A question of faith


by Sunny
23rd August, 2007 at 8:40 am    

Padraig Reidy from indexcomment.org has pointed me to a story at the Irish Times:

The Irish Sikh Council has called for Sikhs to be allowed to wear turbans instead of caps when they join the Garda.

The call follows a case where a Sikh who volunteered to join the Garda Reserve was refused permission to wear his turban as part of his uniform. The Garda Síochána today rejected the call for any variation in the standard uniform.

According to Harpreet Singh, President of Irish Sikh Council, asking a Sikh community member to get rid of his turban “is like asking him to remove his head”.

“We strongly believe and accept that as an immigrant community we should respect and adopt cultural values of Irish community,” he said. “But we would like to stress that integration is a two-way process. Integration can never be brought about by asking the migrant communities to give up their basic beliefs.”

Well, quite.

Asking any turban-wearing Sikh to cut their hair is akin to asking them to cut their head off. It should be a personal choice. This has historical connotations because the Mughal emporer Aurungzeb had at one time ordered for any turban-wearing Sikhs to have their heads cut off. Many Sikhs of course preferred death to cutting their hair.

History aside, it’s another case asking that controversial question: where does the line between public vs private expression of religion lie? In Britain this question has already been answered.

As Dr Gurharpal Singh explained a few months ago:

Since the 1960s, successive campaigns over the right to wear turbans, beards and kirpans (small daggers carried by orthodox Sikhs) in public places and at work and schools have generated intense debates about the limits of public accommodation of Sikh demands. While conservative opinion has generally been reluctant to make any concessions to such demands, a combination of persistent campaigns and appeals to the long history of British-Sikh cooperation since the annexation of Punjab in 1849 has secured a form of ‘negative accommodation’: what some have called an ‘opt out’ from general rule-making.

For example, in the famous Mandla v Dowell Lee judgment (1983), following intense lobbying, Sikhs secured a House of Lords ruling that they were an ‘ethnic group’, and entitled to protection under the Race Relations Act 1976 from direct and indirect discrimination. Sikhs have also won exemptions for wearing turbans in the building industry, and the right to carry kirpans in public spaces, notwithstanding the security backlash since 9/11.

If the law is offering exemptions to one minority group then it must follow that other minority groups could also qualify. British Muslims for example are allowed to wear the hijab at school and get halal meat choices.

There is a separate point to be made about some Sikh groups taking the whole classed as an ethnic minority thing too far but I’ll come back to that some other time.

See, this case would be open and shut in the United States where freedom of expression (including of religion) is a tightly held right. This is why they allow privately funded religious schools run by nutjobs too.

But in the UK we have all sorts of muddles. The National Secular Society, which as I said earlier is more about atheism than secularism, would probably reflect the view that in a secular society everyone should have the same rules.

True, but this isn’t about secularism in my view. Secularism would be to separate religion from the state and ensure that the latter does not favour one religion over another or even religion over atheists.

Anyway. In this case neither of those two yardsticks apply. It is simply an exemption to ensure further inclusion. Don’t why the Irish are being so stubborn when the English saw sense 40 years ago.


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  1. Chris Paul — on 23rd August, 2007 at 10:41 am  

    Very interesting as one Mr Chahal Singh the original scooter mod Sikh (mid 70s in Wycombe) was a loose associate of myfamily’s way back when. But no time to stop and chat sorry. There’s a story here to make war mongerers everywhere moist. Political party cop donations from gun makers. How was this NOT Labour that organised this coup? We are slipping. Perhaps the gun maker thinks the Tories would be more fearsome warriors?

  2. soru — on 23rd August, 2007 at 11:08 am  

    But in the UK we have all sorts of muddles

    Something being described as a muddle is generally a sign that the person doing the description doesn’t understand, can’t concisely describe, the point in question.

    This tends to become a problem when their response is to try to change it, rather than spend more time trying to understand the situation: someone who doesn’t understand what they are changing _will_ break whatever aspects do work.

    ‘having a simple straightforward description’ and ‘being suitable for living in’ are, since the 60s, generally regarded as opposing goals by architects, at least in the uk (some other countries do seem to have less of a problem living in clean-lined boxes in the sky).

    In fact, if you look at things in the right way, using terms that make sense, you can understand which aspects of the anglo-sikh arrangement work, make sense, and are generalisable to other similar pairs of interacting cultures.

    This means dropping arbitrary categories like ‘religious’, ‘cultural’, ‘legal’ and ‘human rights’ rules (as in ‘my belief is an unalienable human right, yours is a quaint ritual, theirs is primitive barbaric superstition’).

    Instead you use a three-way split:

    1. personal/individual/ritual: directly affects the person who does it: ‘don’t drink palm wine’, ‘wear a turban’.

