Pondering Obama and the Golden Temple

Last week, the White House decided that Obama would not be going to the Golden Temple, even though this was tentatively on his schedule for his trip to India in early November.

As the story was reported, the White House pulled out because Obama was told he had to cover his head with a bandana rather than a baseball cap, and White House Staff were afraid this would make it look like Obama was wearing “Muslim garb.” [See NYT, Daily Beast]

The problem is, I find that story absurd. I’m pretty sure it’s wrong, and here’s why:

  • Sikh religious authorities have said outright that a baseball cap would be fine:

any covering, even a baseball cap, would be acceptable. “We would welcome President Obama as long as he covers his head while inside Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple). Caps or hats are not barred by Sikh dharmik maryada (religious code of conduct). After all even Queen Elizabeth wore a western hat when she came to the temple”

  • The Queen of England wore a hat when she visited the same site. (Photo is of Anadpur Sahib not Harmandir Sahib, but her garb was the same in both places)
  • MiriPiri-QueenVisit[1].jpg
  • People wear all sorts of hats to the Golden Temple, including baseball caps, and this has never been a problem. 
  • The President would look dopey wearing a baseball cap to a religious site. He could, however, have worn a cowboy hat, something which seems to have been OK with everybody, and which would have looked marginally more dignified.

But here’s my biggest issue with this narrative: a bandana on Obama’s head would have made him look gangster or hipster, but certainly not Muslim.

Why has the story stuck? Well, it has some basis in fact (see this early statement) but more importantly, it fits this narrative of Obama as gutless and feckless, as Tunku Varadarajan puts it: “The president has shown, more than once, that he lacks the courage of his cosmopolitan convictions.” And actually, there I think he has the story half right.

Here’s why I think they did cancel the visit:

1. The security risks were very high:

Mr Obama’s security advisors feel protecting him in the crowded and congested by lanes of the tightly packed walled city around the holiest of Sikh shrines would be a nightmarish undertaking.
“A visit to the Golden Temple necessarily entails a road journey through ground that would be a sniper’s dream come true. There is virtually nowhere within safe reach of the sikh shrine where a helicopter can land,” said a senior defense and security affairs expert. [cite]

2. The political benefits were close to nil. Unlike Stephen Harper, the Canadian PM, who had a large Sikh constituency to please, Sikhs are negligible in terms of their political impact in the USA. It’s just a fact. There’s a reason why not one previous President has ever gone to the Golden Temple on their visit to India yet.

3. The head covering issue is a red herring. The real issue is photos of Obama surrounded by turbaned bearded swarthy men in an exotic landscape of golden domes and weird religious music, at a time when 20% of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, and his political staff still have nightmares about his last turban photo. I’m pretty sure they want to keep turbans out of the frame with him between now and the next election, except for photos with Manmohan Singh.

I don’t like that. I understand it, but I don’t like it one bit.

What I don’t understand is that given the security and political risks to such a visit, why it was ever on his schedule in the first place, however tentatively. Had they not looked at a sat map of the location? Had they not realized that there would be turbans nearby?

Here’s my hunch – Obama wanted to go, and put it on his schedule, but it was so low priority that nobody bothered to think much about it until the story came out at which point somebody on his staff freaked out. And it could be that I’m wrong, and somebody in the White House freaked out over a bandana. But if that’s true, they’re smoking the same stuff Juan Williams is smoking, and that’s very sad to hear indeed.

[Below is a photo of Canadian PM Stephen Harper at the Golden Temple, not looking like he's wearing Muslim garb at all] Harper-at-Golden-Temple.jpg

32 thoughts on “Pondering Obama and the Golden Temple

  1. To add to your second point, almost every Canadian politician who visits India makes a trip to the Golden Temple.

    • To add to your second point, almost every Canadian politician who visits India makes a trip to the Golden Temple.

      Probably want to see the source of their largest immigrant race grin

      • For any potential pedants: I meant race as in cultural race, which is perfectly acceptable these days except for the hyper-obsessed!

