October 11, 2022
Simran Jeet Singh is the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Religion & Society program. He speaks with Eboo about his book, ”The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life,” what it was like to grow up as a Sikh in Texas, and the tragedies that moved him to study his tradition and share its light with others.
Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program and an educator, writer, and activist who frequently offers comments and analyses on religion, racism, and justice. He is a visiting professor of history and religion at Union Theological Seminary and a Soros Equality Fellow with the Open Society Foundations, and in 2020 TIME Magazine recognized him among 16 people fighting for a more equal America. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, and he is a columnist for Religion News Service.
Receive funding for your own intentional reflection or for hosting conversations about the podcast.
How do you see humanity in the face of hate?
Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America Podcast, and I’m Eboo Patel.
My friend, Simran Jeet Singh, is the Executive Director of the Religion & Society Program at the Aspen Institute and the author of a wonderful recent book called The Light We Give, about how Sikh wisdom can transform everybody’s life. Our journeys have a lot in common and so does the way we view interfaith work as a bridge between people of different faiths and as a way to enrich the future for all of us.
Let me begin from the beginning. For you, you grew up as a Sikh-American in San Antonio. You were an athlete in school, you had a multicultural mix of friends. Your house was the place where people came because they were always welcome to stay for dinner, and you had this ugly experience with racism. Give us a flavor of your childhood and adolescence especially as it relates to growing up Sikh-American in San Antonio, Texas.
Simran Jeet Singh: Growing up in Texas, I guess, one way to describe this, and it’s not the way I typically describe it, is that I live in New York City now and people find out I’m from Texas because I still have way too much Texas pride as one does, and they’re like, “Oh, my God, that must have been horrible. That must have been terrible.” Packed into their perception that is an assumption of what Texas is like based on stereotypes, and so my immediate impulse is to share with them all of the good stuff about my childhood.
This is I think part of an approach that you and I share which is, we are glass-half-full people. We love who we are and where we come from, and also we love our lives. This is true of my childhood. I loved my childhood. It’s really important to me that when I share my experiences with racism and then there are many that I don’t want my life or my experience or the experience of my community even to be flattened into a victimhood narrative as if the only aspect of who I am is how I’ve been mistreated in this country.
Of course, that’s important and it’s shaped a lot of who I am. In some ways, I wish it wasn’t that way, and in some ways I’m really grateful for how it’s shaped me. All of this is a way of walking backwards into your question which is like, my life growing up in Texas was great. My three brothers, we were the only kids in all of South Texas at the time with turbines. We had close friends of all kinds, and I mean that in terms of where we made friends, the kinds of friends we had, where they came from, where their families came from, sports teams, school. It was just like a dream childhood in so many ways.
We thought of ourselves in a lot of ways as typical. Then there was the racism which would come often enough that would remind us that our place in this country and our experience in this country is not typical. It would sometimes be ugly and malicious as in being kicked out of establishments or being denied service or being told we couldn’t play on the basketball team for a year until– Those things happened but the daily experiences were the smaller well-intentioned ones, and they weren’t ugly. Kids just asking us, “Hey, why do you wear that?” Or “What language are you speaking?”
When you’re growing up none of this feels like a big deal, or at least it didn’t for us. I do remember those as small reminders of us being seen as outsiders within our own communities.
Patel: No. I love what you did with that question. I’ve been on your side of the podcast, so to speak, a lot where the person who’s playing me right now wants me to talk about racism and wants to insist in the fact that that’s the most important part of my experience, and it’s not. I don’t want to ignore it, it’s replete in your book. You tell this one story of, I think it was a soccer game where the ref insists on patting down your turban. You’re in middle school, and he says, “I know that that kid’s got a bomb in there.” You’re like, 13. That’s crazy.
You were an excellent soccer player, you had friends in school, your teachers liked you, and your family loved you. There’s all these positive things also and I think it really is in so many ways about how we connect the dots of our own lives and how we might connect the dots of our national experience as well. I’m definitely going to get into that.
