Home > General Politics, Religion > Secularism and Sikh daggers

Secularism and Sikh daggers

Following the form Jako established in his “Complaint to Dave of Though Cowards Flinch” article, I must now pen my own Complaint to CaptainJako of Frank Owen’s Paintbrush Collective.

The issue at stake is secularism, particularly in the case of the young Sikh boy who has been excluded from school as a result of refusing to leave his Sikh ceremonial dagger, called a kirpan, at home.

It also concerns a judge who spoke out on the subject, to defend the boy (though far from unequivocally, going by his appearance on Radio 4′s Today show this morning).

Jako has this to say:

“Insisting that Sikhs should have the right to walk around with their ceremonial daggers – even in schools – certainly suggests the man is possessed by a religious arrogance of such massive proportions that there isn’t room for any other considerations.

“Pity the BBC Asian Network didn’t bother finding an opposing point of view. I’m sure there’s a sensible Sikh out there willing to say that some of the more eccentric teachings of their faith should not be given privilege over the law of the land (and of course basic common sense).

“Failing this, a secularist organisation would have been happy to point out that allowing children to take knives to school is ridiculous.”

I disagree. There are several counter-arguments to make.

First, since Jako brings up secularism, that principle – which I hold dear – is simply the notion that government should not respect any one religion over the others or over agnoticism and atheism. It is the view that the State should not attempt to impose moral values on us.

This principle is not at stake in this case. Quite the opposite. Thinking secularists would surely defend the right of anyone to do anything, provided that it was unlikely to result in harm or the coercion of any individual.

When Jako claims that ‘the more eccentic teachings of their faith should not be given privilege over the law of the land” I am at a loss to explain such anti-religious nonsense, a parody, almost, of real secularism. Just because something is a law does not justify it.

If we take the incident of the Sikh girl and her kara from a few years back, where no health and safety issues were at stake, the courts quite rightly ruled that to exclude her for wearing something so connected to her beliefs was discriminatory. So the law is not so uncomplicated as Jako thinks anyway.

In this vein, it is my thinking that rather than call out anyone who defends the right of the religious to make use of the articles of their faith that are important to them, we secularists should be asking the religious to extend their support to those of us with similarly strong beliefs, outside the field of religion.

For example, at my school, I was regularly denounced for wearing a lapel pin depicting a red star and hammer and sickle. Freedom of expression is important – and it would contravene the principles of secularism to apply it merely to religion rather than to other fields. So if we want to level the playing field, let’s support the right of the religious to wear their symbols, and the right of everyone else to wear theirs too.

Second, undeniably there is a question of health and safety when someone wears a dagger to school. Presumably, of course, the dagger doesn’t contravene legislation on the carrying of knives, isn’t sharp and can be worn out of reach, under the clothes. And if not, then there is room for compromise. A smaller dagger, perhaps, unsharpened. It’s already encased in wood.

I see no reason to jump straight to denunciation before all the relevant information is to hand.

Finally, why such strident denunciation of the judge for saying that he believes the child should be permitted to wear the Sikh dagger? It’s not religious arrogance to say so. If we reduce things to competing rights, the right to follow the commandments of one’s religion or ethical and moral code, does not in this case infringe anyone else’s rights. So it is the trump card surely?

Attitudes such as Jako expresses bring no benefits to secularism as a cause, and can cause an impulsive reaction against secularism on the part of the religious. If we’re not to drive them into the arms of the Melanie Phillips of the world, a little tolerance might be called for, along with the recognition that there are some spheres in which the role of the State should be to defend expression – of all forms of it.

(More information over at Left Foot Forward)

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  1. February 8, 2010 at 11:08 pm | #1

    “First, since Jako brings up secularism, that principle – which I hold dear – is simply the notion that government should not respect any one religion over the others or over agnoticism and atheism. It is the view that the State should not attempt to impose moral values on us.

    This principle is not at stake in this case. Quite the opposite. Thinking secularists would surely defend the right of anyone to do anything, provided that it was unlikely to result in harm or the coercion of any individual.”

    Secularism is not at stake here, this is true because British schools are not secular.

    However, as this is ultimately a case of religious exceptionalism (insisting that religions deserve special treatment, and that religious people not be required to conform to the same law as everybody else) it would put such secularism at risk were it to exist.

    “If we reduce things to competing rights, the right to follow the commandments of one’s religion or ethical and moral code, does not in this case infringe anyone else’s rights.”

