Can a few stitches reconcile religion and secularism?

AuthorMorley, Gareth

In the late seventeenth century, the Sikh religion was at a crossroads. Indeed, it was not clear whether it could survive. The Muslim Mughal empire, reasonably tolerant at the height of its power under Akbar a century earlier, had decided to suppress the upstart faith. Guru Gobind Singh became the last of the Sikh living gurus at the age of nine when his father, the ninth guru, was executed at the orders of the emperor. In 1699, a few years after winning a major battle against the Mughals, he created the Khalsa order. On joining the Khalsa, all prior social distinctions of caste, race and even gender were to be eliminated. The Khalsa became the basis of the first Sikh state in the eighteenth century.

Today, the Khalsa are the visibly "observant" Sikhs. As in many such orders in various religious traditions, the inner spiritual meaning of the initiation was to be illustrated by exterior signs: the "Five Ks." The most noticeable is the kesh, the uncut hair that requires Khalsa men to wear beards and their hair in turbans. The most troublesome for modern secular states is the kirpan, a short sword that initiates must keep on their person at all times for self-defence and, when required, for promoting justice.

Hyperventilating on the internet aside, the North Atlantic West does not today face an existential crisis comparable to the Mughal persecution. But it does face a crossroads. For the first time in centuries, issues of religious diversity and the limits of toleration take centre stage in the West. Traditionally Christian populations have become polarized between those who have become thoroughly secular (the majority outside the United States) and a remnant evangelized by Protestant and Catholic revivalists who bear little resemblance to the establishment clerics of the mid-20th century. Where these two groups are both numerous, as in North America, they do not get along well, and their differences have ignited a "culture war," now into its third decade.

Moreover, since 2001, Western foreign policy has focused on the challenge to Western security and interests posed by militant Islamists. Mass immigration means every religious tradition in the world has significant representation in western Europe and North America. Feminism and sexual liberalism have increasingly become nonnegotiable commitments of the West, but at best, they are in tension with traditional religious commitments, and at worst, they represent the face of evil and decadence to orthodox believers. Religious diversity is perhaps the most unsettling result of mass migration, and certainly the least susceptible to traditional liberal modes of compromise.

Under traditional liberal assumptions, religious toleration requires that the state enact laws for secular reasons, that everyone obey them and that religion be a private matter. This understanding has been challenged within human rights and constitutional law by the idea that religious believers need exemptions from laws that may have been secular in their intent but interfere with religious practices or doctrines.

The most prominent case in Canada was that of Gurbaj Singh Multani, a devout Sikh and initiate of the Khalsa order. In September 2001, he was a 12-year-old attending public school in LaSalle on Montreal Island. He accidentally dropped his kirpan in the schoolyard. The school confiscated it, but soon agreed with his parents that he could continue to wear the kirpan as long as it was sewn into his clothes in a secure and inaccessible way. However, this decision was overturned by the school board as contrary to the school's prohibition on the carrying of weapons. The school board's decision was in turn reversed by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2006 on the grounds that it failed to reasonably accommodate his freedom of religion under section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of...

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