Skip to main content

Sikh-led prayer and GOP convictions

By Valarie Kaur, Special to CNN
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Wed August 29, 2012
People gather to mourn the deaths of six members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. A Sikh will lead a prayer at the RNC.
People gather to mourn the deaths of six members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. A Sikh will lead a prayer at the RNC.
  • Valarie Kaur: GOP will make history when a Sikh leads thousands in prayer at RNC
  • Kaur: If this is to be more than a gesture, GOP must speak out against hate
  • Most Sikhs are pleased that a Sikh prayer will be delivered on a national platform, she says
  • Kaur's Sikh father was with GOP but switched after he saw discrimination in party

Editor's note: Valarie Kaur is the founding director of Groundswell, an initiative at Auburn Seminary that combines storytelling and advocacy to mobilize faith communities in social action. Her documentary "Divided We Fall" examines hate crimes against Sikh Americans after 9/11. Kaur studied religion and law at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School and Yale Law School, where she now directs the Yale Visual Law Project. Follow her on Twitter: @valariekaur.

(CNN) -- The Republican National Convention will make history Wednesday night. Ishwar Singh, wearing a turban and beard, will take the stage and lead thousands of conservatives in prayer. 

For the first time in U.S. history, a Sikh American will give the invocation at a Republican National Convention.

The inclusion of a Sikh prayer on the stage comes just a few weeks after a gunman opened fire on Sikhs praying in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and hospitalizing three more in what could be the largest racially motivated mass shooting in recent U.S. history.  Many praise the invocation as a mark of progress in the Sikh community's 100 years in America.

Visuals matter. And in a racially charged political climate, a turbaned and bearded man will be presented to the country by Republicans as a fellow American.  This is a remarkable step forward.

Valarie Kaur
Valarie Kaur

But speech also matters. If Mitt Romney and Republican leaders want the historic Sikh invocation to be more than tokenism -- and are serious about preventing another Oak Creek -- they cannot continue to let hateful speech within their own party go unchecked.  In a time when hate groups are on the rise, the Republican Party must accept responsibility for fostering a political climate that often casts people of color as foreign and inherently suspect.

GOP leaders have not only stood silent while fellow Republicans fan the flames of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bias, they have given them the megaphone.  Singh will speak on the same stage as Sheriff Joe Arpaio, infamous for shaming and rounding up undocumented immigrants, saying that it's an honor to be compared to the KKK. Newt Gingrich, who is presiding over "Newt University" at the RNC, has compared Muslims to Nazis.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, also speaking at the convention, helped write a platform plank that includes supporting a ban on foreign law, which he admits targets the religious principles of Muslim Americans. The plank, which copies anti-Sharia bills pushed by extreme conservative groups, is roundly condemned as a smoke-screen for anti-Muslim bigotry.  Romney has not spoken out against it.

Ishwar Singh: My Sikh prayer for the Republican National Convention

Similarly, when U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, and four other members of Congress recently demanded the government investigate American Muslim government employees and organizations for "infiltrating" and sabotaging the government, Romney and prominent Republican leaders remained silent.

What's worse, Romney, who could be our president, has played into the xenophobia himself, making statements that imply President Barack Obama's skin color renders him foreign or suspect.

On Friday at a campaign stop, Romney said, "No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate.  They know that this is the place that we were born and raised." At a campaign stop in Pennsylvania, he said that Obama was trying to "change the nature of America" and that "his course is extraordinarily foreign."

In 2001, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim shot up by 1,600%.  To President George W. Bush's credit, he publicly repeated that Muslims were not our enemies. While prejudice and profiling became part of life for Muslims and Sikhs, violent hate crimes fell by two-thirds in 2002 and stayed low -- until two years ago.

In 2010, anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped 50%.  Nothing new happened to explain the increase, except this: fringe conservative groups pumped $42.6 million into think tanks to promote anti-Islam ideologies and successfully manufactured a controversy around Park 51, the so-called "ground zero mosque."  At the same time, politicians such as Bachmann, U.S. Rep. Peter King of New York and Newt Gingrich pushed anti-Muslim agendas by supporting anti-Sharia legislation.

Words matter.  Public voices have a responsibility for generating a climate of xenophobia, fear and hate.  The Oak Creek gunman, Wade Michael Page, was a product of white supremacist hate groups, which have been on the rise in recent years. Online hate groups have increased by 30% in the past year alone.  For gunmen like Page, it seems to matter little whether their targets are Muslim or Sikh -- they harbor hate for anyone who does not look like them.

To be sure, we should give the Republican Party some credit. In a time when many Sikhs have expressed disappointment that Obama has not yet come to visit the victims in Oak Creek, most are grateful for the opportunity for a Sikh prayer to be delivered on a national platform. But if that same party permits its politicians to spew hateful speech unchecked, then the gesture simply masks deeper trouble at the core of the Republican Party.

It wasn't always this way. My Sikh American father was a Republican, proud to belong to the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. He raised my brother and me with lectures on the value of hard work, small government and independence. My own progressive politics in college made for colorful arguments at the Thanksgiving table.

It wasn't until the decade after 9/11 -- after witnessing firsthand how his party caved to fear-mongering, racial profiling and expansive federal power -- that he joined me in campaigning for candidate Obama. My father is one of millions of brown and black Americans alienated by a Republican Party that has forgotten its own values.

Hearing that a Sikh will pray on the stage of the Republican National Convention warmed my father's heart. But it didn't make him forget. If the Republican Party wants to appeal to people like my father again, it must remember its own soul.

Romney and Republican leaders must check extremism in speech. They can start by meditating on the Sikh prayer to be offered by Singh: "Nanak nam chardi kala, tere bhaanai sarbat da bhala." 

Calling upon God in the spirit of eternal optimism, the prayer asks for blessings not upon one party, community or even one country, but for sarbat dha bhalla -- all of humanity.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Valarie Kaur.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.