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Lord Singh of Wimbledon

The Sikh Federation is always looking for a campaigning issue. The latest, is the inclusion of Sikhs as a distinct ethnic group in the next census. Predictably, Federation supporters, like Gurmukh Singh (Sewa UK), cite the Law Lords Ruling in the Mandla Case to justify an assertion that Sikhs are a distinct ethnic group. We are not, and to say we are shows a lack of understanding of the Law Lords’ findings, the meaning of ‘ethnicity’, and worse, ignorance of the teachings of the Sikh Gurus.

The Mandla case

The initial meeting to fight the Mandla case, with Seva Singh Mandla and the barrister Harjit Singh, took place in my house. Harjit Singh explained that the then Commission for Racial Equality wanted to protect the right of Gurinder Mandla to wear a turban in school. They wanted me to help them prove that Sikhs were a distinct race. I explained that to call Sikhs a race, would be going against Sikh teachings.

Our Gurus taught that all humans are of the same one race, and that man made divisions based on caste or race are divisive and false. I advised that protection under the category of ethnicity would be a better option. Ethnicity simply recognises the reality that people living in particular parts of the world can share common characteristics such as language, culture, and religion and a generally common diet, as well as a common propensity to certain diseases and comparative resistance to others. My argument was accepted and I then helped set out the case for protection of Sikhs on the grounds, that most Sikhs then in the UK were born in Punjab, had a common culture, wore the symbols of a distinct faith as well as sharing similar genetic characteristics.

I was asked to be the expert Sikh witness in the case and spent a day and a half being rigorously cross-examined in court. In the end, the case went all the way to the House of Lords where we eventually won. To understand the limited significance of the ruling, it is helpful to think of a dirty big box marked ‘ethnicity’. The Law Lords ruled that SOLELY for the purpose of protection under the 1976 race relations act, Sikhs could fit into that box, Nothing more, nothing less.

It is dishonest to say the Law Lords stated Sikhs were an ethnic group per se. The Law Lords, who I met at the time, were a clever lot, but it was not in their gift to alter geography and nature, or the social environment in which a community has its roots. Nor can the much-boasted signatures of 100 MPs make any difference. 

Harjinder Singh who now lives abroad, is a good practicing Sikh. If he lived in this country, he would be protected under the 1976 Race relations Act. As far as propensity, or comparative immunity to disease and illness goes, he remains an ethnic European. Most Sikhs in the UK are in the true meaning of ethnicity, ethnic Punjabis, and as such, have a greater propensity to diabetes and heart and liver disease. The Law Lords cannot change a person’s DNA.

Nor can they alter the Gurus’ teachings. This is what those obsessed with ethnic monitoring are effectively trying to do by extrapolating the Law Lords clearly limited ruling, to arrogantly pronounce the falsehood that Sikhs everywhere belong to a distinct ethnic group. Living in Europe, Harjinder Singh is a Sikh with European ethnicity. Ethnicity is not a matter of personal choice.

Is ethnic monitoring either practical or necessary?

The Sikh Federation maintain that having an option to write Sikh in the ethnic category will somehow give Sikhs a greater share of goods and services. Really? There is no evidence of ethnic monitoring being used to benefit any distinct community in the UK. Muslims and Jews, on the other hand, do well enough without it. As a former Labour Minister put it, ‘it’s the wheel that squeaks that gets the oil.’

Negative effect on practising Sikhs

Even if ethnic monitoring of Sikhs were a practical proposition, some Sikhs would probably declare their ethnicity as Indian, resulting in under-counting.

More seriously, in employment, ethnic monitoring would worsen the position of practicing Sikhs. Much of existing discrimination against Sikhs is on the basis of visible appearance. Monitoring of ‘ethnic Sikhs’ could mask and give legitimacy to discrimination towards turban wearing Sikhs. For example, a large organisation like the BBC might pass the ethnic quota test with few if any practising Sikhs. The irony is that the Mandla case was fought to protect our right to wear the symbols of our faith.

Khalistan

Some Sikhs naively believe that calling ourselves an ethnic group (which we are not) will strengthen the case for Khalistan, an emotionally attractive homeland for Sikhs. Forgetting the political impediments, there are two reasons why talk of Khalistan is nothing more than a campaigning slogan:

  1. Absence of a contiguous area, in Punjab where Sikhs will always be in a majority.
  2. A religious State, on the lines of Israel or Pakistan, where Sikhs have more rights than those of other faiths, would be totally against the clear teachings of our Gurus.

Talking of Khalistan is an understandable way of vocalising our anger over the genocide in 1984; it is an excellent rallying call for generating unthinking emotional following and funding by groups like the Sikh Federation, but as a practicable or desirable proposition, it is a complete nonstarter.

Indarjit

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, Director – Network of Sikh Organisations.

Emergency services attend to victims of the Tower Bridge terror attack

The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) feels it’s time for the country to have an honest debate about the religious motivation behind the jihadist terror attacks in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge.

