Sikh inspires cultural community at NWC

Posted 4/7/09

“There's this expectation that if someone speaks English well, then they are going to look a certain way or act a certain way,” Singh said.

Singh's turban is a sign of his religious faith, Sikhism (see related sidebar at end of …

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Sikh inspires cultural community at NWC


Preetmohan “Preet” Singh speaks with a clear American accent, loves March Madness, went to Georgetown University and wears a turban daily. His turban may provoke second glances from passersby, but Singh encourages people to question their assumptions.

“There's this expectation that if someone speaks English well, then they are going to look a certain way or act a certain way,” Singh said.

Singh's turban is a sign of his religious faith, Sikhism (see related sidebar at end of story).

He recently visited Northwest College, sharing the independent documentary, “A Dream in Doubt,” which he co-produced. The film follows Rana Singh Sodhi, an Indian immigrant whose brother, Balbir, was killed on Sept. 15, 2001 in Mesa, Ariz., in America's first post-9/11 revenge murder.

Balbir, a Sikh, was wearing a turban. Frank Roque, the man convicted of murdering Balbir, claimed he was rooting out terrorists. Sikhism has no relation to Islamic extremism and has not been associated with terrorism.

As the nation reeled from the al-Queda terrorist attacks in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, a ripple of violence began across the nation, one that many people never heard about — hate crimes, Americans against Americans.

Citizens were attacked for their religious values or physical appearance, such as wearing a turban.

The first documented post-9/11 hate crime occurred as the first tower was falling down. People yelling, “You're responsible!” chased a man who worked in the financial district down the street. Others were beaten with baseball bats.

“This was discrimination and prejudice run amok,” Singh said.

The film tells the story of Rana and his family, who moved to the U.S. from India to escape religious persecution and pursue the America dream. The film highlights the question, “When you look like America's enemy, is the dream worth the price?”

Following 9/11, other members of the Sikh community were beaten, threatened with death and told to leave America.

After showing the powerful documentary that serves both as an education to Sikhism and an unearthing of American prejudice, Singh asked the dozens gathered at NWC to describe the film in one word.

The crowd responded: Disbelief. Fear. Ignorance. Awareness.

Singh's one word to describe the film is: Strength.

After developing a relationship with Rana's family over the last six years, Singh admires their strength.

“It's a strength that comes from faith, from the community,” he said.

The family endured the loss of one brother in Sept. 2001 and a second brother's murder 11 months later.

Authorities in California ruled that the death of the second brother, Sukhpal Sodhi, was not a hate crime, but speculation remains.

The film caused the Powell audience to consider why Americans are being harassed, beaten and killed for their faith, when one of America's core values is religious freedom.

It also prompted attendees to question whether such a hate crime could occur in their own community.

Some saw Powell and Northwest College as tolerant places, but others challenged that perception.

“It's one of the most diverse, accepting places,” said one student.

“There's an enormous amount of bigotry here,” said Steve Thulin, a NWC history professor.

He added “students come (to Northwest) with absolutely no awareness for anyone's religion except their own.”

Singh said hate crimes — targeting religion or other group — can occur anywhere.

“I don't think any area is immune to racism and sexism,” Singh said.

Singh has shown the film at about 15 campuses across the nation, and Northwest College is the smallest and most rural campus to host a viewing. Singh, who moved to America from India at age 10, was the national director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund from 2002-2005 and serves on the national board of directors for American Civil Liberties Union. He currently serves as the director of public policy at The Interfaith Alliance in Washington, D.C. Singh is a friend of Harriet Bloom-Wilson and Richard Wilson, both NWC faculty members. His presentation, part of the 2009 Multicultural Events Series, was sponsored by the “We the People” initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the NWC Multicultural Events Series, Powell Valley Community Education, NWC Student Senate, NWC Gay and Straight Alliance and St. John's Episcopal Church of Powell.

“We've really tried to engage with audiences who don't have Sikhs in their communities,” Singh said.

Following the film, Powell resident Peggy Sanders said, “I really had my eyes open to the injustices that happen … The Bible says to love your neighbor and everyone is your neighbor. You are supposed to love, not hate.”

In addition to awareness, Singh said he wants the film to inspire action. He hopes people become allies to those in the community who are perceived as “different” — whether for their religious faith, race, sexuality or gender.

“When a community feels under siege, it's really important to have allies,” Singh said.

After an event like 9/11, people were anxious and fearful, looking for someone to blame.

Singh encountered racist gestures and remarks after 9/11.

One understanding man, an ally in the community, looked at him and asked, “Buddy, are you doing OK?”

“I needed that,” Singh said.

He still encounters comments or stares for his turban.

“Especially after 9/11, some of those stares were no longer curious stares,” he said.

Sometimes he chooses to ignore them, other times — depending on the context — he responds.

During Bloom-Wilson's multicultural class on Friday, he told students that one time at a mall, a man jokingly called to his friends, “Oh, I think it's Osama's brother.”

Singh looked at the man, who was black, and asked, “Are you Michael Jordan's cousin?”

The man laughed and responded, “Oh, that's good.”

Following 9/11, some Sikhs wanted to blend in and chose not to wear their turbans. Singh never considered not wearing his, as it's such a natural part of his identity.

“It's a part of who I am,” he said. “I wouldn't be myself if I didn't have long hair and if I didn't wear a turban. It's a natural part of who I am.”

Singh added that, turban or not, there are plenty of other ways for people to stand out. Really, each person is unique, making absolute conformity impossible.

“There isn't a panacea for fitting in,” he said. “Being an individual and being proud of who you are will get you more respect in the long run than trying to achieve some sort of ideal.”

For more about the film, visit To view the film for free, visit and search for “A Dream In Doubt.”


A Sikh (pronounced “seek”) is a person who adheres to Sikhism, a religious faith that began about 500 years ago in Punjab, a region in northwest India.

During his recent visit at Northwest College, Preetmohan Singh said the religion's 10 inspired prophets, called gurus, established the following values of the faith:

• There is one God, but different paths to God.

• Humanity is created in the image of God and everyone is equal. Equality is a central value for Sikhs.

• People should leave the world better than how they found it.

Sikhs believe in religious freedom, and don't believe you must be a Sikh to gain salvation.

As part of their belief that God created humanity in His image, Sikhs strive to maintain their created appearance as much as possible, so they keep their hair long. Centuries ago, Sikhs wore turbans to cover their long hair and to help keep it clean. Today, turbans are mandatory for Sikh men and optional for women.

Turbans vary in color, but the hue bears no significance, Singh said.