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    I am impatient with anything autobiographical because there is usually some self-promotion involved.  On the other hand, I am convinced that everything ever written, whether so-called fiction or non-fiction, is autobiographical to some extent

    I have been a Sikh for over twenty years.  It was a mere two weeks before 9-11 when I decided to wear the Dastar and stop cutting my hair.  My timing, of course, could have been better.  Post 9-11 prejudice in the West, especially in North America, has made life difficult for we Sikhs as well as Muslims and other people of “Middle Eastern” appearance.   

It is sad that in the decades prior to 9-11-01, the Sikh turban was looked upon as an oddity, yes, but with respect and gratitude.  For example, in the 1940s, both before and after the Pearl Harbor attack, there were very complimentary articles in popular magazines, such as LIFE, about Sikhism.  Americans, as well as those within the British Empire, acknowledged the contribution Sikhs made to the war effort against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  Almost overnight, I think, the turban went from a mysterious, but somewhat positive thing to pure, unadulterated fear and hostility.  Why?  I contend that it was the uninformed connection Westerners made between the Sikh turban and that worn by the likes of Osama bin-Laden.  Those efforts to educate people in the West about the different turbans worn are very important and should continue.

    I am committed, whenever possible, to explain to people that I am not a Muslim, but say at the same time, that I have great respect for Islam.  I have a formula, “Call me a terrorist and you insult me; call me a Muslim and you honor me!”  When I am the target of anti-Muslim comments, I try to think about Bhai Mardana and Mian Mir, a.k.a. Mir Mohammed Muayyinul Islam.  Were there any people closer to our first and fifth Gurus than these two Muslims?  I have always defended the true Islam and when I try to explain to people that I am not a Muslim, I also tell them of my admiration and respect for that faith. 

    I always try to separate the directives to followers of a Jahangir or Aurangzeb, as well as their actions, from the true principles of Islam.  Lest we forget that when Guru Gobind Singh Ji sent his letter, the Zafarnama, to Aurangzeb, he never said that the Qur’an was untrue; he said that Aurangzeb was untrue to the Qur’an.  In my view, this distinction is vitally important in terms of Sikh attitudes toward Muslims and their faith.  In this connection, I have always had a keen interest in Pakistan.
    The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is very instructive in showing that a nation-state based on superficial religious homogeneity is not necessarily more stable than those with more religious diversity.  People often feel threatened not by the outsiders, but by those who are similar.  It is obvious that ethnic and tribal loyalties, as well as Sunni-Shia-Sufi differences contribute to the current unrest there.  Disparities in wealth and status also play important roles. 

    I recently spoke with two Pakistani Muslim friends, one from Karachi and one from Lahore.  Both persons have been reluctant to visit their ancestral homes out of fear of kidnapping.  They both, in separate conversations with me, explained that kidnapping is not always ideological; not necessarily the work of jihadists.  In other words, it is usually not a part of holy war. Very often, it is merely a means to financial gain and poor people manifesting some kind of local control.

    Here is a possible difference between Pakistan and Afghanistan that should be explored and discussed further. Recently, an expert on Afghanistan, a Westerner, was interviewed from Kabul making the point that violence and kidnapping in Afghanistan, more often than not, does have an ideological rationale, and is not done merely for money.

    Both countries remain enigmas, especially in the West. Did Mohammed Ali Jinnah want a secular or an Islamic Pakistan?  This is still a subject of debate.  It is significant that Jinnah in several speeches acknowledged the ethnic and religious differences within his proposed Pakistan and also noted that Roman Catholics and Protestants persecuted each other in Europe for long periods of time.  I am sure that Jinnah had in mind at least two particularly horrendous religious conflicts in Europe. The first was Christian soldiers of the Fourth Crusade from Western Europe, who attacked Christian Constantinople rather than the Muslim Saracens who controlled the Holy Land.  These crusaders destroyed holy places; defaced paintings and mosaics of Jesus and the saints; raped nuns; carried off sacred relics.  This attack so weakened the Byzantine Empire that the city of Constantinople was eventually captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

    Later, the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics destroyed much of Europe.  Here were people: Roman Catholics; Lutherans, and Calvinists who all believed in the divinity of Jesus, fighting each other for decades.  One would think that the common belief in the divinity of the man from Nazareth would bring people together. The loss of life and property in the Thirty Years War was devastating.  

