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UAE Sikh outrage over Leno spoof of holy shrine

By Bindu Suresh Rai


Funnyman Jay Leno has finally put his foot in it, with a recent spoof upsetting many members of the global Sikh community, including the UAE.

Also facing flak is network channel NBC for green lighting a skit on Leno’s “Tonight Show” where the comedian has used the backdrop of the Amritsar-based Sikh holy shrine, the Golden Temple, to mock the US presidential contender, Mitt Romney.

In the skit, Leno makes fun of Romney’s wealth by flashing an image of the Golden Temple, referring to it one of his summer vacation homes.

Outraged by the total lack of regard for community sentiments, it has been learned that the Indian government has also stepped into the foray, with the Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi directing the Indian Embassy in Washington to lodge a protest with NBC.

While the drama rages on Stateside, Sikhs and other members of the Indian diaspora here are also demanding a written apology from Leno and NBC.

“Of course this is outrageous; there is no question about it,” said Kanwalpreet Kaur, a Dubai-based Brand Manager. “The Golden Temple is sacred amongst the Sikh community and poking fun at its expense is not acceptable. There should be some level of respect towards all religions.

“I am sure, even the Hindu community would have be up in arms had someone poked fun at, say, the holy Ganges River.”

Kaur said the only way forward now was for Leno and NBC to tender an official apology.

“The damage is done; but before this blows into a communal issue, someone has to apologise and pacify the community at large.”

While NBC and Leno have yet to comment on the issue, an online petition has already sprung up demanding the two parties involved to apologise and resolve the issue before serious action is taken.

Manmeet Anand, a Sharjah-based accountant said: “Mocking someone’s religious shrine, or even using it as a part of a bigger joke is frankly, in bad taste. While many would disregard this issue, it only takes a handful of well-placed people to blow things out of proportion.

“Before things snowball, all concerned parties should take a step back and end this matter with an apology.”

However, as Anand pointed out, not everyone from the Sikh community believes this is something to be concerned over.

“Without taking sides here, I really don’t believe that Jay Leno knew exactly what the Golden Temple is and what it represents to the Sikh community,” said businessman, Deep Singh.

“It was probably a simple joke on his part, with a lack of knowledge towards the religious significance of this image.

“It was a joke aimed at Romney; let’s not forget that. Leno probably looked at the Golden Temple, thought that it’s made of gold, and used it as a symbol to depict wealth. It’s akin to, say, using in image of the Taj Mahal maybe.”

Singh added that many Americans are naïve in global matters so the research team probably were clueless to the bigger picture at large.

“These things should not be taken seriously. I mean, filmmakers there poke fun at their own religious practices all the time through their movies. Look at “The Pink Panther” as the perfect example, which kept making fun of Vatican practices. People should not allow such trivial matters to trouble them.”

But even Singh admitted that boundaries have to be set at some point to ensure that a line is not crossed in future.

Dubai-based Life Coach, Naina Bakshi stated: “I am not overly religious, but yes, I can understand that an older generation taking offence to such humour. It is in bad taste; that cannot be denied.”

She added: “Now that the government is involved, I expect this matter to resolve quickly. But I do agree that boundaries should be drawn before things blow out of proportion. Surely no one would want an American talkshow host poking fun at a religious saint or guru in future.”

Of course, there also the really liberal ones, such as the Dubai-based Ashish Singh, who isn’t too concerned about Leno or his brand of humour.

“A job of a comedian is to entertain, and if Leno did fall back on an image of the Golden Temple then it his right. Comedians have the right to push limits.

“Frankly, if Leno used the Golden Temple as a crutch to poke fun at someone, the Temporal Authority of the Sikhs at the holy shrine can do the same and use a picture of Leno’s garage-full of vintage cars and call it the ‘Happy Singh Taxi Stand of the Gurdwara’.”

Tit for tat indeed.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States had not communicated with India on the issue and that the US Constitution strictly protected freedom of speech.

"I hope [Leno will] be appreciative if we make the point that his comments are constitutionally protected in the United States under free speech and, frankly, they appeared to be satirical in nature,"  Nuland was quoted AFP.

She said the US had "absolute respect" for all Indians including Sikhs and that President Barack Obama was the first American president to celebrate the birthday of the Sikh religion's founder, Guru Nanak, at the White House.

"Our view is obviously that Sikh Americans have contributed greatly to the United States," she said.