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Back in October 2018, we published a post titled is the All Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Sikhs truly representative?

The post referred to the issue of Seva School in Coventry, a dispute subsequently covered by Schoolsweek quoting our Director Lord Singh.

Concerned parents had called on the government to intervene in a dispute related to Seva School being compelled to join Nishkam School Trust, a trust which parents said did not fit with their beliefs. Some of the parents independently echoed concerns to our Director, Lord Singh of Wimbledon. He raised it with the APPG for British Sikhs, after all what’s the point of having such a group if it doesn’t consider Sikh interests, or in this instance the concerns of Sikh parents.

As described in our previous post this is an account of what transpired:

By chance I learnt of Tuesday’s AGM and accompanied by Lord Suri, attended the AGM to try to get the Group to issue a statement of concern over the bullying attitude of the Department for Education (DfE) in giving of a 2-week ultimatum to withdraw funding and move to a closure of a Sikh school, Seva School in Coventry unless it agreed to be run by Nishkam. Nishkam is a group regarded by many Sikhs as outside mainstream Sikhism, with a spiritual Head to whom some followers owe total allegiance.

Lord Suri and I were surprised at the poor attendance at the AGM, with one MP brought in for a while to make a quorum. After Preet Gill MP asked the 5 MPs present to confirm her as Chair, I spoke about the widespread concerns of parents, governors, staff, the Council of Gurdwaras in Coventry, the Sikh Council and the Network of Sikh Organisations and others. I also mentioned that an earlier complaint made by me of racist behaviour towards the school (in which Sikh teachings were labelled extremist and negative) had been upheld in an investigation by Sir David Carter a top civil servant with the DfE, with a promise of more supportive behaviour by the minister Lord Nash. Unfortunately, the harassment has continued culminating in a 2-week ultimatum of a cessation of funding unless the school agreed to be run by Nishkam.

Preet Gill MP seemed irritated by both my presence at the meeting, and because I had raised an issue about which she had clearly not been briefed by the Sikh Federation UK, the official secretariat of the APPG. She expressed her admiration of Nishkam. However asking a mainstream Sikh school to join Nishkam with its different ethos, is like asking a Church of England school to join a group led by Jehovah’s Witnesses. She then queried my credentials in raising the widespread concerns of the Sikh community. Ignoring the need for urgent action, she said that she would have to carry out her own investigation and consult local MPs, as if their views counted for more than those of the Coventry Sikh community and two national Sikh bodies.

On 25th March 2019, Preet Gill MP sent an e-mail titled ‘APPG British Sikhs’ in which she talks of Seva School following Lord Singh’s plea on behalf of concerned parents.

She writes, ‘As agreed, I wrote to the DFE and received a full and helpful response from Damian Hinds assuring us that the school would not be closed, and they had asked an outstanding Sikh academy trust to take over.’

NOTE. The request was not for her to write to the DfE, but to contact the Sikh community in Coventry and support them to stop the DfE abusing its authority to force the school to be run by Nishkam, a controversial Sikh sect. She totally ignored Lord Singh’s request to assist the worried Sikh community in Coventry.

A statement from the Board of Trustees (Sevak Education Trust) dated 3rd July says, ‘34 parents brought a legal challenge to the decision made by the Secretary of State for Education on 21 February 2019 to appoint Nishkam Schools Trust (“Nishkam”) as the sponsor for the re-brokerage of Seva School.’

The parents were successful, and the government conceded it had failed in providing alternatives to Nishkam School Trust. They go on to say, ‘This has been an incredibly difficult time for all those associated with the school.’

We are delighted the parents have won their legal battle, but surely this issue could have been resolved amicably sooner without parents having to resort to initiating legal proceedings against the state?

In our view, there are two issues which arise from the Seva School saga. The first relates to improving religious literacy in the DfE and across government circles to get them to appreciate doctrinal differences, and importantly, what is, and is not mainstream Sikh belief.

Secondly, given Preet Gill’s response to the matter, it begs an important question – can she really claim to represent British Sikhs?

Organisations who coordinated the letter to the Home Secretary

A letter opposing a proposed definition for Islamophobia by the APPG on British Muslims has been signed by individuals from across both religious and non-religious communities.

