Skip to main content

An enlightened approach to hate crimes

By Amardeep Singh, Special to CNN
October 5, 2013 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Palmeet Kaur, whose father was killed by a gunman at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, attends a vigil on August 5.
Palmeet Kaur, whose father was killed by a gunman at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, attends a vigil on August 5.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sikh doctor forgives teenagers who beat him and called him a terrorist
  • Amardeep Singh works with hate crime victims who display a different approach
  • Rather than jail time, he says, people who commit hate crimes can do community service
  • Singh: It's helpful for victims and perpetrators to overcome fears about each other

Editor's note: Amardeep Singh is program director and co-founder of the The Sikh Coalition.

(CNN) -- Prabhjot Singh, a turbaned Sikh doctor and Columbia University professor, was surrounded recently by a gang of teenagers on bicycles who beat him, fracturing his jaw. He says they called him a "terrorist" and "Osama."

His response: "If I could speak to my attackers," he said, "I would ask them if they had any questions, if they knew what they were doing. Maybe invite them to the gurdwara where we worship, get to know who we are."

Most people would be surprised by Dr. Singh's willingness to forgive and constructively engage his attackers. I am not. Like most Sikhs, I was taught at a young age about Bhai Ghaniya, a famous Sikh who would distribute food and water to wounded enemy soldiers. The lesson instilled was that the work of mending fences begins as soon as one can no longer harm you.

Members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin erect a sign on August 5, the first anniversary of a shooting in the temple\n
Members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin erect a sign on August 5, the first anniversary of a shooting in the temple

As a professional advocate working with Sikh hate crime victims for more than a decade since 9/11, I have consistently seen Sikhs move beyond the punitive bent of our criminal justice system and adopt a Sikh approach to addressing our attackers. The result is a decidedly Sikh-American brand of justice that produces more social benefit than the revolving-door criminal justice system in our country.

Take our work with Gurpreet Singh and Thomas Brand. Thomas worked at Marsh McLenan at the World Trade Center. He never had a chance to say goodbye to his colleagues who died there on 9/11. Traveling on trains made him scared and angry. He acted on his anger a year later by pushing Gurpreet on the Long Island Railroad, urging him to leave the train and calling him a "terrorist."

Amardeep Singh
Amardeep Singh

Thomas was stopped by an off-duty police officer, arrested, and eventually prosecuted. When it came time for sentencing, the prosecutor was ready to recommend jail time for Thomas.

Gurpreet did not want that to happen. He saw a man in real pain who needed a lift up and not jail time. He asked that the prosecutor recommend Thomas engage in community service aimed at combating hate in a post 9/11 world.

Thomas was very nervous when he came to our office. He said he knew nothing about us and always thought we were "stern" and "angry." He said he was surprised that one of my colleagues was wearing shorts instead of pants. We got to know each other and eventually Thomas was standing with Gurpreet and me as we went to gurdwaras, Sikh houses of worship, collecting reports of bias against Sikhs.

All of us were better for the experience. Gurpreet and I had our own prejudices and fears of people who looked like "Joe America" and clearly Thomas had his own perceptions about us "turban folk" as well. Rather than allow him to spend time incarcerated in the overworked criminal justice system, we all found healing and became better people for it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amardeep Singh.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
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.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
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.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT