunately, those statistics do not separately track anti-Sikh hate crimes, only including them within “other religions.” Fortunately, this practice has now come to an end. Following years of advocacy, the FBI is finally implementing a system to track anti-Sikh bias, along with bias against many other self-identified religious groups. It’s about time. Because the Sikh community is being attacked.

Last summer in New York City, Joseph Caleca yelled “Osama!” at Sandeep Singh before running him over and dragging Singh for 30 feet. Only days later, a group of teens, male and female, attacked another Sikh man walking to dinner with his mother. These are not isolated incidents. The Sikh community is repeatedly targeted by verbal and physical violence. Sometimes the perpetrators escape apprehension. But in the case of Sandeep Singh, community activism led to Caleca’s arrest and an indictment for attempted murder and hate crime charges.

Such incidents are only one way this community is singled out. Visibly distinct, observant Sikh men wear turbans and have uncut beards. In a society still grappling with diversity, it is therefore no surprise that Sikhs experience workplace discrimination, bias and stereotyping.

Consider New York’s Police Department. Its dress-code requires officers to wear religious head coverings beneath the uniform cap and to maintain short beards, measuring less than one millimeter. With few exceptions, the NYPD refuses to accommodate Sikhs, in contrast to police departments like the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington D.C., which began allowing Sikhs to wear turbans and have full beards in 2012.

There are also daily indignities (or micro-aggressions) that grate at the soul. Take the Sikh who goes to the hospital and is asked to complete the patient intake form. Often, it includes a question about religious preferences and provides a list of religious identities. Many patients find this practice welcoming, while the facility simultaneously learns about their possible needs. But if you’re Sikh, this is not necessarily your experience. Several NYC hewospitals continue to omit Sikhism on these forms, despite repeated requests for inclusion. So when a NYC Sikh patient is hospitalized, the only choice is “other” — even though more than 50,000 Sikhs live in NYC.

Such blatant disregard for an entire community is costly. In one NY health care facility, a nurse shaved and trimmed an elderly Sikh patient’s beard, eyebrows and mustache one month before his death. The patient was religiously mandated never to cut his hair, and his family, who had never seen him shaved or with trimmed hair, did not recognize him. The result, of course, was a law suit.

But perhaps most disturbing, is how Sikh children are tormented. For one Sikh student, this meant being held to the ground by a classmate who forcibly cut his hair. For other children, it means being taunted and called names like “terrorist” and “Osama.”

It does not have to be this way. We can stop acts of hatred and prevent bullying with the help of parents and teachers. Starting at a young age, children can learn that people have different ways of believing (or not believing). And holidays like Vaisakhi provide an easy opportunity for that teachable moment.

With institutional changes, we can improve our neighbors’ lives. What if the NYPD not only pursued hate crimes, but also had Sikh officers who understood the community being targeted? How much better would a Sikh patient’s health care be, if hospital staff knew that being Sikh meant that certain decisions about their care might be made — and knew enough to ask what was needed? And just think how our students would be better prepared as members of the global society, if they understood that diversity, including differences of belief, is not something to fear or hate?

The FBI and the Pentagon are taking steps toward improved relations with the Sikh community. By showing respect for Sikh traditions, they are standing up against bias, hatred and violence. This matters for all of us. Because no one is exempt from exclusion and violence. Today’s bystander may be tomorrow’s victim. And that means we must stand together now.

– Joyce S. Dubensky

The Role of Religion in Transitional Justice

The past generation, also known as the “age of transitional justice,” has witnessed over forty transitions from authoritarianism to democracy since 1974 and a flood of civil wars.[i] While the Nuremburg Trials set the precedent of bringing war criminals to justice, the past three decades have witnessed an upsurge in a global effort to —in the vocabulary of post-genocide Cambodia—“break the silence” and help conflict-ridden societies come to terms with their past. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Rwanda’s gacaca courts and the ongoing Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) are all examples of differentiated forms of transitional justice at work.

