Secularism & Public Life - a threat to Sikhs?
As part of our blog series, Perspectives: Religion and Public Life, Tinci Singh examines the difficulties for Sikhs when it comes to the exercise of their religion in the public sphere. Perspectives: Religion and Public Life is a series of short blogs on questions about the relationship between religion and secularism, you can find the rest of the series by clicking here.
Not so long ago, I attended a conference of the European Network on Religion and Belief in Brussels. During this conference the debate moved into the area of secularism and its effect on several religious minorities. During the debate, the interpretation and definition of the term ‘secularism’ seemed to be most controversial.
What is the main core of secularism and in what ways does it, and should it, structure public life? There were diverse opinions on these questions that illustrated the ongoing international and national debate on this issue. Where some put emphasis on secularism giving freedom to all religions to exercise their belief in the public sphere, others believed that, in order to uphold the neutrality of a state, secularism can legitimately justify restrictions on the exercise of religions in the public life.
In recent years the supporters of the last group seem to be in a majority. For members of the Sikh community this development has been followed with great concern. Even though in the UK Sikhs are able to practice their religion publicly without serious problems, there have been a few alarming developments. To give an example, in 2010 the European Commission adopted a regulation in which the walk-through metal detection and the hand search have become the primary methods of screening passengers in airports.1
In practice this means that if the walk-through metal detector bleeps, Sikhs travelling from EU member states airports will be subjected to a hand search of their turban. For Sikhs, the turban is their pride and is carried as a mandatory part of their religion; therefore, hand search of a turban is perceived by Sikhs as very humiliating.
Fortunately, the British government has understood the sentiments of Sikhs and reverted back to scanning methods, as they took place before the Regulation entered into force.2 However, in other European airports Sikhs are still subjected to this humiliating treatment. In Poland, for instance, several Sikhs have complained about the discriminatory treatment they received during the security screening at the airports. For instance, one Sikh man in Poland was told to remove his turban in public while he was intimidated by four gun-holding security officials and called a terrorist.3
Sikhs outside of the UK are also facing other difficulties when it comes to the exercise of their religion in the public sphere. In France, for instance, a ban on all religious symbols in schools has made it impossible for Sikh children to exercise this aspect of their religion.
Since the turban is a mandatory part of the Sikh religion, children going to French schools are deprived of their identity as a Sikh. At a very young age they are forced to choose between their education and their religion. Many of these children decide to cut their hair or keep their unshorn hair uncovered, which is also contrary to the Sikh belief.
France, as a secular state, is motivated in this ban by the desire to keep religion strictly separated from their state and by the principle of laicite. However, it is questionable why a state that has been secular from its inception suddenly ‘wakes up’ and decides to institute such a ban. Most probably, 9/11 and the fear for Islamic extremism have inspired the French government to take such a decision. Sadly, this development is also taking place outside of France. In 2010 a Flemish (Belgian) school group has instituted a similar ban on religious symbols in their schools. The legality of this ban has been questioned by UNITED SIKHS and is presently being examined by the Belgian Council of State.
These developments illustrate that some current interpretations of secularism are threatening Sikhs in their exercise of their religion in the public space. My observation on secularism has been very well described in the words of Baroness Warsi who stated: "My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies... At its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant."4 I share her concern and fear that, if this trend continues, the identity of religious minorities, such as the Sikhs, will fade away...
Tinci Singh holds an LL.M in International and European law from the University of Groningen (the Netherlands) and is presently active as a legal fellow for UNITED SIKHS, an UN-affiliated NGO who aims to empower disadvantaged and minority communities across the world.
1. See Article 4.1.1 EU Regulation 185/2010 of 4 March 2010 adopted by the European Commission.
2. According to this policy a bleeping walk through metal detector is first followed by hand held metal detection. Only if the hand held detector bleeps as well, will a hand search take place.
3. UNITED SIKHS, A UNITED SIKHS report on the impact of EU Regulation 185/2010 on religious minorities, November 30th 2010.
4. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/13/militant-secularisation-christianity-lady-warsi?intcmp=239 (last accessed on: July 9th, 2012)