Wednesday, October 22, 2014 | Latest E-book | Subscribe to Newsletter

The disappearing Sikh turban: Sacred symbol, shorthand for terror

"When you see a turban and beard, what is the first thing you think of?" is a question Sikh Coalition's Amardeep Singh often asks his American audience. The typical answer is: A terrorist. "We've had 11 years where the turban is equated with terrorism," he tells The Guardian, "Is our community an intentional victim? … No, we're collateral damage."

Blame it all on Osama bin Laden who made infamous the turban and flowing beard, transforming the sacred symbols of Sikhism into a visual shorthand for Islamic extremism.

"I own a gas station. I am working there. People, they call me Bin Laden. Then I explain to them: sorry, you are misunderstanding. You are mixing us up with the Muslims. You try to explain about the turban and the beard. They still call you Bin Laden," says Oak Creek resident Jeji Shergill in the Guardian article.

We don't know as of now if Michael Page believed that the Oak Creek gurdwara was a mosque, or that he was killing Muslims. But there's no mistaking the link between anti-Sikh and anti-Muslim bigotry in Oak Creek and the rest of the world. From Edinburgh to New York to Paris to Delhi, Sikhs have been routinely harassed and often killed for looking Sikh.

Succumbing to the twin pressures of bigotry and modernity, the turban may well become a relic of the past, thereby erasing the troublesome association with terrorism. AP

This knee-jerk bigotry has been blamed for the disappearing turban, which is in the danger of becoming extinct, both in India and abroad. Closer home, the first giant wave of visits to the barber shop were sparked by the anti-Sikh riots in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination:

"There were widespread human rights violations. Young men with turbans or with Sikh names were more vulnerable to being picked up and thrown into illegal detention. Many Sikhs cut their hair and discarded their identity to escape police brutality," said Ishwinder Singh Chadha, a member of the Institute of Sikh Studies. "In the 1990s, turbaned Sikhs were caricatured in TV shows and movies, and young Sikhs lost pride in their identity."

The pressure to assimilate was no less in the West, where anti-immigrant racism has long been a problem, which redoubled in the wake of 9/11 due to anti-Muslim hysteria. From trouble with airport security to racial slurs on the street, the turban became a burden attracting all kinds of unwelcome attention.

Add to the mix a global popular culture that devalues all forms of traditional attire as uncool. "They've adopted bad European habits: fast food, pubs and clubs," says historian Patwant Singh in The Scotsman, "There is this terrible, misplaced urge to merge with the rest of the world." The result is a new generation of Sikhs that has little time or interest in protecting the holy kesh.

While there are no exact figures, less than 20 percent of men under 30 now have uncut hair, as do nearly half of all Sikh men. So we now Save the Dastar efforts which include a World Turban Day, "Smart Turban 1.0" CD-ROMs, Turban Tutor 1.0 software, dastar tying clinics, and even a beauty pageant for uncut sardars suitably labeled Mr Singh International.

“I owe my career to my dastar. I won the Mr Singh contest in 2007 and have since acted in television serials, modelled in a hundred-odd shows and also acted in one feature film. If I’d cut my hair even by mistake, my career would have collapsed," Jitender Singh, a newsreader with a UK Punjabi news channel, tells Outlook magazine.

In a world obsessed with fame, appeals to narcissism often succeed more often than religious sentiment. So it is that young sardars are flocking to dastar camps to re-learn the lost art of tying a turban.

Saving the turban may not, however, preserve the sacred locks they are meant to protect. The dastar may well become just an accessory to be worn at will — long hair or not. “If you want to make an impression in Punjab, you still have to wear a smart turban. Be it to impress a would-be spouse, at weddings, or even for a job interview," says Jaura Nagpal, owner of the Jaura Dastar Academy.

The irony is that the images from Oak Creek — of devout Sikhs in their distinctive headgear — represent a dwindling creed. Succumbing to the twin pressures of bigotry and modernity, the turban may well become a relic of the past, thereby erasing the troublesome association with terrorism. Sikhs may be safer in the future, and a whole lot poorer for it.