Listen, I love the honesty of the book. People who become professors of Sikh studies or South Asian religions as you are, the assumption is often that they were the perfect religious kid growing up and they were studying the scriptures in a scholarly way from childhood, and you were not that person. Most of us are not that person, I wasn’t that person. Even though I have a Ph.D. in Ismaili Muslim-related things now. You talk about being a mediocre student in high school, you talk about not being connected to the Sikh identity growing up, it’s a family thing you do. Tell us when did you embrace this notion of being a Sikh more deeply and internally and when did you make really the huge commitment to get a Ph.D. in the field and related fields and become a scholar of this work?
Singh: Oh, yes, I love the question because I’ve read a bit of your story and there are some interesting parallels here. I think, growing up, it wasn’t that I was horrible at school, it’s more that I just didn’t care. I would do enough to get by the rule in Texas at the time and I think it’s still the rule, was called no pass, no play. If you didn’t pass all your classes, you couldn’t play on the sports team. In high school, that was my sole impetus, I mean, aside from my parents’ threats which were constant, but it was like, I would look at what we were being taught and it would strike me that, who cares about any of this stuff? How does learning chemistry have any impact on my life?
In Texas, you do a lot of Texas history. It’s a special subject and my parents would always make the claim that I understand now, both as a parent and as someone who’s curious, they’ll always make the claim that the substances and what matters, it’s learning how to learn. That’s what you’re doing here but that wasn’t enough for me. Through high school, I think it was very much an experience that a lot of Americans share which is like, I wanted to play the sports that I loved. I wanted to hang out with my friends. I wanted to watch TV, it was very simple.
Patel: Oh, I’m watching this, I got two boys, 12 and 15. I have a front-row seat to this.
Singh: Exactly. In a lot of ways, there’s something beautiful about that simplicity. I miss that, in some way, but what I realize was actually happening was that I was so focused on the daily pleasures of life that I didn’t really have any sense of purpose. I didn’t have some deep meaning behind my life. Ultimately, sure, those things are true for a lot of people. Ultimately, what I found was, it was all just self-centered. My whole world was about me. I would do some good things, volunteering here and there and I had a sense of what it meant to care about others. Ultimately, my daily experience was about what is going to make me feel pleasure today, soccer or basketball, friends, TV.
The incident that really jolted me out of that was when I was a senior in high school and that’s when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened. That experience, in a lot of ways, transformed me and I read about it in the book quite a bit, what it meant to me. Part of what happens in this moment is watching the backlash against my community. Again, I didn’t know many Sikhs at the time, but seeing what was happening to the Sikhs around the country who I knew and getting on these daily calls in the evenings, and listening to the reports about hate, and hate crimes, and who was hurt, and how the community was responding.
Really realizing that we don’t have enough strength in this country right now to really be safe. Watching that and watching people suffer, people that I knew, I think that’s what really brought me into caring about more than myself. That put me on a path eventually to say, okay, this is not just about you, it’s about your family. It’s not just about your family, it’s your community. It’s not just your community, it’s other communities. You may not know Muslims and South Asians and Arabs who are being affected but you develop a sense of empathy for them. I think that’s what really put me on a journey to caring and it’s the caring that put me on the path towards finding solutions, including professional and graduate degrees.
Patel: That’s so beautifully put. I hope lots of young people are listening to this. I hope my kids listen to this because it is wanting to be a less selfish person. That begins many of us on a different path and part of what one discovers at least I did, and I’m wondering if there’s a resonance here is the way to be a less selfish person had been whispered in my ears, literally, since I came out of the womb.
My religion was about being a less selfish person and it was about being a part of the cosmos and being a mercy upon all the world and I feel like that’s a significant part of the texture of your book. I would just encourage people to read it because the texture of the story is beautiful, and not that just the core message. The core message you get in the podcast, I love that. Texture of the story is worth reading.
Singh: Thank you. It is very interesting because, in so many ways, my Sikh philosophy was always with me, it was always available to me. I encountered it here, and there, I found it interesting enough, maybe, there was never a point– I was raised in a Sikh family, we learned the traditions early, my parents were very intentional. Knowing that we were living in a place where there was no one else to teach us they were very intentional about teaching us the musical traditions, and how to speak the language and how to read and write, and all of these things.