  2. although raised in a sikh household, I had my hair-cut in grade 7 upon arrival to Canada. So I wear a bandana to all gurudwaras and there is no problem with that. I think sikhs as a whole are very “easy-going” when it comes to religious practices we are not very strict. We have individuals like my cousin who have a a turban but trim their beards, everyone from all walks of life is accepted in the gurudwara. What scares me is that these liberals keep pointing fingers at the right-wingers for being islamaphobic and ignorant, while they themselves cannot tell a difference between taliban and a sikh. I think Jay Sean should do a sikh-PSA only then will americans understand.

  3. “And it could be that I’m wrong, and somebody in the White House freaked out over a bandana. But if that’s true, they’re smoking the same stuff Juan Williams is smoking, and that’s very sad to hear indeed.”

    There prolly somkin’ some of those ol’ doogies that my unlce eddie’s been smokin’ there bud…

  4. Melvin–these days you’re the only good thing on Sepia. Nice posts

    “Here’s my hunch – Obama wanted to go, and put it on his schedule,” My hunch is that your hunch is right.

  5. I see absolutely nothing wrong with Obama refraining from visiting the Golden Temple. Did Reagan, Bush II, Bush I, or Clinton ever visit it? Why is there more scrutiny and/or distrust when Barack Hussein Obama is the president?

    Also, why can’t Manmoham visit the temples of Madurai or the Christian churches of South India or even the Jama Masjid? Now, it’s possible that Singh has visited one or all of these holy places, but I’m not sure. Why couldn’t Musharaff or Bhutto visit the Golden Temple? They both, after all, are Punjabis, and Sikhism started in (modern-day Pakistan) Punjab?

    I’d love to see Manmohan Singh visit some inner-city environment here in the USA, myself.

    The President and you and I can visit or refuse to visit any place of worship that we choose to, because this the hallmark of FREEDOM OF RELIGION.

    Finally, the Sikhs have MUCH more to gain if Obama visits their Temple because it gives them more clout, which in itself is not a bad thing. Moreover, the President is refraining from visiting because it would give him too distractions, which also is not a bad thing.

      • Manohar,

        It seems that all the controversial (that pretty much means “all”) Pakistani politician’s entry on Wiki or the internet in general seems to all be written by revisionists. Jinnah was some times born in Karachi (by his allies), and other times, in Gujarat (by his detractors). Some times Musharaff was born in Delhi to Punjabis (by his admirers) and in western UP to Mohajirs (by his detractors who believe that UP < Punjabi). Regarding the Bhuttos, I’ve read that they are from Sukkur Sind, but they are Punjabis, and some sources on Wiki some times claim that they are Shias from Baluchistan. Look up the HISTORY section of Benazir Bhutto, and you’ll see that there was some arm-wrestling going on as to their ethnicity. However, regarding BB, she is definitely part Kurdish if she had her way.

        • boston_mahesh replied to comment from manohar | October 25, 2010 11:42 PM | Reply Manohar,

          It seems that all the controversial (that pretty much means “all”) Pakistani politician’s entry on Wiki or the internet in general seems to all be written by revisionists. Jinnah was some times born in Karachi (by his allies), and other times, in Gujarat (by his detractors). Some times Musharaff was born in Delhi to Punjabis (by his admirers) and in western UP to Mohajirs (by his detractors who believe that UP is less than Punjabi socio-economically). Also, if you look at the history of Benazir Bhutto’s Wiki entry, it even stated that her ancestry was part Baluchistan, when in fact she’s half Kurdish and half Sindhi/Punjabi (or what ever).

  6. Lastly to all my Sikh brothers and sisters: A person goes to Harimandir to pray to One Eternal God, and not to score political points or arm-twist a PM’s global policy.

    If you disagree, than I say to you that Obama should go to the Taj Mahal but only drinking from a Coca Cola bottle and wearing a Tata Jersey with a Microsoft banner in the backdrop.

    • Thank you, WOW-JI.