For far too long we have heard platitudes from politicians and commentators like ‘terrorism has no religion’ or ‘Islam means peace’, without questioning the real motivation behind the sequence of terror atrocities our country has faced. Many innocent lives have been lost and statements from the Prime Minister like ‘enough is enough’ must be backed with practical steps to get to the root cause of the problem without fear of being labeled ‘Islamophobic.’

We take the view that Western intervention in the Middle East has contributed to contempt for countries like Britain in the eyes of extremists, their sympathizers and sponsors. Moreover the duplicity of politicians like Trump, who on one hand pledge the destruction of Islamic State, whilst selling their backers Saudi Arabia weapons to murder Shias in Yemen, is counter-productive. However, we also know from the history of our forefathers who suffered terrible persecution under India’s Islamic invaders, this is not simply just about Western foreign policy. There is something else at play, and has been for a number of centuries. We must have the courage to name the elephant in the room.

The NSO takes the view that jihadist attacks are primarily motivated by foundational religious texts, and Britain can no longer ignore this. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand and pretend there is no doctrinal motivation. An honest conversation, however difficult, must now take place, acknowledging the existence of verses that are clearly being interpreted by extremist Muslims as a divine license to kill non-believers or kuffar (a derogatory term for a non-Muslim). This is how true interfaith must now evolve and where the conversation, however difficult, must go. We must be clear on which verses are problematic, and how they are being interpreted. We urgently need to know what the Muslim community will do to stop hate preachers from plugging extremist narratives, particularly ones that encourage hate, murder and mayhem.

Lord Singh NSO Director said, “Today’s response to terrorist outrages is frankly pathetic with statements like: ‘the vast majority of Muslims are decent law abiding people’. Of course, they are. So are followers of other faiths. But what of smaller numbers who earnestly believe murderous action against fellow human beings is justified by their religion? Statements like, ‘we must all stand together’, or, that ‘those that seek to divide us will never win’, are fine, but they, and pledges to increase security and intelligence, do nothing to address the underlying causes of religious terrorism.”

He added, “Today, there is an urgent need to look at the environment in which the cancer of terrorism thrives. We will never get anywhere until we are bold enough to attack and break down false barriers of arrogance and superiority between and within different religions. If we do this, we will find core ethical teachings have much in common. We will also find cultural practices of blatant discrimination against women, and others who are in any way different from the norm.”

He went on, “Such attitudes, questionable even centuries ago, have no place in the world of the 21st century and should be unceremoniously discarded. Not easy. It requires religious leaders to declare that oppressive cultural attitudes, and historical enmities embedded in religious texts, have no relevance to the world of today.”

The NSO extends its heartfelt condolences to the friends and families of those who lost loved ones during the London attack.

PC Garcha with Lord Singh

Around 2,000 people gathered at Westminster Abbey yesterday for a memorial service dedicated to the victims of the Westminster terror attack.

On 22 March Khalid Masood killed three people when he drove into crowds and stabbed a policeman to death before being shot dead at the UK Parliament.

The service was led by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend John Hall, and was attended by the Royal Family, the Mayor of London, MET Police, faith leaders and survivors of Khalid Masood’s murderous rampage.

Our Director, Lord Singh attended in his capacity as a faith leader, something he does routinely at civic occasions like the Commonwealth Service and the Remembrance Day Service at the Cenotaph.

American tourist Melissa Payne Cochran who lost her husband during the terrorist incident was also in attendance with her parents. She had been celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary with her husband on the day of the terror attack.

In a moving tribute to those who had lost their lives, Prince William read a passage from the Bible about the Good Samaritan. The Home Secretary Amber Rudd read from the Book of Jeremiah and PC J Garcha, a serving officer in the MET Police read from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptures).

Some representatives from the Sikh Federation and Sikh Council were also among audience members.

The European court of justice’s (ECJ) recent ruling on religious symbols which grants companies the right to ban employees from wearing visible religious symbols will not apply to the UK according to a government Minister.

Europe’s highest court decided on cases involving two Muslim women and their right to wear headscarves at work. The court ruled the garments could be banned, but only as part of a broader policy for all political and religious symbolism in the workplace.

Minister of State, Baroness Williams of Trafford confirmed the ECJ  decision would not have a bearing on the UK, she said: “We will protect and uphold the freedoms that have been allowed in this country, as we always have done. It will not affect our domestic law.”

Lord Singh said, “I thank the Government for the clarity and forcefulness of the Statement protecting religious minorities. The law in Europe seems to be in a mess because of the two conflicting judgments. They are conflicting because if the Human Rights Council says that people have the right to manifest their religion, that should be absolute. Otherwise, it becomes very difficult.”

He went on: “Who decides? In France and Belgium, the Governments overrule that judgment. Sikh schoolchildren cannot go to a public school with a turban and people who want a passport photo have to take their turban off. This is just absurd. I do not know whether there is anything the Government can do to explain that absurdity to those in Europe.”

The full debate can be read here.

CoxLast week saw the second reading of Baroness Cox’s arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, which aims to protect the rights of women under Sharia courts operating in Britain.

Baroness Cox who has long fought for human rights said, “we must not condone situations where rulings are applied which are fundamentally incompatible with the laws, values, principles and policies of our country.”