The real draw for me comes later, and it’s right in line with what you’re describing, which is, here I am 18, 20 years old, grappling with how I’m being racialized in this country, and recognizing that it’s not enough to ignore it anymore as I had when I was a kid. The question in my mind becomes, well, “What’s the point of even keeping my turban on? Couldn’t my life be easier if I stopped?” That’s when I have to– You ask yourself this question, and then you have to find an answer. For me, I wouldn’t say that it ever got to the point where I said, “Let me remove it.” There’s just this catalytic reflection that said, you need to go deeper than what you have before.
I started studying my religion and others. What I learned was that and at least my interpretation of it, too. It’s not just the knowledge of it, but my read on what Sikh philosophy offers and what many traditions I think, including Islam, really are focused on is how you find happiness in your life. That, to me, your point about being less self-centered, to what end? Why are we so interested?
Patel: It’s your point, your point about being less self-centered. I’m just underscoring the importance.
Singh: I mean, it says in Islam, you talk about it as Nafs, the ego is the root of all human suffering. Many spiritual traditions talk about this. It’s not just decentering yourself for the sake of it. There’s also this experience of, well, if you can achieve this goal, or at least become slightly less self-centered, and slightly less focused on your own life, you can find more happiness.
I have experienced that over and over again, in the post-9/11 moments, again, during COVID, more recently. At times, when I am really wrapped up, in my own life and my own challenges, there is a period of reflection that brings me out of my own selfishness and helps me connect with other people, and that brings me ease and calm, and happiness. I think that’s something we all can tap into.
Patel: This is one of the, I think, beautiful patterns of the book. You do this in a personal way, your own personal journey, but also, this public journey what’s happening in the country, and how it’s affecting you, and then how deepening into your Sikh tradition helps you navigate and respond. I want to fast forward a dozen years or so to another terrorist incident that happens in this country, and it’s a very difficult thing to talk about.
I want to acknowledge that we’re also on the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the really the terrorist attack at the Oak Creek Gurdwara, the Oak Creek temple. It’s about 90 minutes north of where I live. There’ll be a delegation from Interfaith America who will be attending to pray with and commemorate and mourn with the community. What happened at that moment, just for people who don’t know is a man named Wade Michael Page as somebody who used to frequent neo-Nazi websites, walks into this Gurdwara, a place where Sikhs like Simran pray, and he starts shooting. He ultimately murders seven people and he wounds more, and it’s just devastating.
Simran, part of what happens is you become a public figure after this. I think it’s worth noting how that happens. It’s an interfaith story of a friend, a friend of both of ours, the Reverend Paul Raushenbush, who was on Interfaith America staff for several years and at that time, was the editor of Huffington Post religion, he’s Baptist minister, he reaches out to you and says, “Simran, please tell your story. America needs to hear your story, and you don’t have to speak for anybody but yourself.” You write a piece on that massacre that goes viral, makes you a public figure, you write a number of other pieces, I just reread your New York Times piece from that period.
Part of what happens in that process and you’re so honest about this in the book, is there’s a dissonance about how you feel internally about Wade Michael Page and this incident and what you are saying in the media about the Sikh tradition and how it deals with this kind of a terrible event, et cetera. Will you just describe that dissonance?
Singh: Yes, sure. It was a difficult process to undergo. But actually, as with many introspective processes, the hardest part was actually seeing it within myself and recognizing what ultimately I would describe as hypocrisy. Just to step back for a moment, part of my own challenge in stepping forward in this moment as a voice was, it’s not something that I felt comfortable with, personally, at the time. I was doing my Ph.D. at Columbia at the time. There weren’t many Sikh voices in the public space at the time, and so I saw the need within my community.
I saw maybe the privilege or the platform that I had as a scholar of the Sikh tradition and felt a responsibility to step forward despite my discomfort with any kind of public-facing engagement. I was even uncomfortable talking in my classes through graduate school. Part of what it meant for me to share publicly was this challenge of, how do I give voice to my community that hasn’t had a voice without trying to present my own personal views and experiences as representative of the entire community. That’s always dangerous, especially for a community that’s been rendered invisible.