      I’m a fair and balanced man. Unfortunately for many desis, I’m not fair and lovely.

  7. @My_dog_jagat:

    Melvin is one of the many good things on Sepia, but this wasn’t actually his post. It was his comment, however.

  8. ennis,

    what’s your estimate of how much of the american voting-age public has the same anal sphincter-control problem as Juan Williams (and apparently the WH staff) does when it comes to anyone perceived as swarthy and foreign?

  9. My guess is that Obama & the political staff put it on his schedule b/c he/they thought it would be interesting, and the security team, being overworked, didn’t get around to saying no until the original draft of the schedule came out. I doubt very much that turbans had anything to do with it on any end of the visit. They could have just had the visit after the election if they were that worried about the political impact of Obama hanging out with a bunch of swarthy people in strange clothes, which will happen no matter where he goes in South Asia. Had they not looked at a sat map of the location? Very probably no. I have no lack of faith in the ability of the security apparatus to be overworked, underprepared, and slightly psychotic & reactive in its preparations.

    • Why do you doubt this? This is after all the candidate whose team rushed to clear the stage of Muslim women in headgear. I am sympathetic to Obama’s predicament, but I don’t see why we can’t acknowledge that he is being wagged by the dumb swath (it’s much larger than a fringe) of the populace here. (I am not mixing metaphors here, he did say that they talk about him like a dog).

  10. @Nandalal : Unclear. There is that 20% who insist he’s a Muslim and for them it’s bad. I don’t know if the rest care as much, but I think it is a real political risk. It’s just one I want him to take.

    • Its more than 20% Ennis regardless of numbers…remember the frothing and seething over the New Yorker ‘fistbump’ cover. Its only increased. Insanity is raging through the country, Palin only stands to benefit from any perceived misteps Obama makes. Photo ops at the golden temple sadly would be one of them in the eyes of teaparty zealots.

  11. “Palin only stands to benefit from any perceived misteps Obama makes.”

    then he should wear the turbin. anything that bolsters palin helps obama b/c palin will get so goldwatered as the nom that her electoral map will likely look like harry byrds, george wallace, or adlai stevenson’s. is this trip planned before the midterm election? if so, then he may want to back off.

    But if not, he should go totally native. drive the teaparty nuts. enable palin and make moderates run to the dems even with double digit unemployment (which is unlikely by ’12 unless there’s a double-dip).

    obama’s not clinton or carter. he’s the first national dem in post-civil war history whose election doesn’t depend on the dixiecrat base. the nuttier they look, the better he does. if the muslm thing didn’t get thim the firstt ime around, it won’t the 2nd. maybe if there’s a big ass terorist event but Bam has benn so bush-like that that is unlikely too. more likel;y, he’ll capture OBL and really piss the teaprty off. he should totally go for it.

    and, whatever happens its hillary”s fault.

  12. I have to agree with Tinku, Obama seems to have lost his baxls as well as his good judgement. To fear the nutty 20% is to cater to the lowest common denominator,. By wearing some sort of a head covering, this very well could have been the opportunity for him to look the “he-is-a-muslim” crowd in the eyes. After all, a majority of Americans don’t buy into the un-medicated imagination of the nutty fringe. Instead, he has probably re-energized his worst critics and allowed this fallacy to see another day.

  13. It’s not the muslim thing, but the christian thing that’s the issue. If he’s doing something in any non-christian religious site, it’s “taking away” something from Americans per the slobbering critics.

  14. “he’ll capture OBL and really piss the teaprty off. he should totally go for it. “

    Manju,

    OBL is dead. That’s what Bhutto said. Why do you think they killed her? Duh, NWO.

  15. Ok, here’s a ready and rough reckoner to the current PR crisis the White House is battling.

    1. 24% or so Americans are apparently under the impression that Barack Husein Obama is a Muslim.

    2. An unspecified percentage of Americans are either under the impression that Sikhs are Muslims, or cannot differentiate between the two.

