By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
A Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh walk into a room.
It’s not the start of a joke. This is what happens when you live in Fort Bend County, one of the most diverse counties in the nation, and the sheriff wants his officers to learn from the public. Last year Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls started plans to bring about cultural awareness for his officers and anyone wanting to understand the different cultures and ethnicities in the county. He said there was no great friction triggering the diversity training.
“Deputies are simple people. We have to be more knowledgeable. If you don’t know something you ask. That’s why I say, if you truly want to learn how to bring people together, come to Fort Bend County and learn,” Nehls said.
He started asking representatives from the three main faiths outside of Christianity that are abundant in Fort Bend County and invited leaders to speak during a four-hour segment on diversity. The idea was a hit. The packed session in Richmond at the Gus George Law Enforcement Academy in July attracted more than 100 members of law enforcement and the community.
“This is at the ground floor. I’m a guy from Wisconsin and I didn’t understand. There have to be some in this room who see someone walking down the street wearing this beautiful turban and you wonder, what does that mean,” Nehls said.
The turbans are worn by those in the Sikh tradition as a sign of faith, explained attorney Manpreet Singh who as a member of the Sikh Coalition, led the first 45-minute talk about the faith traditions and the Sikh community.
Sikhs (pronounced seek) are the fifth-largest faith in the world. In the Houston area, members, including Singh’s family, emigrated here from India in the 1950s with 15 families and now there are up to 5,000 people of the Sikh tradition living here, she said.
She was a young lawyer working at her desk when terrorists flew their planes into the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and changed this country’s sense of security. It also affected her community deeply.
“I saw the horrific crime and I had a picture of my brother on my desk. I saw a picture of Osama Bin Laden on TV for the first time and was shocked. Why is he wearing a turban?” she thought to herself.
“For the first time I had to prove I was American.” she recalled.
Suddenly an article of clothing representing honor and faith was deemed suspicious and viewed with fear and derision that led to violence against those of the Sikh faith. She feared for the safety of her brother who like most men wears a turban.
Indeed, in 2012 a white supremacist shot up a Sikh temple, in Oak Creek, Wisc. His murderous rampage killed six people in the temple, which is called a gurdwara.
Singh was excited when the sheriff asked for someone to speak.
“We are usually approaching other departments and he came to us asking about outreach. That is unusual in law enforcement and we were thrilled,” Singh said.
Attorney Amit Misra, a lawyer who graduated with the 1989 class of Dulles High School, noted that many aspects of Hindu culture are familiar to the broader world, such as the spiritual practice of yoga and the greeting “namaste.”
“You can’t separate the Hindu religion from India. There is also a substantial Sikh population in India as well,” he explained. “And we have Hindus in Texas.”
There are six temples in Houston and three in Fort Bend County. More than 300,000 Hindus and those of Indian origin live in greater Houston.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out your doctor is probably Hindu,” he said.
There is diversity in the language with 22 official languages, 122 major languages and 1,600 dialects. There is a dress code to enter their places of worship. No sleeveless tops or skirts above the knee. Shoes are removed out of cleanliness and as a reminder to remove part of the materialistic world we live in, Misra explained.
Sharing their culture is essential, he said, which is why there have been more than two million visitors to their houses of worship in 13 years; 45 percent of those tours are from Christian churches and 35 percent are from schools, he said.
The underlying belief in the Hindu faith is that we are all the same. The red dot on foreheads is a symbol of keeping God at the center of your thoughts, he said.
One woman in the audience told Misra, “I love your traditions. I am Mexican-American and I was raised in the Mexican tradition. We are very colorful and spiritual too. It’s amazing to me. I met folks from India and we can learn from each other. Our society is becoming so global and we can learn these wonderful things and appreciate.”
The different Hindu sects can be equated to the multiple denominations in the Christian faith.
“All Hindus share some belief of dharma, there is a right way to live. The strongest of dharma is that which sustains us – do, that which harms – don’t do,” Misra said.
Attorney Farah Ahmed is an American Muslim.
“We don’t want to be compared to other Muslims, we are American Muslims who truly believe that America is the safest place to practice our faith,” she said.
She note that “the greatest American athlete is a Muslim, Muhammad Ali, an American Muslim. One of five Muslims in America have converted from another religion,” she said.
She said they want what everyone wants; the freedom to practice their religion.
Islam is the largest and fastest growing faith in the world said Dr. Zahra Jamal, the associate director of the Boniuk Institute for the study and advancement of religious tolerance at Rice University.
“Islam doesn’t mean religion, it means submission to one God. There are commonalities across the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, she explained.
“It’s the same, one God; all knowing. A God of grace, love, compassion and mercy,” Jamal said.
The prophet Muhammad received a visit from the angel Gabriel, the same Gabriel of the Christian tradition, explained Jamal, who spoke to dispel common myths.
It is not true that Muhammad cannot be depicted in images. Jihad does not mean holy war and it is a myth that all Muslims are fighting a holy war. Islamic law protects Jews and Christians and means struggle to bring oneself closer to God, she said.
“The terrorist who claim to be Muslim are driven by politics. ISIS, Boka Haram, the root cause is a political frustration. Despair and poverty many misapply,” she said.
“So called Muslims who attack are covered more than non-Muslims. Why is it that no one thinks the KKK is the representative voice of Christianity,” she asked. “This is why in the most diverse county in the country, we seek to embrace once another and curb these kinds of misunderstandings of fear.”
Amina Ishaq is a young mother who wears fabric covering her hair and a long dress with long sleeves covering her skin. It is a form of her spiritual practice. Such clothing is seen as a sign of purity and faith in images of the Virgin Mary or traditional Catholic nuns but strikes fear and distrust when worn by females practicing their Islamic tradition. Her faith is not oppressive towards women, she said.
Ishaq has felt the stares and looks of disdain because of her dress. She recalled a moment when she was going to vote. One candidate saw her dress and looked past her. Another saw her, smiled, said hello. She was planning to vote for Nehls as sheriff anyway, but his genuine welcoming demeanor cinched the deal.
“A warm smile goes a long way. Engaging with our children, treating them as if they were your own. Ya’ll are our protectors. Keep giving tickets with a smile,” said Hamed Hussaini.