Monday, February 8, 2010

Religious right to bear arms?

A judge has criticised a school for refusing to let one of its students carry a knife. Does the fact that religion is involved make a difference?

The knife in question is the kirpan, the sikh dagger that has, for the last three centuries, been part of post-baptismal attire (along with bangle, comb, hair and pants). The school in question offered to allow the child to carry the weapon if it was welded into its scabbard, but the parents of the boy chose to withdraw him from the school (bbc). And the judge in question, the first sikh to rise to such a position in the UK (toi), presented quite a balanced view by the time he reached Radio 4 the day after initially making the comments: given that kirpan carrying is ‘a requirement of the religion’, ‘it’s wrong [for the observant] to be discriminated against’, though he is ‘conscious of the health and safety position’ at a time of ‘increase in crimes of violence involving ... knives and other offensive weapons’ (bbc). What I’d like to consider here is whether “because my religion says so” is a legitimate defence.

The first I heard of kirpans was in the days following 9-11, when a man carrying one was frogmarched off a Massachusetts commuter train to calls of satisfaction from fellow passengers—an act of egregious stupidity in a nation reeling with shock. Like, I suspect, many, all I knew of sikhs at the time concerned turbans and Indirā Gāndhī. Much of what I’ve learned since is very appealing: high levels of education, especially amongst women, high levels of economic and political activity (witness India’s sikh prime minister), and generous policies on feeding the poor (which has apparently led to a gurudvara in Southall being somewhat overrun)... All of which I mention in a doubtless vain attempt to convince you that I’m not engaging in mindless sikh-bashing here.

A useful comparison is between the kirpan and the niqāb. The British home secretary, Jack Straw, has said that he regards niqābs as impediments to social interaction which make him uneasy (guardian). But I’ve had niqābed students in my classes and they’re just as willing and able to participate as everyone else and, far from making me uneasy, they’re a useful excuse for me not remembering who my students are. The case of the kirpan and the niqāb strike me wholly as different: one is a weapon, the other is a piece of cloth. Pieces of cloth don’t, as a rule, need special justification (and I suspect that antiniqābary has been seized on by some as the socially acceptable face of muslim-bashing). Carrying offensive weapons, on the other hand, does require justification. And this brings us back to the question: is “because my religion says so” is a legitimate defence?

And it seems pretty obvious that it’s not. To take a somewhat extreme comparison, female genital mutilation is illegal in the UK, despite constituting a tahur (‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’) ritual in some (mostly African?) muslim communities (fgmnetwork). Now clearly, there’s a world of difference between kirpan carrying and genital mutilation. But the question is, where does the cut off point lie?

In coming to an answer, it’s useful to consider what a kirpan is actually for. My understanding of the matter—which is admittedly limited and probably owes too much to New York taxi drivers—is that sikhs practise ahimsā (nonviolence) but believe in the resort to force when no alternatives exist: ‘when the affairs are past other remedies, it is justifiable to unsheath[e] the sword’ (guru Gobind Singh); ‘the sword is only meant ... for the good of the people’ (sgpc). Well, this means that there’s a factual basis to kirpan carrying: it protects people. And like any factual claim, it can be evaluated.

However, the evidence appears pretty unequivocal: knives carried even for non-aggressive purposes are dangerous and harmful. This was the thrust of expert evidence to the House of Commons investigation into knife crime (house of commons) and stopping it has been the cornerstone of successful violence reduction schemes (mirror). And, worryingly, the abstract principles that the kirpan is supposed to represent, ‘independence, self-respect and power’ (sgpc), sound exactly like what teenagers say about how knife carrying makes them feel (Why Carry A Weapon?). Given that handing untrained adults, let alone schoolchildren, daggers does not make ‘for the good of the people’, sikhs have a choice: to uphold the abstract principle of protecting the public good, or to carry a concrete object that endangers it.

But sikhs’ past pragmatism points to a simple solution. The guru’s quotation above speaks of swords, as does: ‘Sword ... O symbol of the brave ... Sword, you are the scourge of saints’ (sgpc). What sikhs carry is a dagger. Therefore, they have already embraced the notion that what you carry is not the real article, but merely a symbol. So, why not make the symbolic sword one that is not a potential danger to its bearer or those it is to protect; and to fulfil the injunction of protecting the weak whilst practising nonviolence, can I suggest aikido, a martial art in perfect philosophical alignment with the precept of ahimsā?

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