Friday, December 4, 2015

Interview with an Ex-Sikh


When speaking with those of South Asian origin...I'm always reminded of how divided we are as a people, how many different types of divisions there are and how tribalism plays a huge role in those divisions....how brutal and bloody our histories have been. Sikh vs. Muslim vs. Hindu  - there is so much hate among these groups :(  I long for people to drop that baggage and just bond sometimes. When speaking with Indian apologists I am quickly reminded that I am a lowly Pakistani... Muslim scum. When speaking with Pakistani apologists I'm soon accused of being an Indian agent or closet Hindu working to soil the reputation of Pakistan. If only the masses could see that humanity comes first....not self-made divisions of caste, religion, nationality, etc.

Occasionally, I do come across people who have the same ancestral land as me, who have dropped these things and see us as one big human tribe. Nothing makes me happier...evidence that we can come from such a fragmented background and transcend that to discuss things openly, honestly. Critiquing our own groups is necessary for progress (Rarely in another context will you see a Muslim being open with a Sikh about flaws, and a Sikh being open with a Muslim about flaws...but perhaps because we shed those affiliations and are 'ex' versions, it becomes a bit easier).

Many are unable to admit fault with their own culture, religion of birth, community. Those that are able are my heroes, to be quite honest. They are the ones bringing betterment.

I've come across a few ex-Sikhs on social media and it's refreshing to see people leaving faiths you rarely hear of people leaving. We meet on the other side of this division as companions in humanity.

I always say that mainstream critics of religion have focused a lot on Abrahamic faith, which is great because it is deeply flawed and manifests in the most troubling ways. It's good to focus on larger problems, but sometimes other superstitions/harmful beliefs get left behind and aren't dissected in the same way. I think it's important to discuss them all...not draw equivalences (so unclench, please)....rather, just not give any belief system a pass.

I have heard from ex-Sikh atheists in the past that they feel a little left out when their religion of birth is missing from mainstream critique of religion. The issues they want to bring awareness to are not given much importance on a global scale. I've heard this from ex-Jains too. If we're truly going to move ahead as a whole, we need to a) of course highlight the more problematic beliefs and b) not leave other beliefs entirely out of the conversation either. Two pronged dismantling of religion everywhere. 

So before anyone "but what about Islam's" me, please take a look through my hundreds of posts before this one, or just glance at my Twitter feed.

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Male, UK

Were you born into a religious household? 

I was, yes. My parents are both fairly devout with my father probably having clocked up many 
tens of thousands of hours of meditation. They weren’t uber-dogmatists that indoctrinated me 
ad nauseam but they did indoctrinate (through no fault of their own) a set of ideas that blurred 
my outlook. It’s only when I started questioning my former faith that things started focussing. I 
had a relatively open environment in which to think. I wasn’t forced to attend school at the 
Gurdwara but we did go there every Sunday. I just read and studied about Sikhism as I went 
along, to be fair. I had kept Kesh (uncut hair) until I was ten but that was a huge deal for my Dad. He didn’t speak to me for a few months because I cut my hair. It was unfortunate but it’s something I 
wanted to do because I didn’t feel happy having long hair. My dad prohibited me from doing so and 
in the end, I rebelled. Still, I’ve noticed that as I’ve gotten older, the household has become a 
tad more tolerant and accepting but there’s still a long way to go.

You didn't feel happy having uncut hair, can you describe why? 

I think it may have been something to do with being raised in a country where most people do in 
fact cut their hair. I did stand out. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing that I did, but I personally didn’t 
like the idea of having Kesh and not being able to do things like spike my hair with gel. I thought that 
having the “guti” (see below) didn’t make me look very attractive. These were feelings I had, I suppose.

Guti (Image from Wikipedia)


And what was the pressure like to keep it? As a child did you feel isolated or different from others because of it?

The pressure was fairly intense from my father but my mum was much more open about it. My dad 
would just get angry every time I brought the issue up. Once physically hitting me after I dared to ask him in front of a family member. I cried at that point. It just felt like I was trapped. I had to keep my hair because I was a Sikh and I had to stick with my identity. 