A single touch point like the one voice you hear, it’s hard not to let that become the representative sample of what everybody thinks, “Well, here is what Sikhs think and believe.” Part of my challenge in this moment is, what do I personally feel versus what does Sikh philosophy teach us? In many ways, my intention, and I think this is still fair, and I’m not ashamed of this, my intention was to speak into existence what the best of Sikh ideals teach us. Part of the reason for that also was because I was seeing that in the reactions of the victims in Wisconsin. Many of them were talking about love and optimism in the face of hate.
I found that beautiful, and I found it inspiring. I wanted to help share that message, but the challenge that I write about in the book is I didn’t actually fully feel this in a way that I’d been able to in other difficult moments in my life. For most of my life up until this point, if somebody says something hateful to me, I’ve learned not to take it personally. I was still able to find some empathy for this person and really, avoid any kind of feeling of animus or hatred, or enmity towards that person. Now, for the first time, I still have in my head what I’m supposed to think and what I’m supposed to say, but I’m not actually feeling it.
It was a very strange feeling. Hypocrisy is a strange thing, especially when you have to deal with it personally. What I was really feeling was anger for this person, who, because of his inability to control his own hate, had ruined the lives of innocent people. At the end of the day, that was it. I was angry about that, and I tried different ways of dealing with that anger. It took me a lot longer, in this case, to come to a place where I could live into that aspiration that we learned in Sikh philosophy of seeing this person’s humanity in spite of their actions.
Patel: That’s vāhigurū, right?
Singh: Yes. Vāhigurū is a term that we use for divinity and in our teaching is that if we can learn to see the divinity in everyone, then we can see their humanity. There’s this line that this quote has that’s stuck with me. He says, “Khalik khalak, khalak meh khalik, puur reheyo sarab thanee.” The Creator is in the creation, and the creation is in the Creator, completely permeating all spaces.” How am I to actually see divinity in this person who has given me no openings, in this case, at least? Really, it was so difficult to find a point of connection with this person who I was trying desperately to find a connection with.
Patel: It’s ultimately kids at a Sikh summer camp who helped you make that connection, and you’re in the very unenviable position of being asked to speak to a group of pre-adolescent Sikh kids about the massacre not long after it happens. Can you tell us about how those kids, at least the kid who stood up and spoke, how he constructed Sikh wisdom and related it to Wade Michael Page?
Singh: Yes. It’s an interesting reflection for me. Even now, I’m raising my own kids, I’ve written this book, and part of what I I find strange about writing this book is, in so many ways, I’m sharing ideas that we all already know inside of us. There’s nothing I don’t think especially profound or especially new about what I’m sharing here, but the challenge of our lives as we grow up is really remembering and living by what we know to be true, again, back to this point about hypocrisy.
I’m having this conversation with these kids and the slap in the face moment was when I ask if they knew basically they’re trying to figure out why this person did what they did and they’re talking about him as a bad man, as evil. At first, I’m on board with them and I’m nodding my head along and then something inside of me starts gnawing. I wasn’t sure what it was at first because this is exactly what I’d been saying in shorthand, in my interviews that this was in code.
I would talk about this person as a white supremacist or somebody who was filled with hate and rage, but what that was translating out was somebody who was just evil. The challenge is in the Sikh tradition, we don’t have a concept of evil, in our belief system and I believe this very strongly, everyone is ultimately good, at our core, we’re all good. It’s part of the reason that I use the term light in the title of the book because that’s the metaphor we use, we are all infused with the same light.
One of the reflections that actually comes up in this conversation as I’m remembering it is a line from Sikh scripture that a kid reminds me of in this moment [quotes original scripture]. Says first God created the light and all the people from that light. If everyone’s created from the same light, how can we call anyone good or bad? Who are we to judge? Everything is divine.
