Flashback to 2010: Obama May Cancel Visit to Sikh Shrine Because of Head-Covering Requirement

October 21, 2010 - 4:39 AM

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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, wearing the required white headcovering, visits the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India on Nov. 18, 2009. (Photo: Web site of the Prime Minister of Canada)

(Update: President Obama never did visit the the Golden Temple in Amritsar.)

(CNSNews.com) – Reports that President Obama has decided not to visit a historic Sikh temple during his visit to India next month are sure to upset adherents of one of the world’s largest religions.

President Obama has been invited to visit the world’s biggest democracy by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – who happens also to be India’s first Sikh prime minister.

Reports from India attribute the White House decision to call off a planned visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar to concerns that the head covering Obama would be expected to wear at the shrine might revive suspicions in the U.S. that the president is a Muslim.

Ironically, the fact that Sikhs are at times mistaken for Muslims was one of the reasons Sikh leaders in the U.S. welcomed the news that Obama would visit the site.

“We are confident that after Obama’s visit to the Golden Temple, the U.S. residents would come to know about the Sikhs and Sikhism in a better way,” Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, said in a statement last week.

“This visit will also help remove misunderstanding about Sikhs in America and many of the difficulties Sikhs face due to mistaken identity and security barriers,” he said.

Singh, who has been invited to the White House several times, wrote a letter to the president in July, telling him that his visit to the Golden Temple would demonstrate “America’s respect for all faiths and traditions.”

Sikhs are followers of a monotheistic religion that emerged in India in the 15th century and has an estimated 25 million adherents today, the vast majority in India’s Punjab state but with sizeable communities in the U.S., Britain and Canada.

Sikhs follow the teachings of ten 15th-17th century gurus, and they believe in reincarnation. Their doctrines have little in common with Islam, but they have lived alongside Muslims for centuries, facing periods of severe persecution at times.

Sikh men do not cut their hair, and they wear turbans as an article of religious identity. Sikh organizations in Western countries frequently report incidents of Sikhs facing harassment or maltreatment at the hands of people who have mistaken them for Muslims or Arabs.

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Sikhs in Western countries are sometimes mistaken for Muslims. After the 2005 London terrorist bombings, the slogan “Don’t freak, I’m a Sikh” began to appear on clothing and badges in British cities. (Image: Desirags.co.uk)

After terrorists bombed the London transportation network in 2005, T-shirts, badges and other paraphernalia began appearing in Britain bearing variations of the slogan, “Don’t freak, I’m a Sikh.”

Sikhism stresses tolerance of other faiths, and Sikhs often point out that the cornerstone of their most revered building – the Golden Mosque – was laid more than 400 years ago, not by a Sikh guru but by a prominent Muslim.

Sikh men keep their heads covered, and visitors to the shrine are expected to do so, too. When Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the shrine late last year, he was photographed wearing headgear fashioned from white cloth.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that the schedule for Obama’s visit to India has yet to be finalized.

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Gibbs did not directly respond to a question about the reported cancellation of the temple visit, but said, “We pick sites on foreign trips based on what the president wants to accomplish.”

“Look, it’s a big country,” he added. “We’d love to spend a lot more than the three allotted days that we have in India.  This trip will focus our business on Mumbai and in the cities of Mumbai and New Delhi.”

The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), an India-based representative body sometimes called the Sikh parliament, sent a letter to the White House urging Obama not to cancel the visit, saying the community was “eagerly waiting” to see him at the shrine.

The Press Trust of India quoted SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar as saying that, with the exception of a military helmet, any head covering whatsoever would be acceptable.

The Washington-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy said it was disappointed that the planned visit to the temple had reportedly been abandoned.

“The Obama administration has an abysmal record on international religious freedom issues,” the institute’s founder and chairman of the board, Joseph K. Grieboski, said in a statement.

“This could have been a unique and historic opportunity for the president to stand in the holiest shrine of an often-discriminated religious minority and to speak for the rights of all minorities around the globe.”