The open letter published here has been brought to the attention of the Home Secretary by groups including the Network of Sikh Organisations, as a warning of the serious consequences adoption of this definition will have on matters of free speech and the ability to legitimately criticise aspects of Islam or the behaviour of a minority of Muslims.

The letter criticises the APPG definition and argues that it, “is being taken on without an adequate scrutiny or proper consideration of its negative consequences for freedom of expression, and academic or journalistic freedom.”

It goes on, “We are concerned that allegations of Islamophobia will be, indeed already are being, used to effectively shield Islamic beliefs and even extremists from criticism, and that formalising this definition will result in it being employed effectively as something of a backdoor blasphemy law.”

The letter has been signed by leading Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and others. It includes Bishop Nazir Ali, Lord Alton of Liverpool, Professor Richard Dawkins, Tom Holland, Peter Tatchell and our Director, Lord Singh of Wimbledon.

Lord Singh said, “The government must tread extremely carefully. There is a real danger adoption of this definition will be weaponised as a tool to silence an important debate in this country.”

He went on, “It is in the interest of the government to listen to minority voices like Ahmaddiyas who face persecution from fellow Muslims, and not create a hierarchy of victimhood amongst different faiths in Britain. Groups like Sikhs without a culture of complaint already face marginalisation, and creation of all these ‘phobias’ does little to promote community cohesion and active cooperation amongst our respective faith communities. The existing legal framework is sufficient to deal with racist and religious discrimination, and we hope the Home Secretary gets a sense of the strength of feeling amongst signatories who oppose this flawed definition.”

For further information contact: info@nsouk.co.uk

[Ends]

 

Preet Gill’s statement dated 25th March 2019 on the work of the APPG contains numerous inaccuracies and distortions. A few examples:

On Seva School Coventry she writes:

‘Lord Singh raised the issue of Seva School. As agreed, I wrote to the DFE and received a full and helpful response from Damian Hinds assuring us that the school would not be closed, and they had asked an outstanding Sikh academy trust to take over. I have been in contact with the regional school’s commissioner.’

The reality:

Correspondence is on record to show that she and the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) – the APPG’s secretariat, have systematically tried to keep Sikhs in the Lords out of the APPG. Despite this, Lord Singh persuaded Lord Suri, to accompany him to a meeting of the APPG on 9th October 2018, at the request of Seva School to help them in fighting a DfE attempt to force the school to join the non-mainstream Nishkam multi-academy trust, rather than a mainstream Sikh Trust. The parent’s concerns were covered in Schools Week. The DfE were not being helpful as Preet Gill writes; they merely repeated their threat that unless Seva School joined Nishkam, considered a New Religious Movement by many Sikhs, they would close the school down. Preet Gill completely ignored the concerns of the Sikh community detailed by Lord Singh and Lord Suri.

Lord Singh and Lord Suri were made less than welcome at the meeting. In response to a query from Lord Singh as to why Sikhs from the Lords were being excluded from the APPG, Preet Gill said that a letter of invitation had been sent by Pat McFadden. Pat McFadden to his credit, openly disagreed, saying that no invitation had been sent to the Lords. Lord Singh said that the APPG office holders should include someone from the Lords. Preet Gill ignored his suggestion. In the meeting and subsequently, Lord Singh asked for minutes of the meeting be sent to him. Despite several requests, the SFUK which acts as secretariat to the APPG has not done this.

Lord Singh, Lord Suri and Baroness Verma have subsequently made their position clear. They strongly object to the extremist SFUK running an APPG which should be for ALL Sikhs in Parliament and are unwilling to be a part of the APPG while Preet Gill and SFUK are in charge. 

[Ends]

The NSO is delighted to report the government has approved an amendment to fully protect the kirpan in law.

The Offensive Weapons Bill (OWB) went through its third reading in the House of Lords yesterday in which ‘the legal presentation of a curved sword by a follower of the Sikh religion at a ceremonial event’ was discussed and an amendment to fully protect the kirpan passed unanimously. The opportunity to fully protect the kirpan was regrettably missed in the House of Commons.

Yesterday Minister Baroness Williams said, ‘My Lords, I will now speak to the amendments regarding kirpans, and in doing so express my gratitude to the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Singh, and my noble friend Lady Verma. They have all been tireless in their promotion of this issue; I hope that the amendments will provide an outcome satisfactory to everyone. In particular, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for his advice and to the organisation Sikhs in Politics, which has engaged positively with officials on the development of these amendments.’