And so it’s this insight that really brings me back to my traditions way of thinking as opposed to my own way of thinking in this moment that learning to see the light in this person is possible if we make that the starting point. As opposed to, “Hey, let me go look at this person’s biography and figure out what we might have had in common. Maybe this guy liked sports and I liked sports or maybe this guy grew up in a house with siblings,” whatever the random connection points we use to justify, “Oh, I am like this person.
To me, in this moment, the light bulb really was, actually, we don’t have to find commonalities to be able to see one another’s humanity. It doesn’t have to be, this is something you and I have talked about elsewhere, it doesn’t have to be on the basis of race or religion or sports affiliation or whatever it is to be able to care about people. If we can have a different starting point of recognizing people’s humanity, then I think we can get to a very different place.
Patel: There’s so many connections with other religious traditions and of course, the one that I know best is my own Islam but Kabir is an Indian poet who is claimed by or influenced by Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism. This notion of the creation is in the creator and the creator in the creation, that’s tawhid from Islam and the centrality of light. The Jewish belief, my understanding of it is, is the universe is created by a shattering of light and there’s shards of light everywhere in us, in everything.
Of course, in Islam God is described as light upon light, that’s what God is, and that permeates all of us through tawhid. The exact metaphor in Islam is that we have the breath of God within us so all these beautiful connections across religious traditions, that’s one of my favorite parts of interfaith work.
The overriding message of your book is that the teachings of our religious traditions can guide us in navigating even the most horrible situations. I’m going to run through a handful of these because I’ve read the book closely. When a Sikh doctor, I believe is a friend of yours, is viciously beaten by a group of teenagers who are shouting racist slogans. He goes on television, he talks about the Sikh concept of chardi kala is what it is, eternal optimism and he says he wants the kids to be taught and not caught, that’s stunning.
When Sikhs in Oak Creek are murdered by this gunman and they talk to you about what happened that day, one of the things that they speak of is the police officers who came and helped them and were hurt in the process that in the worst moment in any lifetime imaginable, they are still looking for the good in the situation, that is part of a Sikh ethic. The brother of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Sikh American in Mesa, Arizona, just a beautiful, generous man. I’ve read the stories about him, his letting poor people fill up their gas tanks for free, his donating generously to charity. When he is killed also by what we might call a white supremacist, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi’s brother forgives the gunman and says if he could, he would let the gunman out of jail.
This is, and you tell these stories, and this is a paradigm from the Sikh tradition for how to deal not only with difference but with hate. How do we bring this into public? I want to ask a couple of challenging questions. In the immediate aftermath of the brutal murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, when all of this energy is pouring into the streets, could you see yourself standing on a platform and giving the crowds a talk about how Sikh wisdom chardi kala, waheguru, ik onkar, ought to guide their engagement in the public square vis-a-vis, white Americans, confederate statues, police officers, et cetera?
Singh: Yes. I appreciate the question. It’s a really tough question, which is part of why I appreciate it and part of why I hate it. I would’ve loved for you to let me off the hook here.
Patel: It’s not a gotcha question by the way. We’re friends and I don’t do gotcha questions. It is a, what’s the purchase of these ideas? Of course, I’m struggling with this myself.
Singh: Well, that’s why I love the question, because these are exactly the issues that I’m reflecting on. It’s very much based on some observations around what we’re seeing in society about what activism looks like, how we engage one another, and how we think about ourselves in relation to one another too. Part of what I want to say here is that, as someone who comes from the margins of society here in the U.S., I feel empathy and sympathy for others who are dealing with similar challenges. The challenges are real, and the suffering is intense, and it feels incessant.
I look at that, and by virtue of the compassion that I feel for people, I feel moved to action. I really want to help. One of the aspects of what’s happening in this country that feels really exciting to me is that many people are feeling moved to help, people care in a way that I don’t think I really felt growing up as that 15-year-old kid who was apathetic about school and apathetic about politics, and just really didn’t care about the world.
Young people today care, and older people today care too, everyone cares. The challenge that I’m finding is, we don’t really have strong models for how we express our concern and our action. What ends up happening so often, and this is not particular to American history, this is global, this is across time. When you don’t have a model for what action becomes, then it’s really just reaction. It’s often, so often, informed and shaped by anger and frustration, which quickly morphs into hate.
