We were shocked and deeply saddened by the news that Columbia professor Prabhjot Singh was assaulted and subsequently hospitalized on Saturday night. As a practicing Sikh, Dr. Singh proudly wears a turban and keeps a long beard, presenting an appearance that led his assailants to shout anti-Muslim statements and call Dr. Singh a “terrorist” and “Osama.”
Through the news and social media, we are made constantly aware of the harsh reality of discrimination—both at home and around the world. However, this discrimination becomes much more salient and deeply magnified when the person affected is someone you know and respect dearly. As Sikh students at Columbia, the news of this hate crime against Prabhjot truly hit home for us.
Both Columbia and New York City are bastions of acceptance and religious tolerance, and yet incidents like these make us truly wonder how safe we are in the spaces we occupy. The fact that Dr. Singh was targeted by such violent behavior as a result of his (perceived) faith in one of the most progressive cities in the country is outright frightening and sickening. What he experienced could easily have happened to anyone perceived as “different.” But should anyone have to worry about being the victim of a hate crime simply because of his or her identity?
Dr. Singh is a Columbian, a Sikh, and, most importantly, an American. His accomplishments speak for themselves, but his background and standing don’t even begin to address his strength of character. Not only does Prabhjot serve as a powerful role model for young Americans, but the passion with which he helps underserved communities demands the respect of all those who meet him. As a physician, he has dedicated his life to providing and improving health care for underprivileged communities both within New York City and around the world. Yet as he worked to improve the lives of people who are far different from himself, he was targeted in the community he serves for being “different.”
The attack on Prabhjot due to the misconceptions about his articles of faith shows how ignorance can truly blind people to the quality and character of those around them. We cannot allow these vicious assaults to happen—not just to Sikhs, but to people of any race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. In fact, it is important for us to realize that the attack on Prabhjot is more than just an attack on an accomplished man who wears a turban and keeps his beard: It is an attack on our Columbia community as a whole and our principle of acceptance.
Although we are strong and diverse separately, our community champions the strength and diversity that comes from unity as individuals. As progressive-minded and accepting people, it is our duty and responsibility to step up and support a member of our extended family who has been marginalized. The problem is not that Prabhjot was wrongly identified as a Muslim, but rather that our brothers and sisters in our New York City community failed to respect his differences.
We must take the opportunity presented by this senseless act of violence as a positive driving force to eradicate the ignorance-driven hate that results in the oppression of those who are “different.”
In light of this tragedy, it is necessary for us to unite as Columbians and as New Yorkers to embrace the spirit of Chardi Kala, the fundamental Sikh concept of always maintaining optimism and positivity. The outpouring of support from members of all faiths and communities is very heartening and gives us hope that love will continue to triumph over hate. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently put it, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We cannot let the acts of a few define our world. Rather, we should use our community as a platform to spread acceptance and create a harmonious society both inside and outside of our campus.
Mandeep Singh is a Columbia College junior majoring in urban studies. He is the co-founder of Columbia University Sewa. Harmann Singh is a Columbia College sophomore. He is on the executive board of Columbia University Sewa.
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