She went on: ‘As noble Lords will recall, we held a round table on the issue of kirpans following the debate on these clauses in Grand Committee. This identified a gap in the current defences in that the cultural practice of gifting large ceremonial kirpans by Sikhs to eminent non-Sikhs was not covered by the “religious reasons” defence. These amendments will therefore create a defence for a person of Sikh faith to present another person with a curved sword in a religious ceremony or other ceremonial event, as covered by Section 141 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.’

Lord Singh became aware of the omission referred to by Baroness Williams towards the end of last year. He immediately contacted the Minister before the Bill came to the Lords and, following discussion, raised the issue at the second reading. Because of his standing in the Lords, he received promises of support from all sides of the House.

The Bill then moved to Grand Committee and Lord Singh spoke in detail about the religious significance of the kirpan emphasising that it literally meant ‘protector’ of the weak and vulnerableLord Singh briefed Labour, Liberal and others from all sides of the House to say the same. Winding up for Labour, Lord Tunnicliffe remarked that in all his years in parliament, he could never remember such unanimity.

Lord Singh’s speech at the third reading and the full debate can be read here.

The NSO is grateful to our Director Lord Singh, Lord Paddick, Lord Kennedy, Baroness Verma and unanimous support from cross-party peers to see this important amendment pass. We would also like to extend our thanks to Sikhs in Politics for their support.

[Ends]

 

THE FACTS

 

  1. The Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) failed to brief their supporter Preet Gill MP, of the need to ensure protection for the kirpan in the early stages of the Offensive Weapons Bill (OWB).

 

 

  1. When this was pointed out to them, they met Ministers to introduce protection for ‘religious use’ (which was already protected by the law). They then rushed to self-congratulate with photos with ministers, completely failing to understand that the Bill would prohibit the cultural and ceremonial use of the kirpan.

 

  1. The SFUK should then have approached a Sikh member in the Lords to try to introduce an amendment to protect the cultural and ceremonial use of the kirpan.

 

  1. When their colleagues in the Sikh Council suggested this, they argued strongly against Sikhs in the Lords being involved even if the opportunity for protection was lost. They felt that this would draw attention to their incompetence in briefing Preet Gill MP. True Sikhs would have put the needs of the community before their own egos.

 

  1. Lord Singh, aware of the omission, contacted the relevant Minister before the Bill came to the Lords and, following discussion, raised the issue at the second reading. Because of his standing in the Lords, he received promises of support from all sides of the House.

 

  1. The Bill then moved to Grand Committee and Lord Singh spoke in detail about the religious significance of the kirpan emphasising that it literally meant ‘protector’ of the weak and vulnerable. Lord Singh briefed Labour, Liberal and others from all sides of the House to say the same. Winding up for Labour, Lord Tunnicliffe remarked that in all his years in parliament, he could never remember such unanimity

 

  1. What SFUK are now saying in their jealous tweets, about Lord Singh omitting the religious significance of the kirpan, had already been said by Lord Singh and others at Grand Committee.

 

  1. It is much harder to get an amendment to a Bill in the Lords than in the Commons, and the Home Office (advised by an anti-Sikh group) said that it was difficult to protect a larger kirpan unless there was a clear and easily recognisable description of its physical appearance. Sikhs in the Lords and their supporters saw this as a red herring to create doubt in the minds of the government. A kirpan, whatever its physical appearance, should be protected by legislation for religious and cultural use. There is nothing wrong in saying that in physical appearance a kirpan is a sword to ensure its protection in law.

 

  1. Following the discussions at Report Stage, government officials have had a further meeting with Lord Singh in working towards a suitable amendment to cover Sikh concerns.

 

The SFUK in their continuing efforts to smear those that are trying to protect Sikh symbols and identity, while speaking and writing about the uplifting teachings of our Gurus, are again underlining their anti-Sikh agenda.

 

                                  Response to Home Affairs Committee Islamophobia inquiry

                                                                        January 2019

 

About us: The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is a registered charity no. 1064544 that links more than 130 UK gurdwaras and other UK Sikh organisations in active cooperation to enhance the image and understanding of Sikhism in the UK.