    Whether medieval Europe or modern Pakistan, small differences can result in explosive conflict.  The “narcissism of small differences” is a term associated with Sigmund Freud.  It refers to the tendency of people to be especially hostile to and intolerant of those who are similar to them.  Such people get great ego satisfaction in the small things that make them slightly different.  Fractious tendencies are always present in Pakistan.  One puzzle, however, is that both Islamists and secularists claim Jinnah as among their principal inspirations. Jinnah did acknowledge that non-Muslims, including Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, and Christians were a part of his Pakistan.  Fractious tendencies, of course, also exist in India.

    I have noticed through the years, especially since 9-11, that when non-Muslims, such as we Sikhs, attend Muslim functions, the Muslims are very aware and appreciative of this.  A Sardar Ji friend of mine and I attended a Muslim outing and we were showered with gifts.  The Muslims pleaded with us to accept their food, but in addition to sweets, these included halal chicken.  We politely explained that we cannot eat Halal, but we took the food to some homeless people on our way back to our Gurdwara Sahib.

    I consider Punjab, or should I say, northern India, to be my ancestral homeland – spiritually speaking.  I have never been there, but factors involving the heart, mind, and soul far outweigh genetics, heredity, and mere geography.  It was through my keen interest in Mughal India that I was first introduced to Sikhism.  For me, India was, is, and perhaps will always be an enigma.  India, in my view, has always been a place of contradictions.  Throughout the ages, great spirituality exists alongside great materialism; great wealth and abject poverty; religious harmony alongside religious conflict; there is the pursuit of pleasure and there is renunciation; there is great joy and great sorrow; there is freedom and there is servitude.  I get the impression that India is as much a mystery to native Indians as it is to a faranggi like me.

    Recently, I attended a Path at the home of a wonderful Sikh family.  My wife and I spent the night as we do not like to drive long distances late at night.  The next morning, one little boy, about ten years old, a lad I know quite well, came up to me and said, “Fateh Uncle, where were you born?”  I told him, “In New York City!”  He then asked, “But your parents were from India, right?”  I then said, “No, Italy.”  He then asked, “Then how come you look like us?”  The challenge at this point was to explain to a youngster the distinction between religion; ethnicity, and perhaps nationality as well

I have had very mixed emotions about the Khalistan movement.  I have observed such great animosity on the Sangat level that I wonder what would happen in a Sikh state.  I believe that the key to the success of the Sikh Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, beyond his charisma and intellect, was the commitment to religious freedom and equal opportunity in the government, military, and in business for people of all faiths.  I contend that it was not so much Sikh solidarity, but Sikh outreach to other religions that accounted for the success of the Sikh Empire.

I have had a love-hate relationship with the writings of the late Hew McLeod.  I envied his ability to speak Punjabi fluently and read Gurmukhi with ease.  I have learned many Sikh facts from his articles and books.  I rely, for example, heavily on his book, The A to Z of Sikhism.   I try at all times, however, to distinguish between fact and opinion, especially when it comes to the writing of McLeod.  There is a part of me that wants to commend McLeod for his honesty in saying that he no longer believed in God, but continued to be fascinated with the Sikh religion.  There is another part of me that envisions the following scenario in retrospect – given his disbelief:

Once upon a time, McLeod believed in flying saucers, but that they only came from Planet X, which he believed in.  This, of course, was his Christian phase.  He then decides to travel to spread the word about the flying saucers on Planet X to people who mistakenly believed in flying saucers from other planets: A,B, and C.  He then becomes intrigued with people who believed in flying saucers from Plant C, but who also accepted the validity of beliefs in other UFOs – these are the Sikhs.  McLeod eventually concludes that there are no such things as flying saucers anywhere in the universe, but he continues his research into one particular belief system about them, even though in his mind there is no reality to any of these beliefs and practices.  I have trouble with this. 

To be sure, converting to the Sikh faith altered my appearance, but did not change my core values and principles.  I simply found a religion consistent with my basic beliefs.  I always believed that there was only one God for all mankind; that all faiths should be respected and protected; that God is not far away; that honest work; family life, and community service were good things, and that we all should try to help the downtrodden. 

I feel compelled to say the following: Sikhism turned my life from black-and-white to color.  Be a kinder person day after day and be helpful to others – it is as simple as that. 

I like the Sikh perspective that all the world’s religions are rivers leading back to the same Divine Essence.

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