    2. ethical/moral: directly effects a small number of people personally known to an individual. ‘Marriage is for life’, ‘abortion is a crime’, ‘homosexuality is a choice’.

    3. civil/national: directly effects the welfare and security of the realm as a whole. Theres a whole intersting history of how murder get generally bumped up to this category as a specific change to the organisation of society.

    (I suppose there might be a fourth level, global, to cover things like nukes and genocide, but that’s a whole other discussion).

    That way, you can actually usefully talk about the different setups of the Saudi Arabia, France, UK, India, Isreal, Malaysia and so on, discuss which aspects work, which don’t, and so predict what the consequences of a proposed change are likely to be.

  3. Rumbold — on 23rd August, 2007 at 11:20 am  

    Could a Sikh clarify something for me please. Based on what little research I have done, it appears that wearing a turban is not one of the five Ks- the turban is only important because it keeps the hair bound and covered; if a cap could do the same, would that not be acceptable?

    If Sikhs wish to wear turbans and it does not impinge on their operational effectiveness, then they should be allowed to. Sikhs fought for the British army in their hundreds of thousands wearing turbans, and they were a credit to us. Police forces cannot afford to turn away competent ethnic minority candidates over something nonsensical like this. Also, the sight of a Sikh with a turban and full beard can be an arresting sight, and inspire confidence towards the police from the general public.

  4. Sunny — on 23rd August, 2007 at 2:33 pm  

    Based on what little research I have done, it appears that wearing a turban is not one of the five Ks

    It is. kesh is about keeping long hair, and thus tying it in a turban.

  5. Rumbold — on 23rd August, 2007 at 2:54 pm  

    But does it have to be a turban (look at what Monty Panesar wears- a pug)?

  6. Leon — on 23rd August, 2007 at 2:55 pm  

    I thought a pug was a turban?

  7. Rumbold — on 23rd August, 2007 at 2:58 pm  

    I do not know- it does seem different from an ordinary turban.

  8. Anas — on 23rd August, 2007 at 3:28 pm  

    I was just in Ireland for two weeks. I don’t see why this is an issue there are probably about 7 Sikhs in the whole of Ireland. Let them wear their turbans.

  9. Sunny — on 23rd August, 2007 at 3:35 pm  

    A pugh is the punjabi name for a turban. Monty wears a patka, which is like for younger kids but he wears it because a patka stays in place much better than a full turban does. Either are fine.

  10. ZinZin — on 23rd August, 2007 at 4:17 pm  

    Did you enjoy your holiday, Anas?

  11. rupinder singh — on 23rd August, 2007 at 5:49 pm  

    Here is a Sikh willing to risk his life for Ireland, to face challenges. He expresses his love for the country that he has adopted and wants to serve it. I am sure he can get a higher job elsewhere, but he volunteers a fairly risky job.
    And how do the Irish treat him? No they say, get out.
    amusing.

  12. Jai — on 23rd August, 2007 at 6:07 pm  

    I thought a pug was a turban?

    “Pug” is slang and is short for “pugri”, which does indeed mean “turban” as Sunny has mentioned.

    But does it have to be a turban

    Well, technically not. “Kesh” is sacred in Sikhism, the turban itself is not. However, the turban does have major connotations in Sikhism, primarily due to its association with Guru Gobind Singh.

    It should also be noted that in traditional Sikh culture — as with northern Indian culture in general — historically the person removing his own turban in front of another party would regard this as an act of self-abasement in certain situations. So there are some further connotations there too.

  13. Rumbold — on 23rd August, 2007 at 7:21 pm  

    Thanks Sunny and Jai for clearing that up.

  14. Anas — on 24th August, 2007 at 4:41 pm  

    It wasn’t really a holiday, it pissed down the whole time, ZZ. Dublin is a lovely city tho

  15. Robert — on 27th August, 2007 at 2:55 pm  

    I know this thread is a few days old, but I thought I would wade in.

    Is asking a Sikh not to wear a turban really like asking him to cut off his head?

    Isn’t it more like being disrobed and exposed in public?

    Or, why use similie at all. Simply put, it is asking someone to disregard their faith. This is no different from any other thorny issue where private faith and public rules come into conflict.

    Though I don’t disagree with the conclusion, Sunny. Indeed, I think secularism is strengthened when many individuals are each allowed to express their own faith. One offsets the other, none are given primacy.

  16. Sukhi — on 27th August, 2007 at 4:32 pm  

    A lot of Sikhs in history were asked to choose between their religion and converting to Islam. To lose ones turban was to literally lose their heads, as Sikh Gurus and other later martyrs discovered, they were beheaded if they refused to discard the Sikh faith. It’s a form of rhetoric with historical roots.

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