Another case study of cultural tolerance

This morning I explored the stupid side of one of my pet topics, the idea of cultural tolerance. Basically, the argument goes that since we have a variety of cultures all calling this great country of ours “home”, we are called to make reasonable accommodations for different cultural practices. The important word in that last sentence is reasonable. Moving the location of a health care facility because some people are scared little babies about death is not a reasonable accommodation. To the contrary – it flies in the face of reason.

However, this case perhaps bears a bit less contempt and a bit more thoughtful reflection:

An emotionally charged debate over multiculturalism that has raged in Quebec in recent years has landed on the national stage and it centres on a ceremonial dagger worn by Sikhs. MPs face a demand to ban the kirpan, which is worn at all times by at least one Ontario MP. The discussion is being spurred by the Bloc Québécois, which promised Wednesday to take up the issue with the House of Commons’ all-party decision-making body.

Setting aside the obvious fact that this a political move that is motivated primarily by the cultural equivalent of racism (when’s the last time someone in the legislature was attacked with a kirpan?), there are actually two perfectly reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue.

Against the measure: A reasonable accommodation can be made to allow MPs to wear religious items without interfering with the good order and work of the parliament

As I noted above, there have never been any attacks within parliament by a kirpan (or any other weapon). Banning people from wearing a kirpan is not a reaction to an incident of violence, nor is it a pre-emptive attempt to fight a trend of imminent violence. It is simply making an arbitrary rule that has the effect of saying that certain people are not welcome to run for office. For Sikhs who take their religion seriously, the kirpan is a mandatory accoutrement that must be worn at all times. It has the same religious force of compulsion as the burqua or similar head-coverings for conservative Jews.

Given that there is a compelling reason (at the individual level) for wearing a kirpan, and very little is accomplished by banning it (aside from broadcasting xenophobia), a strong case can be made that the measure should not be adopted.

For the measure: The accommodation to allow people to bring a weapon into the legislature is not reasonable

I’ve made this exact argument before (way in the distant past, likely before any of you now reading the blog were around):

In my mind, allowing anyone to carry a weapon of any kind is not a good idea. I don’t care how symbolic or ceremonial it it supposed to be. If my religious convictions require me to carry a rifle in my hands because Jesus could arrive at any moment and I have to help him fight off Satan’s zombie hordes, common sense (and the law) would dictate that the danger I pose to society in general outweighs my religious autonomy. Such is the case here.

The kirpan is not worn to commemorate a battle or to symbolize some kind of pillar of Sikh faith. It is explicitly a defensive weapon that is worn by Sikhs in case they have to prevent some act of evil from taking place. The same argument could be made for a non-religious knife, or a gun, or any other type of weapon. Given that we do not permit MPs (or anyone) to take a weapon into a government building unless they are a member of the security staff, making a special concession for this weapon because it is wrapped up in religious superstition is not a reasonable accommodation, despite whatever nonsense Michael Ignatieff says:

“The kirpan is not a weapon,” Ignatieff told reporters in Montreal. “It’s a religious symbol and we have to respect it.” When asked about the issue Thursday, Ignatieff said that it should be treated as a question of religious freedom rather than simply a security matter.

We have to respect it? With all due respect to your position, Mr. Ignatieff, we don’t have to respect religious symbols. We have to respect a person’s right to believe in their particular religious symbol, but we are under no consequent obligation to respect the symbol ourselves. Considering that the symbol itself, when divorced from its symbolism, is in fact a knife, it is entirely reasonable to ask why it should be allowed inside the legislature (or anywhere else, for that matter).

While I hate compromise (I really do… it usually means that both sides are giving up), I think one is appropriate in this case. While it would be a complete failure on our part to refuse to recognize the impact on the Sikh community (as a manifestation of privilege) of such a ban, we also must respect the fact that Canada is a secular nation, meaning that religious symbols are not to be given any kind of legal standing. The problem with the kirpan is not the kirpan itself – it is its potential to be used as a weapon. Kirpans can be purchased with locks, or made such that they cannot be drawn from their sheath. Passing a resolution that allows the kirpan to be worn but stripping it of its function as a knife is entirely possible, and involves a reasonable accommodation from both sides.

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P.S. Interestingly, as I was writing this piece, I found myself saying “this is absolutely my position” for both sides of the argument. I’m always interested to hear your opinions (even in those cases when I don’t post a reply), but I am particularly curious to know if you were swayed one way or the other on this issue.


  1. says

    Not that I think it would ever find itself on the table – but what about a blanket ban on religious symbols?

    The idea makes my atheist side very happy – and on the surface it looks like a natural consequence of secularism.

    On the other hand: If such a ban would exclude entire sub-populations from government then that’s not a good thing either.

    Also: Devout Sikhs must be having a hell of a time with the international airline travel industry.

  2. says

    A kirpan is very explicitly a weapon of self-defense, and I have trouble seeing the argument of a Sikh against it’s being viewed in that context for that reason. The lock is a perfect compromise, but that compromises ironically ignores the religious reason that Sikhs have to wear the dagger in the first place–so that they can use it. To me, this is kind of an eye-rolling moment about how religious people can become so caught up about the letter of a rule while ignoring it’s purpose–if the purpose of a kirpan is just so that a Sikh can practice self-defense and prevent evil from being committed, being, say, a black belt in a martial art should fulfill the spirit of the religious requirement just as well.

  3. says

    Technically Christians have the same head-covering requirements as Jewish women. Many religious “rules” are in fact divorced from their historical roots and can be (and often are) ignored. I would suspect that Sikh MPs and the majority of Canadian Sikhs would view the kirpan as a religious symbol like a yarmulke/kippah or a bindi – displayed as a sign of one’s obedience toward God or something to that effect. The number of people who would be inconvenienced by a lock is minimal, as only really conservative sects would demand that the kirpan be present explicitly as a weapon.

    But yes, the hipocrisy of claiming that the kirpan isn’t a weapon is typical of the religious. It is supposed to be a weapon, even if nobody uses it as such.

  4. says

    I think of religious symbols in the same vein as I consider cultural symbols (like a dashiki or a flag t-shirt or whatever). I’m loath to ban them simply because they’re religious – it is an unfair double-standard to say that only religious iconography is illegal. I think they should be evaluated based on their consequences – the kirpan and the swastika and the burqa all have different meanings and potential consequences and should be evaluated on that basis rather than just saying “nobody may celebrate their religion openly”.

    The point about airline travel is a good one.

  5. says

    It’s quite simple, in my mind. You cannot ban symbols (including swastikas, burkas, etc.) because of their perceived meaning, which always remains in the eye of the beholder. That’s clearly censorship.

    However, if religious (or non-religious) symbol that presents a threat to others, there is justification for a ban or some other measure of control. What is most important, though, is that exceptions cannot be made only for the adherents of the particular religion. For example, if Sikhs are allowed to carry a locked (or unlocked) knife into parliament, then anyone can. Otherwise security would have to discriminate on the basis of religion. Similarly, if a woman has the right to walk into a bank wearing a niqab, then I have just as much a right to walk into the same bank with a ski-mask on. One rule for me, the same for thee.

  6. says

    Reading back over, I realize that I wasn’t clear.

    I was considering the concept that religious iconography could be restricted from a house of secular government. But my comment read like I was considering a blanket ban at all times and locations, which wasn’t my intention.

    The idea I was trying to get across was something like: Your personal beliefs are your own business – but while you’re practicing your role within government please leave your religion at the door.

    That probably doesn’t change your response to my response in any way, I’m pretty sure you read me properly. I just wanted to clarify anyway.

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