I feel that really deeply right now, and I understand it. I understand the anger and the frustration, I have felt too, I feel it too. The challenge becomes, if you are unable to figure out how to channel those feelings into something that’s more beautiful and more constructive, then you end up creating more problems as opposed to solving them. To me, part of what I’m thinking about a lot these days is, yes, what does progress look like incrementally?
Sure, that’s important and we can deal with that. What is the long game here? What’s our vision for change? What kind of world do we want to live in? How do we do that in a way that goes beyond the reactions, the anger, the frustration, and really lifts up the best of who we are in terms of love and care and compassion and equality? I don’t think we’re there yet, and I don’t think our models that we’re really leaning into collectively is taking us there. You write about this in your new book too, that the practice of building, it’s not a muscle that we’ve really developed. It feels so often we’re just at a loss. I’d love to hear your take on this.
Patel: I’m going to agree with a significant part of what you said, which is in understanding of the anger, Walter Scott, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Laquan McDonald in understanding of the anger. I don’t think we don’t have good models. I think other models have been chosen. There may be perfectly justifiable reasons for that, but the fact is, we have excellent models. As you say in your book, I think you are doing new things in your book, but the Sikh Gurus are excellent models. Mandela is an excellent model, Gandhi is an excellent model, Jane Addams is an excellent model, Dorothy Day is an excellent model, Martin Luther King Jr. is an excellent model.
It is not that people haven’t heard of these people, and it is not that we don’t have widely read books like The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, where he walks the path of anger into Elijah Muhammad’s house in the early 1960s and then realizes he doesn’t want to live in the world that anger built. I think in a different kind of question, which we don’t have to delve into here, but why have we chosen other models? Why have we chosen other models?
Singh: I think there are a lot of answers. I’ll agree with you that these models are available to us. I think there are many answers here, the best answer that I’ve come across so far, at least, that I’ve been able to conjure up, and I’d love to hear your perspective on it too, but the best answer that I know is that it’s easiest, it’s easier to react than to create, it’s easier to respond than to be intentional.
I understand that because I’ve been there and in many cases in my life, I’m still there but what I’m finding over and over again is the examples that you gave Mandela, Jane Addams, Dr. King, James Baldwin, these are some of the best people that we know, and they’re not just the best people in terms of what they’ve done, but also in terms of how they’ve lived their lives with happiness and joy. Then the question to me becomes, well, what would it look like for us to walk in their path?
Part of what I offer in my book and what I recognize from Guru Nanak is that in our society today, we are trained to problematize. That’s what we learn in college, that’s what we learn in school, that’s what we’re constantly rewarded for. We’re not really rewarded for thinking of solutions, that’s the next step. We never get to it. I see it in my classrooms over and over again. I was trained the same way as a historian, it’s just how we are socialized.
Patel: Within, by the way, engineers aren’t socialized that way.
Singh: That’s right.
Patel: No engineer comes out of school being like, I can tell you everything that’s wrong with all the cars in the street, but I can’t design one. No architect comes out of school saying, I can tell you everything wrong with every building out there, but I can’t design one. Let me give it like a very practical example. My family is vacationing in Hawaii a couple years ago. We’re on one of these snorkeling boats, and it’s raining, and the seas are really choppy and the people who are staffing the boat with a couple of hundred visitors, participants on it, they’re college students, they’re grad students in Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii and they just handle the situation so well.
Like there is a crisis. People are like crying and puking and hyperventilating and these 22, 23-year-olds, they can hold it together. You think to yourself, when you’re on a plane and it hits turbulence, the pilot doesn’t freak out. Why do we freak out in our line of work, which is engaging social problems? Why aren’t we the pilot who maintains common lands the plane? Why is there a reward system for being an arsonist and not an architect?
