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Friday, September 28, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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When symbols of faith become targets of bigots

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Seattle's earnest belief in its own civic goodness has always been a bit too precious, but I want to believe it is true.

Since Sept. 11, random acts of stupidity aimed at religious and ethnic minorities have wiped any smugness off my face.

I've never found the city to be sappily nice and polite, but civil and decent. Perched on the Pacific Rim, full of educated, hard-working people, Seattle is open-minded and accepting.

Local taxi driver Satpal Singh Puriwal brought home what only flickered across my consciousness from distant places. It's one thing for dark-skinned, turban-wearing members of the Sikh faith to be attacked in angrier cities and red-neck havens, but Seattle?

For Puriwal, it happened on liberal, tolerant Broadway.

Cursing, spitting and obscene gestures — sounds like a Husky-Duck football game, but not the way any city with an ounce of self-respect behaves toward its neighbors.

Prepared with only my dictionary definition of Sikhism as a 15th-century Hindu sect, I met with Puriwal to learn more.

He and others were frightened enough to stay home from work and pull their kids out of school the first few days after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Their sole transgression was standing out in a crowd. The cloudy, coffee color of Puriwal's skin and his blue turban attracted the wrong kind of attention.

Why do they fear him? His tormentors were no doubt as ignorant of his religion as those bricks with ears who've bullied, beat up and allegedly murdered Sikhs around the country.

Few would dispute Puriwal's faith if they understood it, but this is not about religion. This is about appearances. The apostle of this stupidity is a Louisiana congressman who said anyone with "a diaper on his head" is immediately suspect.

People who spit and curse at a man in a turban are not interested in theological details. They do not care to know Sikhism evolved in part as a rebellion against the Indian caste system. Or that the 550-year-old faith, which is neither Hindu nor Muslim, emphasizes hard work, prayer, service, righteous living and equality.

An estimated 15,000 Sikhs live and worship in Washington. They design software, run motels, fix teeth, build airplanes and drive cabs. They blend in except in a time of crisis.

Everyday religious curiosity usually falls along the line of wondering why Catholics pray with beads or observant Jews wear yarmulkes. Oddly, the question why so many God-fearing Protestants sleep in on Sunday gets less examination.

So why do Sikhs were turbans and beards?

Sikhs are walking declarations of their faith in God. What sets them apart and draws attention are the outward and visible signs of their beliefs.

Puriwal and Sikh Web sites helped sort things out.

Not cutting hair and not shaving are regarded as living in harmony with the will of God. Hair is an integral part of the human body created by God, and not to be cut. Hair is covered with a turban to create a sense of unity and cohesion. A wooden comb is worn beneath the turban, and the hair must be combed twice a day.

A steel bracelet is worn on the right wrist as a reminder not to do anything evil with one's hands. Men wear long, soldier's shorts beneath their pants. The apparel is meant to convey the need for self-restraint over passions and desires. A short, curved knife worn under a shirt completes the five sacred Sikh symbols. The miniature sword represents dignity, courage and self-reliance.

Taken together, they offer group solidarity and visibility. Puriwal said the symbols — kesh, kangha, kara, kachh and kirpan — are reminders of Sikh vows and the need to avoid behavior that reflects poorly against the faith.

Puriwal is more generous toward his tormentors than I would be. Instead of blaming them, he says he bears responsibility in educating them about his religion.

He has been in the United States for 20 years, and his three children enjoy good lives here. He loves and respects America for that opportunity.

Puriwal said the question that hurts the most is whether those are his true feelings or something he says because he is scared.

He wants to drive his cab and worship God. Seattle is in deep trouble if it allows ignorance and fear to stand in his way.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com.

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