This submission follows evidence we provided to the Home Affairs Committee in 2017/18 for their inquiry into hate crime and its violent consequences.[i] [ii]

 

  1. Use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ v ‘anti-Muslim’ hatred

We believe use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ is deeply problematic because it is vague and ambiguous. In a recent House of Lords debate, our Director Lord Singh, dissected the disparate elements that are often referred to when ‘Islamophobia’ is discussed. He said, ‘…there are four distinct aspects of hate crime against Muslims that are collectively known as Islamophobia: hate crime arising from common prejudice; hate crime arising from assumptions about the teachings of Islam; hate crime arising from perceptions of Muslim behaviour; and hate crime against non-Muslims due to mistaken identity.’[iii]  We are of the view that ‘anti-Muslim’ hatred, (like ‘anti-Sikh’ or ‘anti-Hindu’) is much clearer language to describe hate crime specifically against the Muslim community. We previously expressed this in written evidence to the APPG on British Muslims inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred.[iv]

 

1.1 Free speech and discussing matters of public interest

We have concerns that there are matters which extremists have an incentive to label ‘Islamophobic’ in order to shut down free and open discussion about matters of public interest – for example:

  • Legitimate criticism of the behaviour of a minority of Muslims i.e. sexual grooming gang cases like in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and Telford.
  • Legitimate criticism of aspects of Islamic doctrine, like the sanctioning of death for apostates (ex-Muslims) for leaving Islam, reference to non-Muslims as kaffirs (a derogatory term), and persecution of homosexuals and minority Muslim sects like the Ahmadiyya.
  • Legitimate criticism of the treatment of minority faiths in Muslim majority countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the latter non-Muslims (like Hindus and Sikhs) are known to pay the jizya (tax of humiliation), and Christians often face blasphemy charges in Pakistan like the cause célèbre Asia Bibi. There are also reports of forced marriage and conversion of Hindu girls in Pakistan and persecution of Ahmadiyya.
  • Free discussion about historical facts, like the beheading of the 9th Guru of Sikhism – Tegh Bahadur who was executed by Mughal authorities when he stood up for the freedom of religion of Hindu priests, who were being forcefully converted to Islam.

*the above isn’t an exhaustive list, but just a few areas as means of illustration.

We note the National Secular Society (NSS) have stated, ‘accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ are often used to silence debate about (and within) Islam,’[v] and ‘the word ‘Islamophobia’ has entered common usage, but it conflates legitimate criticism of Islam, or Islamic practices, with anti-Muslim prejudice, bigotry and hatred’.[vi]  This view is entirely consistent with our position.

1.2 The definition proposed by the APPG on British Muslims

 

‘Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness’.[vii]

 

Questions about race component in definition

Conflating race and religion is extremely problematic. There are of course occasions where race motivates hate crime against Muslims, or the ‘Muslim looking other’. An example of this would be the throwing of a pig’s head in the drive of former government minister Parmjit Singh Dhanda’s in 2010. Although a Sikh, he does not wear a turban nor have a beard. His detractors must have assumed he was Muslim due to his ethnicity. However, in other cases, it is more the conflation of religious symbols, like the Sikh turban (dastaar) and beard with the appearance of extremists like Bin Laden, the Taliban (or ISIS), which makes Sikhs and other non-Muslims susceptible to ‘Islamophobia’.[viii] This vulnerability – due to a visibility in the public space, is no different to that of Muslim women in hijabs, and orthodox Jews in skullcaps. Dr Jhutti-Johal an academic from the University of Birmingham has provided further examples of hate crime against Sikhs in a submission to an inquiry by The Youth Select Committee in 2016.[ix] Notably, white hipsters with beards have been confused with ISIS, and this is more to do with their hirsute countenance, rather than a prejudice born from, or ‘rooted in racism’. Furthermore, by framing ‘Islamophobia’ as ‘racism’, the definition miserably fails to encompass prejudice suffered by white converts, or European Muslims, like Bosniaks, Kosovars and Albanians.