Singh: I would take this back to figures like Guru Nanak or the Prophet Muhammad, who see the real challenges in the world around them. They recognize these challenges, they call them out. They’re very particular about injustice on any basis and they say that’s not okay. We’re good at that, I think in this society, we are good at pointing our fingers and calling things out. But then what these figures do that’s different from what we’re doing is that they then say, well, what’s the solution? How do I create something that challenges these norms that offers a different way? How do I build institutions?
Not just religious traditions, but actual places where people can come together internally, creating models and places and sites and communities that really offer a different approach to the world. I think that’s what we’re sorely lacking right now, again, this is what you write about so beautifully in your book, We Need to Build, we are waiting for these changes to be made and it just what we really need is for people to start taking that initiative.
Patel: I hope that we’re on the cusp of a paradigm shift. As Baldwin says in The Fire Next Time, which I write about in We Need to Build is the anger is justifiable, but nobody wants to live in that world. It’s not good for anybody. I want to keep on the general highway, but maybe move into a different lane here. I notice in the book, and because you and I are friends, and we’ve been on panels together.
Even in this conversation, there’s this interesting tension between you saying I’m a glass-half-full person and talking about the beauty of your tradition, and really also the good fortune in your life. You talk about childhood and Texas, and not that many people have Ph.D.s in Columbia and published successful books, et cetera. You also say you’re from the margins.
Part of what has started to concern me is what I’m calling the invisible script of diversity discourse. The best example that I have of that is my kids are more likely to be asked how they’re victims of Islamophobia than how they’re inspired by Islam. That’s actually a question that is posed to them by people who consider themselves sophisticated. It is, in some circles in American life, considered more sophisticated to know about Islamophobia than about Islam.
Islamophobia did not create Islam. One day Islamophobia, God willing, will fade as– For example, anti-Catholicism has faded. Once it does, Islam will still be important. I wonder if those people will think it’s important. I have started to tell my kids, my son is in this diversity fellowship this summer. People talk about white privilege and Christian privilege. I’m like, “I want you to tell them about Muslim privilege.”
I want you to introduce– whatever they ask you. They will look at you as a brown-skinned kid, and they will say, “Tell me how you’re oppressed.” I want to suggest you challenge that and say, “Actually, I have in me the breath of God. I was made God’s steward and representative on earth. I am meant to be immersive about all the worlds, and that’s a profound privilege.” I’m curious, would you tell Sikh kids to say that? To flip the script on the diversity dialogue and to say, “Actually, I’m going to open by telling you about my privilege.”
Singh: I mean, that’s in a way how we started this conversation where you said, “Tell me about your childhood.” We know each other well enough where this wasn’t a performance for you, but it is really important to me in a context where it’s appropriate just to flip the script. In certain places, I mean, it depends on the audience. For me, how do I do this?
It depends on who I’m talking to, but for kids, absolutely. I mean, this is in a context where they are constantly being told that they are inferior or oppressed for whatever reason even when we are trying to help them not feel that way. There’s a constant reinforcement of that message – You are oppressed, you are struggling, you do have challenges. Part of what’s been surprising to kids as I’ve talked to them, and what I share in the book too is there are some real advantages to what we have going on with our tradition.
They’re like, “What do you mean? I’ve never thought about it that way.” I’m like, “Of course, you haven’t. I didn’t either when I was younger.” It had never occurred to me that there’s something beautiful about this tradition that’s not just enjoyable but actually helps shape the kind of person you can become in a way that’s countercultural, in a way that our culture doesn’t provide.
It’s not just flipping the script, it’s giving a different lens. How do you look at yourself in relation to one another as opposed to how do you look at yourself in opposition to one another, which I think is the common frame of diversity and equity and inclusion right now? How are we different? I’m like, “No, how are you you in relation to the people around you?” That’s sufficient.
The other aspect of it, which I really appreciated writing about in this book, in part because I have so few opportunities to say them out loud it’s, how is your experience in this world from whatever background you’re coming from, whatever religious tradition you’re coming from, how is that shaping the kind of person you want to become in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise?