    So would it be okay for a pupil to bring a shotgun to school? He’s not infinging on anyone else’s rights. Except we have laws against walking around with firearms (unloaded, deactivated or even replicas as they may be) and knives for a reason.

  2. February 8, 2010 at 11:12 pm | #2

    I wouldn’t classify this as a case of religious exceptionalism. I don’t think schools should have the power to tell students what symbols they can and cannot wear, since in all the cases that count, the symbols are unobtrusive and do not interfere with the concept of uniformity.

    As to your second point, you evidently missed the part where I acknowledge the health and safety issue. Compromise over the health and safety issue, in this case, is more than possible – and actually we don’t even know if it is a health and safety issue bearing in mind the variables; size, sharpness, casing etc.

  3. February 8, 2010 at 11:38 pm | #3

    “I don’t think schools should have the power to tell students what symbols they can and cannot wear, since in all the cases that count, the symbols are unobtrusive and do not interfere with the concept of uniformity.”

    Again, including weapons?

    If this isn’t a matter of religious exceptionalism then non-Sikhs can wear daggers to school?

  4. February 8, 2010 at 11:44 pm | #4

    Are you being intentionally thick? It’s a ceremonial dagger; it can be adjusted so it’s not a weapon. Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society suggested making it fixed inside its wooden casing. I think that’s a fair option.

    If it can be made inoffensive, then sure, everyone should be allowed to wear one.

    However I would also add that one doesn’t have to take this point of view in order to eliminate the complaint of religious exceptionalism. The kirpan has significance for people because of their religion, but the attachment between people and their religion is essentially the same as between any individual and any systematic worldview. I see no reason, barring harm to others, that pupils shouldn’t be allowed to wear political symbols too.

    On this basis, you could exclude non-Sikhs from wearing the kirpan on the same basis as excluding someone who claimed a shotgun was part of their worldview; blatant opportunism, rather than serious conviction.

    • Rob
      February 9, 2010 at 11:36 am | #5

      On this basis, you could exclude non-Sikhs from wearing the kirpan on the same basis as excluding someone who claimed a shotgun was part of their worldview; blatant opportunism, rather than serious conviction

      I have a problem with this on the basis that my world-view can be summed up as “awkward bugger”, a seriously-held conviction that should allow me to wear just about anything, so long as someone else doesn’t want me to. I admit that this must appear to be facetious, but there is a serious point: what if I want to make the statement that I am a free individual and will wear a ceremonial knife if I choose to? Is my individualist creed inferior to a Sikh creed? On what grounds? Could it not be said to be more serious in its conviction than the socially-pressured conformity to religious garb?

      Now, if I thought that you were arguing for individual freedom to choose, I’d agree with you. But it still sounds like you want to privilege “recognised” groups or practices over minority (of one) groups or practices, though maybe I’m being harsh in interpreting it that way.

      • February 9, 2010 at 12:59 pm | #6

        As I said above, if it can be made inoffensive then anyone should be allowed to wear them. It would be just another step along the road of the commercialization of another set of religious symbols, but sure, why not?

        Whether or not an individual’s creed is superior to that of a creed held by many is an interesting question but doesn’t really come into this particular issue.

  5. Barney Stannard
    February 9, 2010 at 8:34 am | #7

    Hardeep Singh’s take:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/feb/09/dagger-dilemma-sikhism-kirpan-schools

    As a brief note “Are you being intentionally thick? It’s a ceremonial dagger; it can be adjusted so it’s not a weapon.”

    Interestingly the school in the case suggested that the dagger could be fused to the sheath – the parents refused. Also vaguely interesting, Sir Mota Singh QC said that there wasn’t a single case of a Sikh using a kirpan in violence. Not, so far as I know, the rather stronger argument that they can be adjusted to stop them being dangerous.

  6. February 9, 2010 at 8:39 am | #8

    If the parents refuse all attempts at compromise, bearing in mind the health and safety issue, then and only then should the kirpan be barred. Everything up to that point is not a case of religious exceptionalism, as Simon maintains, above.

    And Sir Mota Singh, on Radio 4, did say that a compromise would be appropriate. He wasn’t specifically asked to consider the fusing of the thing inside its sheath, or the blunting of the knife (assuming it’s sharp to begin with).

  7. Barney Stannard
    February 9, 2010 at 11:35 am | #9

    We probably all agree then: if the item can be so constructed so as to be utterly harmless then there aren’t too many objections (beyond those which extend to religious items generally). For us the rule is simple: if it is dangerous or potentially dangerous it should not be worn; if not dangerous or potentially dangerous then no problems.