Transitional justice can take shape in the form of truth commissions, international tribunals, reparations as well as civil society-led initiatives that include memorials and the documentation of historical records for future generations. Daniel Philpott from the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies describes transitional justice “as the sum total of activities that states and citizens undertake to redress past political injustices in order to restore political orders in the present and in the future.”[ii]
Transitional justice can however, be split into the two distinct categories of retributive and restorative justice. Retributive justice focuses on the legal and procedural conception of justice, holding criminals accountable, therefore providing victims a verdict of the perpetrator’s guilt. Restorative justice on the other hand, focuses on the needs of victims and offenders while actively involving the former and encouraging the latter to take responsibility for their wrongdoings. The key difference between both categories of justice is the notion of reconciliation.
By focusing on the punishment of offenders as a precondition for reconciliation, Mark Amstutz notes that the restorative justice model “emphasizes the political healing and restoration of communal relationships.”[iii] Reconciliation is therefore deeply related to forgiveness, a concept emphasized in religious precepts and traditions. According to Philpott, “Religious people are arguably largely responsible for making reconciliation a fixture in today’s global political discourse.”[iv] The relationship between reconciliation and religion and its rise as a political force in the transitional process has nevertheless been relatively unexplored by scholars and academics.
Abrahamic Traditions and Reconciliation
There is no doubt that the concept of reconciliation has deep religious roots. Christianity, for example, teaches not only to love ones friends, but also ones enemies unconditionally. To love unconditionally also implies to forgive. R. Scott Appleby furthermore explains that, “Religions are capable of providing a cultural foundation for peace in their respective societies. Drawing on their intimate knowledge of the myths, beliefs, and deepest feelings of people shaped by religious cultures—including people who may no longer practice the religion in question—religious leaders are poised to promote peace-related values…”[v] Since a prerequisite for genuine reconciliation is respect from both sides, and religious leaders’ beliefs require them to be impartial, they are often endowed with moral authority that makes them legitimate guides to peace and reconciliation.
One example is Peacemaker Father Alex Reid who in 1993 brought together Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and his rival for nationalist political leadership, John Hume of the non-violent Social Democratic Labor Party. The subsequent negotiations led to cease-fires between the paramilitaries, which opened the way for the historic Good Friday Agreement—a power-sharing agreement between Protestants and Catholics.
Philpott argues that the three Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) have offered the majority of religious arguments for political reconciliation in the past generation. “Religious rationales for reconciliation, at least those in the Abrahamic traditions, derive their prescriptions for horizontal relationships within political communities from the vertical relationship that God forges with humanity—a relationship whose history and character is recounted in their scriptures.”
Reconciliation was arguably most strongly emphasized in the purpose of South Africa’s truth commission. The commission chair Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought religious customs and dialogue into the hearings. He ensured that the voices of both victims and offenders (including their families) were heard while heavily involving the public through the media. Religious communities contributed to reconciliation by giving their support to the hearings. Prayers and hymns opened and closed the hearings.[vi] While the incorporation of religion into the proceedings elicited both criticism and praise, the Chilean ambassador to South Africa lauded:
“Sitting at the hearings held at the central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg some time ago, watching Archbishop Desmond Tutu say a prayer and Alex Boraine call on some of the witnesses, I could not help but reflect that this would have been unthinkable in many countries where the separation of church and state is taken seriously.”[vii]
Buddhism and Reconciliation
While most scholars have focused on the role of the Abrahamic faiths in the reconciliation process, one often overlooked religion that has helped victims come to terms with the past is Buddhism. In the case of Cambodia, where 95 percent of the population consider themselves Buddhist, victims of the genocide have turned to the very religion that the Khmer Rouge actively tried to exterminate throughout the era of Democratic Kompuchea. In a society where victims and perpetrators currently still live side-by-side, many Cambodians have approached justice by turning to Buddhist values and precepts that teach forgiveness and karma.
For Buddhists, forgiveness is a practice that prevents the growth of harmful and negative thoughts from impeding one’s mental well-being. It is necessary to forgive, because feelings of ill-will and hatred will have a lasting effect on one’s karma.
A former monk, Kong Suor used the precept “vindictiveness is ended by not being vindictive” to help him accept the suffering he endured under the Khmer Rouge and to prevent him from hating those who committed crimes against him.[viii] Another victim, Mom Sareoun lives in a village with a medic who, during Democratic Kompuchea, refused to treat her illness because she claimed her ailment was emotional instead of physical. Now, whenever Mom Sareoun sees her she thinks of the Buddhist saying, “don’t bite a leech back.”[ix]
These are examples of victims who have used Buddhist precepts to exercise compassion and forgiveness while controlling their impulse toward vengeance. Suzannah Linton notes that, “many of Cambodia’s spiritual leaders have spoken about how a fair judicial process is consistent with the teachings of the Buddha, and some even link it with national reconciliation.”[x] Thus Buddhism has also been used by some Cambodians to supplement the ECCC’s legal efforts to provide justice, maintaining pressure on the court to conduct fair trials, thus allowing cycles of vindictiveness to be broken. Maha Ghosananda, a spiritual leader nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, argues that reconciliation “does not mean that we surrender our rights and conditions,” but instead that “we use love” to address these questions.”[xi]
Across a number of war-torn societies, from Cambodia to Northern Ireland, religion has played an influential role in helping victims reconcile with their communities. Religious precepts are not only valuable in helping the wounded come to terms with their past, but also teach principles of forgiveness, acknowledgement of suffering, remorse and apology. These values help catalyze a full restoration of peace after conflict, healing the scars of those who have endured torture, pain and suffering under brutal, oppressive and authoritarian regimes. These are voices that are often neglected and left unheard in the shadow of silence. 
– Nastasia Bach, Religion and Conflict Resolution Intern

[i] Philpott, Daniel. “What Religion brings to the politics of transitional justice,” Journal of International Affairs, Fall/Winter 2007, vol. 61, no. 1. p 93.

[ii] Ibid, 94.

[iii] “Restorative Justice, Political Forgiveness, and the Possibility of Political Reconciliation,” Ch.
6 in Politics of Past Evil Religion, Reconciliation, And the Dilemmas of Transitional Justice. ed. Daniel Philpott , New York: University of Notre Dame P, 2006, 165.

[iv] Philpott, Daniel. “Religion, Reconciliation and Transitional Justice: The Rise of the Field.” Social Science Research Council, 2007.

[v] Appleby, R. Scott The Ambivalence of the Sacred, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers:1999, 169.

[vi] Philpott, Daniel, “Introduction,” in The Politics of Past Evil, ed. Daniel Philpott University of Notre Dame 2006, 4.

[vii] Philpott, Daniel, “Beyond Politics as Usual” in The Politics of Past Evil, 32.

[viii] Bach, Nastasia and Meredith Deane, “Breaking the Silence: Achieving Justice and Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Cambodia,” Summer 2009, 39.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Linton, Suzannah. Reconciliation in Cambodia. Phnom Penh: Documentation Center of
Cambodia, 2004, 77.

[xi] Chea, Vannath, “Reconciliation in Cambodia,” Extracted from Reconciliation after Violent Conflict, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2003.