To do otherwise would be to dishonour my dad and go against the Panth. 
(I googled what this means so forgive me if i'm wrong - Guru's Path?) 

I still did all of the regular things that a young kid did but I would often get teased at school about having a guti, once being laughed at and teased repeatedly when it came undone after I headed a ball during a football game. Stuff like that really got to me, when younger. This wasn’t an isolated incident and there’s only so much teasing I could take. I felt different because of this and as if I couldn’t be “normal”. This eventually pushed me to cut my hair and I’m thankful that I finally had the courage to do so at the age of ten.

(I am happy you did too...that's heartbreaking and I can only imagine how tough it was as a child. Kids can be so cruel to other kids. :( Being forced to dress or look a certain way especially in childhood must be traumatic. I have a relative who's 8 year old daughter wears a hijab, but when her parents aren't around she is happy to take it off, indicating this is not something she herself feels comfortable with. It's very upsetting for me to think about how she must feel wearing something that separates her so obviously from her classmates. Apart from that, hijabs  on kids especially...have a sinister sexualization aspect too. Anyhow, I'm glad you got to change something that wasn't working for you.)

How did your belief in the faith fade?

It’s interesting because my belief in the faith actually kind of faded a bit at a fairly young age 
(ten, I think). I was still young so that didn’t stop me from going to the Gurdwara, reciting 
prayers and reading about Sikhism. Thusly, my belief returned, once more. My faith completely 
faded as soon as I started being exposed to theological debates and actively listened to the 
arguments on both sides. Bill Maher’s “Religulous” had a notable impact on my thoughts on this 
subject. I further engaged with the works of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. These two 
individuals, I might add, have probably had the most impact on the way I think. In essence, 
being exposed to so much rational critique of faith was a very new thing to me. It wasn’t 
comfortable having to recognise that my parents had misguidedly indoctrinated me with a belief 
system that asserted that it had the Truth. It took me a while to overcome the indoctrination 
and it was only time that allowed me to free myself from the hold of indoctrination. Most 
people underestimate how impactful and devastating certain forms of indoctrination can be. I, 
thankfully, didn’t have it anywhere near as bad as some of the cases I hear about. I managed to 
get over it within a year or so but it goes to serve as a reminder that “fade” is indeed the correct 
way to describe my change in belief. It didn’t happen overnight. I had to think bloody hard 
about it but through a process of comprehending arguments and being exposed to scientific 
modes of thought, I couldn’t cling to my former faith.

Are you an atheist? 

If by “atheist” you mean “having an absence of a belief in a creator deity or deities”, then yes, I 
am an atheist. 

What aspects of Sikhism did you find to be the most problematic? 

It has to be the idea of a “God”. For those that don’t know, Sikhism’s concept of God is quite 
different in that it is not anthropomorphic. It’s centred on the idea of oneness and is an 
indescribable being. My main beef is the practice of Naam Simran which comprises of 
continuous meditation on Waheguru’s name. It’s only by doing this that one can reach higher 
spiritual states and can cleanse one’s self of the five thieves (lust, rage, greed, attachment and 
conceit). I find this belief to be harmful because whilst mindfulness can do a lot to improve 
one’s mental state, it tells one very little about how these “thieves” emerge. I feel it puts one on 
the wrong path and also instils this idea that God is necessary in one’s life. It’s very patronising 
and ultimately based on superstition. This may not seem that problematic but on a behavioural 
level, I really think it is.

I speak to several non believers, who come from different faith backgrounds. Something I hear 
more and more frequently, is the fact that many disbelievers from non Abrahamic faith 
backgrounds feel left out because most prominent critics of religion dismiss Non Abrahamic religions as 'less problematic', so they are rarely discussed. I have heard from several people who feel they miss out on having a strong critique developed around their faith - do you feel this way? 