    3. Ergo, if Obama is seen wearing a head scarf at a Sikh gurudwara, the images will reaffirm to a significant unspecified percentage of American voters that he is a Muslim. Or maybe even a closet member of the Al-Qaeda who tricked them all on his way to the White House. Or some such thing.

    4. President Obama therefore doesn’t want to come to the Golden Temple anymore as was supposedly part of the original plan for his India visit.

    5. The SGPC is trying to explain to President Obama that they’ll be fine with anything he wears to cover his head, not a headscarf, and can he please not change his plans. To quote from the sugary sweet letter from the SGPC chief to Obama, “The Sikh diaspora wish and eagerly wait to see you at this sacred sanctum sanctorum as you are leading the oldest democracy of the world i.e. United States, the country of everybody’s dreams.”

    Points 1 and 2 don’t speak too well for the level of awareness among the population of the world’s biggest economic and military superpower. Points 3 and 4 don’t speak too well about the manner in which the most powerful man in the world is so defensive about adjusting to misinformation. Point 5 – I think the debate is still on, but personally, I don’t think anybody, irrespective of the power they wield, should be beseeched to come to a place of faith, even by its administrative custodians.

    Mr Obama is the leader of the free world – or at least that is the image that the US would like to convey, since we are handling image management here. For him to cater to fringe perceptions this seriously doesn’t instill great confidence.

    This is not a Karan Johar movie – not that the White House staff would have seen it – but surely the Presidency can’t expect all Muslims in the US to carry a placard saying “I am not a terrorist”, and all Sikhs to carry one declaring “I am not a Muslim”. As the President of the US, one expects Obama to take a position countering mistaken impressions based on prejudice – not make everyone who ties a headscarf at any point feel apologetic about the fact. This could have been much better handled with a little more courage of conviction and a little less worry about image management.

    Even if B Husein O needs to emphasize that he is not a Muslim, and 24% of his voters apparently have very poor general knowledge, there is nothing so profoundly defensive about being a Muslim that he has to actively disassociate from any such imagery. Even if Sikhs are not a politically significant enough part of the US electorate, surely they deserve better then for everyone to give a tacit approval of looking at men with turbans and beards as if they were guilty purely by visual association of affiliation with some wing of the Al Qaeda – or offshoots of some radical jihadi group – simply because Osama Bin Laden sports a beard and a turban? At the same time – even if this is not be the most politically correct example – few US political leader seem to have had qualms cozying up, for example, to the cash-rich Sant Singh Chatwal.

    Frankly, I am nobody to advise them, but I would be happier if the SGPC were to politely request the President to now not come to the Golden Temple, rather than issue appeals to him to not change his plans and don whatever sort of headgear he wishes to. This is not about jingoism, but if the US President is so apologetic about being identified even momentarily with any of the faiths that involve donning headgear, even for a few minutes, let’s just let it be. Why beseech him, leader of the “country of everybody’s dreams” though he may be?

    The day after Dussehra, most Indians saw a photo of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, and Rahul Gandhi at the Ramleela ground, holding the bow and arrow used to set the effigy of Ravana alight. I don’t think 24% of Indians thereafter confused either Sonia or Manmohan or Rahul to be direct descendants of Ram’s Raghuvanshi lineage, or of having their family roots in Ayodhya, or of being closet anti-Lankans, or any such thing. If the Indian voter – with all his illiteracy, poverty, caste and clan divides and all our system’s failings – can have that much common sense, surely you don’t tell me you really believe that tying a headscarf will change what your voter understands about you, O Occupant of Air Force One? If that’s the case, well, tread defensively, Mr President. One does recall you declaring emphatically the day you took your oath of office, in your inaugural address, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.”

    Well, whatever.

    Meanwhile, can we please stop requesting him anymore to please, please come to the Temple?