 

1.3 Evidence to APPG and the question of impartiality

Whilst our evidence, like that of Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and the NSS was accepted by the inquiry conducted by the APPG on British Muslims, not all was agreed in the definition. It was selectively used by the authors of Islamophobia Defined.[x] On aspects of SBS’s evidence, the report’s authors dismissively say it, ‘appears highly misguided’.[xi] We take the view this doesn’t reflect a standard of impartiality.

 

1.4 Being ‘insufficiently Muslim’ in the eyes of other Muslims

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’.[xii] 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.’[xiii]

As Baroness Falkner rightly states, ‘Islamophobia’ 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, despite the definition referring to ‘expressions of Muslimness’. It is not clear if persecuted groups like Ahmadiyyas gave evidence to the APPG, or if their view has been given any consideration at all. The sectarian murders of Asad Shah, an Ahmadiyya Muslim shopkeeper in Glasgow, and Jalal Uddin, a 71-year-old imam in Rochdale demonstrate policy makers cannot simply ignore this issue.

Framing a similar argument to Baroness Falkner is Britain’s counter-extremism czar, Sara Khan. In an opinion editorial she describes, ‘increasing anti-Muslim hatred’ that she receives ‘from fellow Muslims’. ‘It is contradictory and unjust to recognise non-Muslim perpetrators yet ignore Muslims who engage in active hostility, abuse, hatred and discrimination against other Muslims’, argues Ms Khan. We believe this is an area which requires much more focus and we must acknowledge all bigotry, from wherever it comes, in equal terms.

 

1.5 Equality in public policy

One of the victims of a Rotherham grooming gang argues that ‘non-Muslim hate’ or hate against ‘those with a perceived lack of Muslimness’ should be taken just as seriously as discrimination against Muslims. ‘As grooming victims, my friends and I were called vile racist names such as “white trash” and “kaffir girl” as we were raped. Our Sikh and Hindu friends who were also targeted by Muslim Pakistani gangs were disparagingly called “kaffir slags” too.’ The APPG’s Islamophobia Defined report makes four references to grooming gangs. But it makes no effort to examine the motivations of the perpetrators. Instead, it suggests that discussion of grooming gangs could be ‘Islamophobic’. The government has a duty to take all forms of hatred as seriously as one another and we welcome the committee’s thoughts on this point.

To date government policy on hate crime has marginalised minority faiths like Sikhs and Hindus, because the focus is primarily on the suffering of Muslims and Jews. This is despite Sikhs suffering ‘mistaken identity’ attacks since 9/11. Whilst we sympathise with the Muslim and Jewish communities, the government needs to take steps to execute parity – irrespective of religious belief, or none. Our Director, Lord Singh has previously warned that Sikhs, who ‘do not have a culture of complaint’ are at risk of ‘falling off the government radar’ and believes the government ‘must be even-handed’ towards all communities.[xiv]

 

Conclusion

We request the committee gives our concerns due consideration. We believe the proposed definition is flawed and will have serious implications on free and open discussion about matters of significant public interest. It has the potential to act as a shield for extremists who want to shut down criticism of Islam or the behaviour of a minority of Muslims.

 

Network of Sikh Organisations


[ii] http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/hate-crime-and-its-violent-consequences/written/45945.html
[iii] https://www.theyworkforyou.com/lords/?id=2018-12-20a.1937.0
[iv] http://nsouk.co.uk/nso-gives-evidence-to-appg-on-british-muslims-on-islamophobia/
[v] https://www.secularism.org.uk/uploads/response-to-home-affairs-committee-islamophobia-inquiry.pdf
[vi] Ibid
[vii]https://static1.squarespace.com/static/599c3d2febbd1a90cffdd8a9/t/5bfd1ea3352f531a6170ceee/1543315109493/Islamophobia+Defined.pdf
[viii] Sikhs have suffered the negative reverberations of Islamism since 9/11. The first person to be killed in retribution was a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Phoenix. In Britain, there was an attempted beheading of a Sikh dentist in Wales in 2015 – a ‘revenge’ attack for Lee Rigby. Reference to Sikhs as ‘Bin Laden’, ‘Taliban’ and ‘ISIS’ are a normal occurrence – both Sikh men and women have suffered. Despite being one of the most ‘visible’ minority groups in Britain, eighteen years on from 9/11 we are still not viewed as a priority group by the government.
[ix] http://www.byc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/050-Jagbir-Jhutti-Johal.pdf
[x]  https://static1.squarespace.com/static/599c3d2febbd1a90cffdd8a9/t/5bfd1ea3352f531a6170ceee/1543315109493/Islamophobia+Defined.pdf
[xi]  Ibid
[xii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2018-12-20/debates/2F954D45-1962-4256-A492-22EBF6AEF8F0/Islamophobia#contribution-B9C080A2-4CBA-4687-BBCD-0A20C512D1FC
[xiii] Ibid

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

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.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have made recommendations for the content of the 2021 Census, which was published in a White Paper titled, ‘Help Shape Our Future: The 2021 Census of Population and Housing in England and Wales’.