I guess I do feel a tad left out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sikhism being debated by atheists in a 
public forum. But I don’t feel like I’m lacking allies. So long as you support secularism and human 
rights, you’re my ally as far as I’m concerned.  I guess it would be more comforting to know that 
more people have travelled down the same path as me and thus know how to argue their way 
around Sikhism, but not many have. So I had to develop my own critique and refine my own 
ways of understanding the faith. By its composition, Sikhism is a bit of an atypical faith as it 
doesn’t call for death for homosexuality, apostasy etc and is actually fairly egalitarian when it 
comes to gender equality. It’s not that easy to argue against its ideas producing demonstrably 
bad outcomes to the extent that you can with the Abrahamic faiths. That’s where I started to 
think about just the mode of discourse and set of assumptions one has to bring to the table 
when looking at discussing Sikhism. It’s profoundly anti-scientific and makes a virtue of 
epistemologically unverifiable statements. Not the best terrain to travel on when trying to verify 
hypotheses.

Islam is causing the most problems and violence in the world today, this is undeniable - but do you think because of this other religions get a pass? (I get frustrated that many people seem to use violent jihadists as a yardstick... so it appears, we can't criticize other forms of religious bigotry, because I always hear "but its not as bad as Islam", and yes I know it's not...but I would like to criticize all kinds of religious bigotry, including that within Islamic doctrine.) 

A lot of people engage in what is known as the fallacy of relative privation. That even if there are 
pernicious beliefs, they don’t deserve any attention because Islamic doctrine is having the most 
impact. However, a lot of people fall into the trap of overlooking the ills that Islamic doctrine 
can produce so we should avoid that, too. But yes, one should be able to challenge all religious 
bigotry without having to ostentatiously re-assert one’s anti-Islamism.

Have you heard of Casteism in the Sikh community? What are your experiences with it?

Of course. It’s a big issue when it comes to marriage and community. Around even the UK you’ll 
see caste-specific Gurdwaras. I’m sure that anybody would be allowed but separating Sikhs into 
castes does not do a lot for cohesion. The same applies to relationships. Most (speaking from 
experience) Sikh people of my generation have been taught to have, at least as a preference, a 
partner, whom they wish to be with, of the same caste and religion. My own experiences 
involve being told this very thing and also just noticing it in discourse with a lot of Sikhs. It runs 
counter to their egalitarian faith so I’m unsure why they still practice the caste system in the 
vast numbers they do. Definitely more of a cultural problem, to be honest, that rigorously 
persists.

Do you think gender discrimination is a big problem in the Sikh community/doctrine? 

Not doctrine, to be honest. It’s pretty strong in advocacy of equality of the sexes. Community, 
more so. Once again, this is more down to cultural factors and patriarchal norms within India. 
You end up having an egalitarian faith being practiced by some intensely misogynistic people. Is 
it a huge problem? Not ostensibly so. But I have seen instances where it’s entirely okay for a 
man to sleep around before marriage but if a woman does the same, her parents’ izzat (honour) has been deprived. Or even little things like girls not having as much freedom in going out with friends like a boy does. There are some small-scale beliefs that end up having very discriminatory 
consequences. #DoubleStandards

So as you might know from Twitter, I oppose Niqab vehemently because I feel it imposes on 
others and demands a privilege (constant anonymity) that no one else gets. I see the Kirpan (ceremonial dagger) as a comparable issue, not because its oppressive but because it demands a privilege (carrying a weapon, yes even if blunt) that others don't get, in public situations. I've heard of kids being granted this in school, and while not common, I have heard of cases where its been used to threaten or harm. What are your thoughts on this? 

I oppose the Niqab as a form of acceptable dress in the 21st century but I wouldn’t go so far as to 
ban it, for example. I do think there should be exceptions, though. Like, for example, a bank or a 
school or an airport. Things like that, I think, do require identification. Which isn’t possible with 
a Niqab. 

(To clarify, I don't favour a blanket ban on Niqabs either, but in government spaces, courtrooms, banks and schools, etc. -  I'm definitely in favour of not permitting them.)

But with respect to the Kirpan, I entirely agree. Sikhs, just because they’re Sikh, 
shouldn’t be allowed to carry an actual dagger, capable of actual damage. If Sikhs wish to be 
able to hold a ceremonial dagger that is blunted and of no use as a viable weapon, then I’m okay 
with that. We can’t make exceptions because a religious belief says so. They have to be made 
compatible with liberal democracy and one rule for all.

