JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN — It's not just the variety of fabrics in his shop that distinguishes Gurmouk Singh from the other merchants in this bustling city of commerce. Most of all, it is Mr. Singh's distinctive beard and turban that mark him as a Sikh, a religious minority in an aggressively Muslim land.
But while the Taliban regime that controls some 95 percent of this war-torn country has in the past few months smashed Buddhist statues and cracked down on Shiite Muslims in central Afghanistan, Singh says he and his fellow Sikhs feel completely safe in the only home they have ever known.
"As you know, we believe in God, and Muslims believe in God. We trust in God, and Muslims trust in God," says Singh, the leader of the Sikh community in Jalalabad. "We didn't predict such things would happen from [Taliban religious leader] Mullah Omar, because he respects other religions. But we pray to God that he will let us continue to practice our beliefs."
For Afghanistan's religious minorities, these are uncertain times. While the Taliban has encouraged members of the Sikh community to return to Afghanistan, after some 23 years of war, the Islamic organization has been pushing its own social rules and interpretations of the Koran on a growing number of Afghans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Some religious minorities, like the rural Shiites of Bamiyan province, have taken up the gun to overturn Taliban rule. Others, like the thriving entrepreneurial Sikhs, are adjusting their behavior in subtle ways to suit the regime.
"The Taliban don't really approve of the Sikhs, in the sense that no religion measures up in the eyes of Islam. But they're a little more benign, more tolerant toward the Sikhs," says Khushwant Singh, a Sikh historian and novelist in New Delhi who has traveled throughout Afghanistan. "They must be a resilient lot, and they must be performing a useful function." A mischievous grin crosses his face. "I suppose the Taliban's women couldn't get their chadors [veils] if the Sikhs weren't there to sell them."
If the orthodox Muslims in the Taliban rank and file are ambivalent about Sikhism, the feeling is probably mutual. Started more than 500 years ago as both a reaction against and a synthesis of Islam and Hinduism, the Sikh faith teaches that God is not a personal savior or a superhuman force, but is the abstract principle of truth. In the 1,430-page-long Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, you can find snatches of wisdom from both the Koran and the Hindu vedic texts. Consequently, Sikhs have much in common, and much in dispute, with orthodox Islamic thought.
For their part, Muslims regard Sikhs to be Ahl-e-zima, protected minorities, and Ahl-e-kitab, people of the book, a class that includes Judaism and Christianity as well. Like orthodox Muslims, for instance, Sikhs regard all human beings to be of one brotherhood, equal, regardless of social status. In addition, while Sikhs often hang portraits of the 10 founders of the Sikh religion in their temples, they condemn the worship of idols.
"From the beginning, Sikhism was a reaction to Hinduism and in particular to their idol worship," says Anif Ahmad, professor of religious studies at Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan. "Islam is in line with an earlier tradition, such as Judaism, in its dislike of idol worship. So they have a lot in common."
But even with common beliefs, the ebb and flow of history has often set the Muslim and Sikh faithful against each other. Beginning in the 11th century, Muslim conquerors made frequent forays from Central Asia into the fertile Indian state of Punjab, where Sikhism was born. Later, from the 1700s onward, Sikh conquerors made forays of their own in a bid to become a regional military and economic power. In the late 19th century, a combined force of Sikh warriors and British Army regulars briefly succeeded in defeating Afghan forces, taking control of Kabul long enough for a victory march. In Afghanistan's Pashtun-dominated culture, where memories are long and family feuds last for generations, it's not surprising that a little suspicion continues to surround the Sikhs.
Sohail Shaheen, spokesman for the Embassy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban's outpost in Islamabad, says that all of that is just history now, and that all religious minorities in Afghanistan enjoy the Taliban's and the Koran's protection.
"When the Russians invaded Afghanistan, many of the Sikhs left Jalalabad and Kabul for India," says the embassy spokesman in his small, spare office. "But after the emergence of the Taliban, many of the Sikhs have returned, and they are leading their normal lives. They are free to perform their religious rituals."
Islam, in any case, obliges the Muslim ruler to protect those who follow different faiths, he adds. "Sikhs have followers in Afghanistan, and Hindus have followers in Afghanistan, so there is not any crackdown, nor any possibility of intolerance against them. If there had been followers of Buddha in Afghanistan, there would not be destruction of the statues because this rule would apply to them as well."
In Jalalabad, there are 100 Sikh families, about 700 Sikhs in all, who come to worship at two large Sikh gurudwaras, or temples. Legend has it that the older of the two gurudwaras was built by Guru Nanak himself, the chief founder of Sikhism, some 532 years ago.
In the textile markets of Jalalabad, dozens of Sikh-owned shops tempt passersby with fabrics imported from Pakistan, India, and the Persian Gulf. While Sikhs dominate the textile market in retail shops, Muslims are the ones who bring the fabric into the country, and drive it along the smoothest, straightest highway in Afghanistan, from the Afghan-Pakistan border to Jalalabad. It's a system of commerce built on a foundation of communal coexistence and mutual reliance.
"From all of history, we didn't feel any different with Muslim community here," says Narinder Singh, a textile merchant with an easy smile. "We work together, we grow our businesses together. When a Muslim has a wedding or passes away, we go to their homes, and they come to our homes."
Amrik Singh, a cosmetics merchant, says he welcomed the Taliban's arrival, since it signaled the end of lawlessness that came with civil war. "We are thankful for the Taliban presence," he says. "Our lives are secure, our property is secure, our religious affairs are secure. For that we appreciate the Taliban."
Asked who would buy cosmetics in a country where all women, even Sikh women, must wear head-to-toe veils, Mr. Singh smiles. "The women buy it. Their husbands only see it."
But this smooth coexistence requires constant lubrication with the Taliban, these merchants admit. "We know we are not really Muslim, our systems are different, so ... they show us the legal steps within an Islamic society," says Gurmouk Singh, the leader of the Jalalabad Sikh community. "We feel safe here."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor