Inderpal Singh knows what some people think when they see his beard and turban. And that’s why the financial services professional didn’t hesitate when members of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education asked him to help raise money for a national television ad campaign designed to dispel myths about the faith—namely that Sikhs are Muslims or terrorists. (They’re neither.) A modest Seattle fundraiser in February 2016 begat a much more successful one in June, and by the middle of the summer Singh was coordinating a nationwide effort to collect $1.3 million to pay for the ads that will begin running on 24-hour news networks in January. It’s his responsibility, he believes, to inform; all he asks is that you listen. —Matthew Halverson
I was born and raised in a Sikh family. I have studied the history of Sikhs, how the Sikh religion came into being in 1469 and how it has faced persecution since that time. I went to a Sikh private school back in India. And I went to a Sikh college. So I know the history. If we don’t pay attention to that, if we neglect that, if we have different priorities in life, then eventually we will lose the whole thing. And then what will we pass on to our kids?
In the past I was involved in the Sikh community a little bit. On a very regular basis I go to the Bothell Sikh gurdwara. I have two kids and they take classes there, Punjabi classes; we try to teach them the mother tongue. But the reason I got more involved was because of the National Sikh Campaign. I’m trying to bring people together, and it’s a challenge.
Sometimes a little knowledge is dangerous. For example, one guy was like, “Why do you have to do television ads? We can do billboards.” So we have to explain, with a lot of patience and tolerance, “Okay, the reason we are doing this is because a big consulting firm who has consulted worldwide has done the polling and research. It’s not just something we decided to do.” Then it makes sense.
There’s no such thing as easy. But we have to try and start somewhere, right? You have to take initiative, have faith, and stick to it. Just do it is the key. If you think too much, your decisions or your initiative or your willpower will get weak. Just decide on something and execute it.
In Sikhism you are supposed to keep your beard. You are supposed to keep your hair. You are not supposed to cut it. Of course looking at it from another person’s perspective, it seems different. A turban and a beard, this appearance seems totally different. They think, “Why is he dressed like that?” But the turban represents equality, helping people who are in need, and helping people who are experiencing injustice. It’s a symbol of equality.
I didn’t run into any severe situations after 9/11. There was one event, a few years back, where Seattle’s TSA removed me for a private screening. Obviously there’s anxiety or body language that you can sense. I can tell when a person is uncomfortable because of my appearance. But if I get a chance, I will start talking and let them know who I am. It breaks the barrier.
Yesterday I was at my son’s Cub Scouts meeting, and there was a guy there who was an ex–Navy Seal. He had a beard. I’m good with PR—that’s my business—so I went up to him and said, “Hello. Your beard looks nice.” And he said, “Yours too.” So we just started chatting, and I said, “I’m a Sikh.” He had been stationed somewhere in Asia, and he said, “Oh yeah, I know about Sikhs, actually.”
It’s our duty to educate people. It’s our duty to educate the masses about our religion, what Sikhism is, who Sikhs are. We have a lot to share.
This is a fine, thin line. We don’t want to say anything against Muslims, because we don’t want to sound defensive; 9/11 happened, many people misinterpreted it, and there was a negative impact. Our goal is to make people aware of Sikhs, our principles. You just want to talk about your thing.
I’m spending three to four hours every day on this. My whole morning goes into National Sikh Campaign coordination: coordinating the vendors, the hall, the restaurant, the caterer, the RSVPs, making a list of people, calling all eight or nine team members. Now I have to finish this. I mean, we have to finish it.
We have a teaching given by the first guru, Guru Nanak: “Work hard and share with others.” If God has made me capable of being successful or earning more or doing better, I should be sharing my wealth or ability with other needy people.
Yes, I do feel more attached to the community. I’m feeling more of a sense of responsibility now. This is just the beginning. Once we have this in place, we will do other projects. And we will put a system in place where we will be raising funds on a regular basis from our members. And that money could be used for different projects to help poor people, irrespective of race and religion. This is a platform. This is just a base.
I wish this campaign would have been launched years ago. Things would have been a lot better, a lot different. There’s another kid in our neighborhood, same age as my son. They shouldn’t have to experience the negativity. That’s my opinion—my strong opinion.