  16. He probably just doesn’t want to blow any shot he has at sitting next to Juan Williams, next time he’s on AF-1.

  17. [[[The day after Dussehra, most Indians saw a photo of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, and Rahul Gandhi at the Ramleela ground, holding the bow and arrow used to set the effigy of Ravana alight. I don’t think 24% of Indians thereafter confused either Sonia or Manmohan or Rahul to be direct descendants of Ram’s Raghuvanshi lineage, or of having their family roots in Ayodhya, or of being closet anti-Lankans, or any such thing. If the Indian voter – with all his illiteracy, poverty, caste and clan divides and all our system’s failings – can have that much common sense, surely you don’t tell me you really believe that tying a headscarf will change what your voter understands about you, O Occupant of Air Force One? If that’s the case, well, tread defensively, Mr President. One does recall you declaring emphatically the day you took your oath of office, in your inaugural address, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.” Well, whatever. Meanwhile, can we please stop requesting him anymore to please, please come to the Temple?]]]

    This is so very disappointing. Is this the same Obama who invited a Vaishnava purohit to the White House to conduct Diwali Pjua and then photographed himself namaste’ing the kuthuvilakku? You don’t need to be invited to visit Harmandir Sahab, there is a standard maryada that you follow that’s all. How difficult is that? My favourite picture from India is of Sonia Gandhi and Vajpayee standing together at the annual Rashtrapathi Bhavan Christmas celebration in 1998 singing carols! Or Advani in a headscarf visiting Ajmer; or Abdul Kalam at the Tirupati Balaji Mandir. Not to forget Salman Khan performing Ganpati Puja at his home! Barry, forget all those politics this time in India just see how we stay together in India.

  18. Many commenters don’t seem to have read Ennis’s post, in which he suggested that the whole photo-op business had nothing to do with the decision not to visit Amritsar. These news reports never looked even remotely convincing to me — there was never a source for the speculation besides the comments of someone at the Temple who was reacting to questions from the advance team … which means next to nothing. Instead, everyone just seems to be jumping to all manner of conclusions and engaging in speculation, often to fit their preconceived ideas about Obama and advancing their own narratives (see, e.g., Tunku Varadarajan’s piece linked to by Ennis). To me, the idea that this President would choose not to visit the Golden Temple because he was concerned about the optics of it never made sense — he wouldn’t have hosted an Iftar during Ramadan if he was as scared of the optics as so many people seem to believe.

    Anyway, here is the transcript from today’s White House Press gaggle related to the President’s trip to India, in which the administration spokespersons state clearly that all the speculation related to the photo op is unfounded.

    Q Okay. I also wanted to make one more run at a question that came up a few days ago to you, Robert, about whether — what was the specific reason why the President opted not go to the Golden Temple, which was something that was in his tentative plans? Was it because he would have to cover his head and the concerns about him being perceived as Muslim –

    MR. GIBBS: I’ll take — let Ben take another. I think he’s going to tell you largely what I told you at the back of the plane.

    Go ahead.

    MR. RHODES: I’ve been leading our trip planning here, so I’ve known this trip at every stage of our development.

    As Robert said, it’s a big country where we’d like to do a lot of things. It’s an extraordinary country and we can never do as many events as we’d like to do. We send advance teams to far more places than we’re ever going to visit.

    I think if you look at — the schedule that we ended up is the schedule that best advances the purposes and interests of the trip. We’ve got a very packed three days in Mumbai and Delhi that speak to those priorities, that reach out to the Indian people as well.

    So we arrived at the schedule we arrived at because we thought it was the best way to have a successful trip. We’ve visited multiple religious sites — mosques, churches, synagogues — on foreign travel. We’ll do so on this trip, probably in Indonesia. So I think that the decision we made was driven by, again, the interests of time, how to best advance our common interests with India in these three days. And, unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to get to get to every place we advanced.

    Q Would it be fair to say, though, just to eliminate that as an issue, that that’s just wrong, that theory that that was the reason why –

    MR. RHODES: Yes. We — again, we make the decision about the schedule based on the best way to advance our goals for the trip. And with three days, we just thought that, when we really crunched it, Mumbai and Delhi, with a very packed official program, that the schedule we arrived at for those two cities filled up our time successfully.