The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is delighted common sense has prevailed and the ONS has not recommended the inclusion of a Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box for the 2021 Census. We’ve been strongly opposed to this ill-conceived campaign led by the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) and the APPG for British Sikhs whose secretariat is the SFUK and Chair Preet Gill MP. The ONS has conducted significant research and consultation on this matter across the British Sikh community over a long period of time. They revealed focus groups conducted showed, ‘younger second-generation participants wanted to express their Sikh background through the religion question as this is how they expected Sikh identity to be recorded.’[i]

Our position has always been clear. Firstly, Sikhs are already recorded appropriately in the Census under religion. The SFUK suggested there might be an undercounting of Sikhs, because the religion question is voluntary. However, research commissioned by the ONS in 2017 found, ‘There is no indication from the findings that the religious affiliation and ethnic group questions are capturing different Sikh populations. All respondents who stated they were ethnically Sikh also stated their religious affiliation was Sikh. This is in line with findings from the 2011 Census data.’[ii]

Secondly, the SFUK say we are an ‘ethnic’ group because of Mandla v Dowell Lee. The case involved a schoolboy discriminated against by his school for wearing his turban. When it went to the House of Lords they for the purposes of the then Race Relations Act 1976, ruled Sikhs could conveniently fit into an ‘ethnic origin’ box based on a few tests, like sharing common language, culture and geographical descent – this is because religion wasn’t protected under law at the time. If you apply the same tests today, Sikhs wouldn’t necessarily fit in the ‘ethnic origin’ box, because most Sikhs today are British born and speak English as a first language. Moreover, the Race Relations Act 1976 has been repealed in its entirety, and replaced by the Equalities Act 2010, in which all religions are equally protected from discrimination. In any case, from a doctrinal perspective, Guru Nanak was the founder of a great world religion, not an ‘ethnic’ group. Sikh teachings reject division of society on grounds of caste, creed. colour and by the extension of this debate ethnicity.

 

Concerns about the APPG’s methodology

We’ve seen a communication from the APPG for British Sikhs in response to the ONS decision, and it’s clear the SFUK and Preet Gill MP are upset and angry. They have put a lot of effort and energy into lobbying. On August 23rd 2018 (at 19:15) the SFUK put out a tweet suggesting Hounslow gurdwara (Alice Way) was one of the gurdwaras which supported their campaign with a letter written to the APPG.[iii] We asked the Hounslow committee if this was the case or not, and they informed us they did not support the APPG and believe Sikhism is a religion not an ethnicity. They had also made this clear in a meeting with the NSO, SFUK and Iain Bell from the ONS. Given the SFUK announced 112 gurdwaras have supported the APPG, and this figure has been reported in the press and provided to the ONS, we would like to see 1. The briefing given to gurdwaras by the APPG 2. Redacted versions of the letters received 3. The specific question asked to elicit a response. We have serious concerns that gurdwaras may have not been provided with a balanced view of the subject matter, which could lead to survey bias, and if there are 112 gurdwaras signed up in the first place.

The APPG have alleged the ONS has ‘misrepresented’ the survey of Gurdwaras they conducted.[iv] This is a serious allegation and given what we know about Hounslow frankly risible. Secondly, they go onto to claim the survey and response from 112 gurdwaras have an official membership of 107,000 and an estimated congregation of 470,000. How they came to these figures is not clear, however we can see that 470,000 is a larger number than the total population of Sikhs from the 2011 Census (423,000).[v] 112 gurdwaras is approximately 1/3 of the total number in the UK,[vi] so the suggestion is that more than the total population of British Sikhs (up to 2011) attended a fraction of UK gurdwaras. It is not clear whether the figures include overseas visitors or non-Sikhs coming to gurdwaras, or gurdwaras in Scotland which has a separate Census. They suggest 100% of gurdwaras that responded to their survey did so as an ‘independent decision’, however this again is unclear, until we see the particulars of the briefing provided to them by the APPG.

