By Manpreet Kaur, the Sikh Coalition’s Advocacy Intern for Summer 2009.
Even as Sikh Americans are battling to keep their right to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, our president went on national television last week and told the entire nation that the mark of a true soldier is his crew cut. While the episode was intended to bring a few laughs to the heroes fighting for our nation in Iraq, the statement reminds us how long a road we must travel to ensure that our military reflects our country’s great diversity.
American comedy icon, Stephen Colbert, produced four Comedy Central shows at Camp Victory in Iraq last week as part of his “Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando” USO tour special. On Sunday, during the first episode, four-star general, Ray Odierno and Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama told Colbert that if he wants to “play soldier” he needs to cut his hair. Pointing at the hundreds of troops in the audience, Odierno added, “just like all of them.”
Admittedly, at some level, this is harmless humor and my objection to the sketch could be considered oversensitive. But this commentary by mainstream media is still an indication of the rhetoric we face as we fight to allow practicing Sikhs to serve in the U.S. Armed Forced with their articles of faith intact (unshorn hair, beard, and turban). And to hear our President support the idea that one’s ability to serve is reinforced by our outward appearance is troubling.
Hundreds of news articles, YouTube videos, and talk shows have discussed Colbert’s haircut as a truly “commendable” action. As thousands of people across the country hear about this episode, ideas about what it takes to be a soldier are reinforced against members of the Sikh community, followers of the world’s fifth largest religious, who are mandated against cutting their hair.
When I saw headlines like “In Iraq, Colbert gets military haircut to show his solidarity,” on CNN Online or “Colbert shaves head for troops in Iraq,” on CBS Online, I couldn’t help but laugh. Seriously, solidarity? Is it no longer possible to show unity through common morals? Does looking the same really guarantee harmony? A soldier’s ability to serve in uniformity with fellow Americans while protecting our nation shouldn’t be determined by his outward appearance or the length of his hair. Sikhs have served valiantly in the U.S. Armed Forces since WW1 and continue to serve in many foreign armies. Having unshorn hair doesn’t make us less American, nor does it make us less capable soldiers.
As Sikh Americans, we have a long way to go with our Army Campaign. Our president has a defined the picture of a true soldier and it looks nothing like us. As Sikhs and as Americans, it is time we change that.