The specific example I give is about wearing a turban in public. Many people look at me and say, “Well, that’s so hard in this society. That’s so oppressive from your tradition that you are always forced to stand out and look different.” In my view, I have found it liberating for many reasons one of which is it has helped me shape my internal fortitude so that it’s more likely that I will do the right thing in a tough situation because of my daily discipline and practice.
It’s become a really important message for what I share with kids. The second piece of it can be pretty complicated for a 5-year-old or a 6-year-old to understand, but 10, 12-year-old, sure, they can get that. I mean, I experienced that as a 10 or 12-year-old. I think lifting up that aspect of the experience helps us all understand that our religious experience, it’s about more than our identities. It’s about who we are and how we experience life. That’s the real point of it.
Patel: Beautiful. Last question, and I’ve loved this conversation, and I just so appreciate you, Simran. You have a powerful platform right at the Aspen Institute, and it’s really something you can help shape. It is a way to advance how we relate to one another, a diversity paradigm, so to speak. Do you see yourself using the religion and society program at Aspen to bring victims of racism and people who have committed racist acts together in forgiveness and reconciliation efforts? Do you see using the opportunity to bring pro-life and pro-choice advocates together to consider the oneness that we all live in, could a different paradigm of diversity work guided by Sikh wisdom emerge from the Aspen platform that you guide?
Singh: Yes. We had this funny experience recently where we were leading a conversation on religious freedom, which is a highly politicized issue among a group of about 20 people with diverse viewpoints all across the spectrum. One of the observations that someone made from the right side of the spectrum, so let’s say conservative, was that, “Hey, we don’t really feel we belong in this conversation because their view of religious freedom doesn’t include us.”
Then someone from the left side of the conversation the more liberal side says, “Hey, actually, we don’t feel like we fit into your definition of religious freedom. If we don’t belong, then why are we here?” It was a microcosm of our moment, which is so often we describe ourselves as having an openness and an expanded view of who gets to count. We leave so many people out.
That, to me, is not pluralism. That’s not the way that we get, get any progress here. To me, what is the challenge? The challenge is especially in a moment, like right now, where people are so far apart from one another in their views, how do you help them find a point of connection? How do we create a space where we have a shared sense of humanity even when we don’t agree? The funny thing about my experience in interfaith so often has been everyone comes to the table with a shared political and social worldview.
You may be talking across different religious lines but there’s no real ideological difference. It’s not really challenging and it’s not really getting us to the point where we are ultimately trying to go. Absolutely, to your question about will we be bringing people together from across aisles, from across ideological perspectives, from different racial backgrounds, from different religion. That’s the point of all of this for me and where it really comes from.
I appreciate your connecting the dots here. It really comes from my own conviction that we as spiritual beings and as political beings are best served when we start from a place of oneness. You mentioned tawhid there’s so much Hadith in Quranic reference that we could point to, in Sikh scripture it’s all over the place too.
If you start from a place of connectedness, then the differences you encounter are no longer threatening. They’re no longer something to fear. You can celebrate them and you can appreciate them. I think it’s a really simple shift that we can make where we start at the point of connectedness and it takes us to an entirely different destination from where we’re going right now. That’s part of our vision for creating pluralism through our work at Aspen Institute.
Patel: Simran Jeet Singh, thank you for being my friend. Thank you for sharing the light within you in the form of your beautiful book, The Light We Give. Thank you for sharing it on this podcast.
Singh: Thank you. Thanks for all of it, Eboo, and especially your friendship. Really appreciate it.
Patel: I love how Simran presents diversity work, as about being connected rather than about being threatened. I love thinking about diversity work as defined by bridges rather than barriers, as being a potluck supper, not a melting pot, and not a battleground. A potluck relies on welcoming the distinctive identities of diverse communities. It only exists if people bring their dish. We welcome all dishes to the American potluck. We nurture enriching conversations and facilitate creative combinations. To read more about this conversation and find resources and stories about bridge building in our religiously diverse nation, visit our website, interfaithamerica.org. I’m Eboo Patel.
Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.
Credit music provided by Die Hard Productions.
Meet the team who made this podcast possible.
Want to share feedback, suggest a future guest or ask a question? Email Us.