Couldn't agree more. One rule for all. 

I've grown up around South Asians of all backgrounds, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims...and I see so much bigotry within the South Asian community, everyone is pointing fingers at one another....a lot of propaganda fed to the kids to create divisions. And it exists across the board, have you seen any examples of this personally? 

For sure! I’m reminded by one incident where I was at my auntie’s house and talking to my 10-
year old cousin. For some reason, the topic stumbled onto Muslims and my cousin said that her 
mum had told her not to become friends with Muslims because “they” had killed many Gurus. 
She, when I asked what she was talking about, proceeded to show me a video which has a reel 
of depictions of the killings which involved beheading, boiling people alive and cutting the ears 
of babies. Pretty intense stuff! But basically, her mum had clearly shown her this material in the 
hope to create an us vs them mentality in my cousin which may have bloody done the trick! 
Regardless, bigotry is ubiquitous and so is superstition. It’s not a nice brew we have in South 
Asian communities (generally speaking). 

How is the Sikh community in terms of sexuality and sex positivity? Is homophobia a problem? 
Pre-marital sex? 

I don’t think there’s one definitive answer to the first part of your question. There is a spectrum 
of indifference from very to totally not. For a lot of Sikhs, when it comes to the daughter, her 
honour has to be protected at all times. Her having sex and seeing it as healthy, outside the 
confines of marriage, is often an unbearable idea for many. Guys generally have a free pass but 
that doesn’t mean I didn’t have to hide many of my own youthful adventures, from my parents. 
Homophobia is definitely a wide-spread problem. It’s ingrained, especially, in a lot of immigrants 
from Punjab who have then passed on those homophobic beliefs to their children. It’s generally 
a not-talked-about thing but I am happy to see the emergence of LGBT Sikh groups and also, this 
video is super helpful for getting the message across, in Punjabi: 


Sikhism itself, though, is innately homophobic. For one, all marriages have to be between a man 
and a woman (according to the Rehat Maryada) and you can only engage in sexual intercourse 
when married. So if you’re a homosexual, you’re not supposed to fuck. That’s rather a shame. 
Hopefully the Sikh code of conduct gets updated and reformed, though.

What are your thoughts on the fact that some Sikhs have been victims of anti-Muslim bigotry, 
even violent attacks? 

My thoughts would be that ignorance really isn’t bliss. Given access to information, it shouldn’t 
be that hard to distinguish between Sikhs and Muslims. The beard and turban are quite 
different! Not that that’s an excuse for the bigotry as it’s uncalled for, in any case. I think it’s 
unfortunate that some people still operate is such simple terms.

Thoughts on anti-Muslim bigotry in general? 

I think that when words like “Islamophobia” get used over and over, it cheapens the phenomenon of 
anti-Muslim bigotry because people end up thinking that Muslims just want to play the victim. I 
think it is a real thing (anti-Muslim bigotry, that is) and it has to be tackled else we’re going to find it much harder getting through to the secularists and those in favour of human rights within Muslim 
communities.

So much yes to what you just said, the shrieks of islamophobia for every criticism of ideology do nothing but muddy the water, and make actual bigotry harder to spot. 

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Shout out to my wonderful interviewee...thanks so much for chatting with me about this! The video you shared is so cute, and much needed for people to hear someone of the older generation explain in relatable terms how and why not to discriminate! 

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Share your thoughts comments below! Other ex-Sikhs please feel free to add to the conversation below, I'd love to hear from you xx

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2 comments:

  1. i dont think sikhism describes itself as 'the truth'. moreso as one path to the truth and accepting of other paths. and some of the stuff was just cultural issues.

    however i agree with most of it. culturalsikh/exsikh/secularhumanist/atheist whatever that i am. thanks.

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  2. How interesting,I am a non believer, a pork eating, secular Christmas celebrating Jewish Czech living in the UK. I am also a doctor, and I have seen what religious pressure did to some of my patients. I think doubt is the most useful of brain function. And it contradicts faith of any kind, religious, political etc.

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