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)