    The debate is therefore relatively sterile and based on ambiguities in the meaning of kirpan. No real need for mass hysteria about religious exceptionalism or the obverse.

  8. February 9, 2010 at 12:44 pm | #10

    Barney, I suspect we do agree. What I was taking issue with was the way Jako framed the debate – and invoked the spectre of an attack on the principles of secularism. I wished to demonstrate that it need not be the case, that permitting people to carry out their beliefs, within the single confine being that they hurt no one else, is a good definition of secularism.

  9. baggar
    February 9, 2010 at 9:30 pm | #11

    I just wish to point out three things:

    1. Sikhs and the Scots have had a legal defence against prosecution on the wearing of and carrying a Kirpan and Skhin Dhu respectively since the Crime Act 1953 – there have not been a single case that has come to Court in the case of the Sikhs concerning the matter – I am simply not knowing about the Scots.

    2. A friend of mine actually drafted the official conditions / guidelines issued by the Government to the 20,000 plus schools circa 2000 on the wearing of the Kirpan by Amritdhari schoolchildren. these have not been withdrawn to date.

    3. Sir Mota Singh was invited to the Radio Station to talk about his receiving the Knighthood – not about the Kirpan which just happened to be a side issue at the time.

  10. VM
    February 10, 2010 at 1:19 pm | #12

    From memory a compromise was developed in Canada earlier this decade by having the kirpan sewn into its sheath. The concern wasn’t just that the student in question might use it, but any *accidental* use, which sealing it in the sheath got around. It’s an interesting point you make about the hammer and sickle but I’d be wary about going too far down a liberal path or else we’ll end up treating religious traditions and political struggles as just another type of banal consumer choice.

  11. (Layman) Mike
    February 10, 2010 at 7:39 pm | #13

    My opinion, for what it’s worth:
    This is about respecting authority. The school is responsible for the welfare and management of the children. If this child falls on his dagger (welded or unwelded) and injures himself, the school will be at fault. If other children steal his dagger or bring their own knives into school in mimicry, the school will be at fault. The school must be allowed to define and enforce it’s school uniform policy, hopefully treating all religions equally. In the ’70s, the rule was no make-up, no jewellery (no earrings, necklaces, bracelets, with or without crucifixes). (Watches OK, they’re functional.) You couldn’t wear your Commie badge, but you could fix Commie stickers to your bag and books.
    People should be encouraged to worship their Gods. Morality improves society, and practicing religious beliefs in a secular society requires strength. People should take pride in their ethnicity. It’s part of their identity. But integration should be the highest priority.

  12. February 10, 2010 at 7:59 pm | #14

    “The school” should not simply encompass the management. It should be students, all teachers and parents. Thus it’s less about respecting authority (on which I say, “Bugger that for a game of soldiers”) and more about democratic decision making and consensus.

    As for school uniform policies, the reality is they are inevitably selectively applied; most teachers don’t want to be bothered forcing girls to take off make-up if it’s not obtrusive, or necklaces and bracelets etc. Better to be liberal about the whole thing – wear X articles of clothing, including ties done up, shirts tucked in, but allow small personalisations.

  13. SIK SEEK
    April 8, 2010 at 3:49 am | #15

    I DONT CARE ABOUT RELIGION OR HONOUR OR TRADITION ! IN TODAYS WORLD THIS THING YOU PEOPLE CARRY AROUND IS A WEAPON……..ALWAYS HAS BEEN……ALWAYS WILL BE ! I HAVE WRITTEN TO LOCAL, PROVINCIAL AND FEDERAL LAW MAKERS TO BAN THIS WEAPON AND ALL WEAPONS FROM BEING CARRIED BY ANY PERSON ……NO MATTER WHAT EXCUSE YOU HAVE. RELIGION DOES NOT MAKE YOU SPECIAL. MAYBE WHEN A FEW SIKHS GGET CUT UP INTO LITTLE DALIWALEES YOU WILL LOOK AT COMMON SENSE. MY ANCESTORS CARRIED BUTCHERS KNIVES ON THEM BECAUSE THEY WERE PROS AT PIG SLICING…BUT I DONT CARRY ONE …DO I.
    WHEN WE STOP VOTING FOR LAWMAKERS WHO THINK THIS IS OK TO CARRY, THEN MAYBE COMMON SENSE WILL BE THE ORDER OF THE DAY.

  1. February 9, 2010 at 5:06 pm | #1
  2. February 9, 2010 at 6:09 pm | #2
  3. February 9, 2010 at 11:12 pm | #3

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