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Our Director Lord Singh intervened in a debate on the second reading of the Offensive Weapons Bill earlier this week to ensure the Sikh practice of honouring people with full-length kirpans is fully protected under law. As it stands, the draft Bill retains the existing legal protection for the religious use of a kirpan, however ‘honourary’ kirpans – given to dignitaries (not just Sikhs) as an appreciation of service, would fall outside the proposed legislation and be criminalised. This concern was not addressed in either the Commons debate or in the minor wording change in the ‘photo op’ meeting of the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) with government officials.

During the debate on Monday, Lord Singh said: ‘My Lords, I too believe that the Bill is both timely and necessary. As a Sikh, I would like to voice my appreciation of the sensitivity shown by the protection of the existing right of Sikhs to wear a short kirpan for religious reasons. However, it appears that the common Sikh practice of presenting a full-length kirpan, or sword, as a token of esteem or appreciation to those who have made a significant contribution to Sikh ideals, such as tolerance and respect for other faiths, has been overlooked and is not currently protected.’

He added: ‘The recipients of this honour do not have to be Sikhs. I have made presentations on behalf of the Sikh community to His Royal Highness Prince Charles, when he joined us as the main guest at a major function at the Royal Albert Hall, and to the late Lord Weatherill, the former Speaker of the House of Commons, for his work with the Sikh community in India and Britain. Years earlier, the Sikh community in Leicester honoured Sir John Templeton, founder of the Templeton Prize, after he awarded me the UK equivalent, for furthering religious understanding.

For Sikhs, this custom is no less important than the protection given in the Bill to the use of a sword for theatrical performances or for its keeping for historical reasons. Unfortunately, the presentation and keeping of this token of esteem is not protected in the proposed legislation. It is important that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, so eloquently put it, we do not criminalise people unintentionally. On behalf of the UK Sikh community, I will seek a small amendment to the existing wording to ensure that the presentation and receipt of this traditional ceremonial Sikh honour remains protected.’

The Offensive Weapons Bill (sponsored by the home secretary Sajid Javid) was published on 20th June 2018 and is now scheduled to go to committee stage in the House of Lords.[i] The Bill covers three types of weapon – acid, knives and offensive weapons, and firearms. Although SFUK issued a statement on 21st November 2018 describing an amendment to the Bill (coordinated by Preet Gill MP) for ‘larger’ kirpans titled, ‘Kirpan victory: Ministers listen and back Sikh community’, it transpires this so called ‘victory’ was a premature celebration as it didn’t do what was needed, that is, cover ‘honourary’ kirpans. The NSO with support of concerned members of the Sikh Council UK aims to ensure the kirpan is given full protection under law and cross-party peers agree it is necessary.

[i] https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2017-19/offensiveweapons.html

 

Since 2015 the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) has been lobbying to get parity for all faiths when it comes to the government’s existing ‘Abrahamic-centric’ hate crime policy.

During this time, we have achieved a number of important milestones:

  • Uncovering through FOI significant numbers of non-Muslims are recorded by forces like the MET under the ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ category (data for 2015/16)
  • Commitment from ministers that religious hate crime figures will be disaggregated from April 2017
  • Submission of written evidence to the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into hate crime and its violent consequences (2017/18)
  • Submission of written and oral evidence to the APPG on British Muslims inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred (2018)
  • Articles (news and opinion editorials), letters and radio interviews in the mainstream media including the BBC, The Telegraph, The Spectator, The Daily Mail (since 2016)
  • A clarification from the Evening Standard on an article to make sure it acknowledged statistics included non-Muslims, who also face ‘Islamophobia’ (2018)
  • A complaint to the Guardian to correct an article to include non-Muslim victims which was reported on by the Press Gazette (2018)
  • Our Director has raised the issue in several debates in the House of Lords and in correspondence with ministers. (2015 onwards)
  • Engagement with senior officers in the MET police to highlight concerns about recording and reporting (2018)
  • Engagement with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (2018)
  • Commitment from government in early 2017 to help Sikh and Hindu communities report hate crime through True Vision portal. (2017)

 

Proposed APPG definition (from Islamophobia Defined):

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

Over the summer we provided oral evidence to the APPG on British Muslims inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred further to submitting written evidence explaining how Sikhs have suffered since 9/11. We believe our work over the last few years has put Sikh concerns firmly on the government agenda. In a recent debate about the proposed ‘Islamophobia’ definition suggested by the APPG earlier, a few peers independently acknowledged Sikhs suffer ‘Islamophobia’ and Baroness Warsi mentioned Sikhs in interviews she gave to the media further to publication of the report Islamophobia Defined. However, we are not sure ‘Islamophobia’ is the best word to describe a complex amalgam of issues, and believe anti-Muslim hate, like anti-Sikh, is far clearer, precise and more helpful language.

During the debate last month, our Director Lord Singh said, ‘We all sympathise with the suffering of the Muslim community, encapsulated in the word “Islamophobia”. It is our common responsibility to tackle it but we have to be clear about its meaning to do so. To me, the suggested definitions are still woolly and vague; I will try to give a more precise one. If we do not have a clear definition, “Islamophobia” risks being seen as an emotive word intended to get public sympathy and government resources—a concern raised by the APPG on British Muslims.’

He went on, ‘Unfortunately, it is a fact that some communities use government funding to produce questionable statistics to show that they are more hated than others; groups without a culture of complaint, such as Sikhs, fall off the Government’s radar. We have had debates on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, but what about other communities? Should we not be thinking about all communities, not just those in more powerful positions? I believe that the Government must be even-handed.’

During the debate Lord Singh pressed the minister about what work was being conducted for other faith groups aside from Muslims and Jews. He also clarified that although the APPG on British Muslims considered a variety of evidence from academics, organisations and victims’ groups in helping come to the proposed ‘Islamophobia’ definition, not all of it was agreed in the definition. In fact, when Lord Singh gave oral evidence to the APPG, Lady Warsi ended the session by saying, ‘I disagree with everything you’ve said Lord Singh.’ Some of our evidence was echoed by that of Southall Black Sisters and the National Union of Students, as well as in a letter published in the Sunday Times coordinated by the National Secular Society.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine gave a compelling speech in which she challenged the racial component of the proposed definition. She said, ‘When you define a religion—in other words, a belief system—as an adjective and declare that this is rooted in race, which is biological, you ascribe to belief an immutability which cannot work’. She also discussed the prejudice her family had faced moving from India to Pakistan in 1947, and that she had personally faced from her co-religionists in Muslim countries for being ‘insufficiently Muslim’, adding ‘but that experience was as nothing compared to the discrimination that Ahmadiyyas, Shias and various others still face today at the hands of other Muslims.’

The NSO believes ‘Islamophobia’ is an unhelpful and vague term, because it could include a number of distinct and separate components. These include anti-Muslim hate, a racialization of Islamophobia and ‘mistaken identity’ attacks on non-Muslims (like Sikhs), a reaction to the perceived teachings within Islam, and the perceived behaviour of a minority of Muslims. As Baroness Falkner rightly suggests, it also includes prejudice within Muslim communities against one another for being ‘insufficiently Muslim.’ There is no mention of this aspect in the APPG report Islamophobia Defined. We are strongly of the view that anti-Muslim hate crime, (like anti-Sikh) is the best terminology for policy makers to use moving forwards.

The debate and Lord Singh’s full speech can be viewed here.

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