 

John Pullinger’s assurances to Preet Gill MP

What the APPG remarkably failed to disclose was a letter addressed to their Chair from the UK’s National Statistician John Pullinger. He has given Ms Gill significant reassurances that although the ONS don’t recommend an ‘ethnic’ tick box, they will support those who want to write in Sikh as an ethnic group under ‘other’. He informs her, ‘I want to assure you that everyone who wishes to identify as Sikh will be able to do so under our proposals for the Census.’

He describes the various options for Sikhs who may want to say they are ‘ethnically’ Sikh with the development of ‘search-as-you-type’ functionality online, which will assist those who want to fill the ‘other’ box under ethnicity. He confirms data outputs from both religion and ethnicity will be analysed and will, ‘increase the analytical offering and outputs for those who identify as Sikh.’ He also confirms there is a commitment to utilise the Digital Economy Act 2017 for data linking research purposes, so information about Britain’s Sikhs will be available across public services, not just Census collected data.

There are other clear commitments which aim to improve data collection beyond purely the Census, whilst encouraging collaboration with local authorities and British Sikhs. The ONS want to improve data collection and promote wider Census participation, as well as ‘raise awareness of the options of writing in their identity in the ethnic group question’.

We are surprised Preet Gill MP or the SFUK run APPG for British Sikhs have failed to mention this accommodating and conciliatory letter. The offer to help Sikhs who would still like to be categorised under a Sikh ethnic group is serious and goes much further than expected. It appears they are so obsessed with a tick box, they have lost sight of their initial goal.

[Ends]

[i] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-2021-census-of-population-and-housing-in-england-and-wales
[ii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/census
[iii] http://nsouk.co.uk/why-we-need-the-appg-for-british-sikhs-to-be-transparent-with-their-ethnicity-campaign/
[iv] https://twitter.com/appgbritsikhs?lang=en
[v] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/religioninenglandandwales2011/2012-12-11
[vi] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-21711980

 

Last Wednesday the NSO held its UK Parliament Week event in the House of Lords with guest speakers Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi MP, Mandip Sahota and Gurpal Virdi.

The NSO was an official partner with UK Parliament Week in a year we commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage and the right for women to vote in Britain.

Opening the event Lord Singh told the audience, ‘everyone of us can make a real difference in not only articulating our concerns but also making others aware of our incredibly modern religion and we’ve failed to do this properly.’

Giving an example of how individuals can make a difference, he described how he used a pen name ‘Victor Pendry’ to highlight discriminatory treatment of Sikhs in Punjab, at a time when the largely Hindu owned media in India automatically rejected anything coming from a Sikh.

Dhesi the MP for Slough, highlighted the importance of being proactive and talked of his efforts to lobby (cross-party) for The National Sikh War Memorial Trust (NSWMT). He talked of how ‘socially minded activists’ also have a key role in today’s digital age.

Echoing these views, Mandip Sahota Strategist & former Civil Servant said, ‘We’re all change-makers – so it’s important to understand how to navigate structures of power. This is your Parliament.’ She was clear that ‘megaphone diplomacy’ has its place, but conversations in private are sometimes also as powerful and that we must build relationships to succeed.

Summing up, she emphasized effective engagement is achievable, but we must be strategic, clear and ambitious.

Gurpal Virdi, former Councillor and Community Activist, gave pointers on how to get involved encouraging people to join local resident’s groups. He said, ‘You’ll need to start building your profile with local people and working out your position on local ‘hot’ issues such as crime, traffic, the environment and schools.’

Lord Singh concluded the meeting by saying, ‘I urge you all to get fully involved in understanding strengthening and improving the democratic process in this country, in a way that is consistent with Sikh teachings.’

An attendee e-mailed the NSO following the event showing appreciation, ‘for hosting and delivering a wonderfully enthused and innovative meeting.’

You can access the UK Parliament Week resource produced by the NSO in partnership with UK Parliament Week here.

 

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