She went on, “Muslim women are today suffering in ways in which would make suffragettes turn in their graves.” The proposals in her Bill have been described as a “lifeline” for vulnerable women, some of whom had provided evidence of their plight to an All Party Parliamentary Group on “Honour” Based violence.

Baroness Cox described Sharia councils as “a rapidly developing alternative quasi-legal system, which undermines the fundamental principle of one law for all.”

Lord Singh the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) thanked Baroness Cox for her tireless work in supporting vulnerable members of society across the globe.

He said, “negative attitudes to women, all too evident in Islam, have become embedded in religious texts, which, as we have heard, give less weightage to the word of a woman, and lesser inheritance rights. There are also particular problems with attitudes to divorce. These negative attitudes prevent Islam from playing its full part in social improvement. I have many Muslim friends and most are happily married and a credit to society. But sharia law and divorce are heavily weighted in favour of men and are at variance with the law of this country.”

He went on, “we cannot have a parallel judicial system, particularly one that discriminates against women. We have today heard many examples of the weightage against women in the proceedings of sharia courts and the resulting suffering. We have heard the concerns of our Prime Minister, Theresa May, when as Home Secretary she referred to wives being left in penury and a supposed right of husbands to chastise their wives.”

Lord Singh said the proposals in the Bill would not only “safeguard the position of women in the Islamic community”, but also “leave Islam stronger and better able to play its full part in the world of today.”

The full debate can be viewed here.

true vision

[True Vision is the Police hate crime portal]

In a recent communication, ahead of Holocaust Memorial, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid announced £375k of new funding to support groups who have “historically faced challenges in reporting and preventing hate crime.”

Part of this funding will be given to the Police hate crime portal True Vision, which will be building a programme to help support Sikhs and Hindus in the reporting of hate crime. The funding also aims to help develop an awareness of hate crime against both groups. The government has acknowledged part of the problem is because of “anti-Muslim hostility.”

This announcement comes following years of campaigning by the NSO in highlighting the government’s biased ‘Abrahamic-centric’ approach. During that time, we have highlighted the issue in the press, had communications with both DCLG and the Home Office, whilst our Director Lord Singh has raised concerns in the House of Lords.

Following the government’s publication of Action Against Hate last July; we made our concerns clear to the Home Secretary. These were supported by leading Hindu and Sikh organisations. We raised the issue at a Faith Communities Forum meeting last September, organised by the Interfaith Network UK.

Pt Satish K Sharma General Secretary of the National Council of Hindu Temples UK said, “we have been in extensive discussions with the Sikh community regarding the manner in which the Dharmic traditions have been quite effectively abandoned in terms of protection and fully support the statements made by Lord Singh in this regard.”

He went on, “recent official statements and gestures indicate that the severity of the situation may be noted but action, funding and genuine engagement will establish whether this is mere lip service or just the latest in a series of sound bites.”

Mr Sharma added: “Unlike other groups, Hindu and Sikh communities have never played the politics of victimhood, focusing more on their contribution to the societies they live in. When they do become victims of hate crimes, requesting recognition and support, requires the development of a whole new social vocabulary.”

Lord Singh said, “the news is certainly a step in the right direction, but there is a long way to go in order to achieve a level playing field for all faiths. Improving religious literacy levels is also important when tackling prejudice fueled by ignorance. It’s good to see the government is willing to listen and learn.”

Prior to the recent announcement, the NSO gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee into its inquiry into hate crime and its violent consequences. At the time, we specifically requested support in raising awareness of hate crime portal’s like True Vision. A link to our evidence can be found here.

Graphic symbols of different religions on white
Earlier this week the government’s strategy against Islamic terrorism was debated further to a question tabled by Lord Pearson of Rannoch. The UKIP Peer asked the government: “whether, as part of their strategy against Islamic terrorism, they will encourage United Kingdom Muslim leaders to re-examine the Muslim tenet of abrogation.”

Contributing to the debate Lord Singh, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations said:

“My Lords, whenever the question of religion is raised in this House, there seems to be an air of embarrassment, as if it were something private that should not be discussed. The reality is that it is very much the concern of us all. The suffering in Syria and the weekend outrages in Cairo and Istanbul show that a force, religion, which has a potential for good, is being used these days as a force for evil.”

He went on: “Does the Minister agree with the findings of the Louise Casey report that the interfaith industry has done very little to combat this, and we need an actual discussion of the concerns that people feel, rather than being superficially nice to each other?”

Agreeing religion should be a force for good, Minister of State, Baroness Williams of Trafford confirmed the government would be considering Dame Casey’s review in the new year. Published earlier this month, the Casey review highlighted the government’s reliance on interfaith groups and faith leaders to promote British values. The report stated objectionable cultural or religious views had not been challenged due to the fear of being labelled ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobe.’

prevent

Prevent one of the four strands of the government’s counter terrorism strategy Contest continues to divide public opinion. Significant government funds have been invested since 9/11.

Six years after the London 7/7 bombings, £80m has been reported to have been spent on 1,000 schemes across 94 local authorities. The government however, has been accused of stigmatising Muslim communities, causing disquiet among groups, one of which has announced an alternative counter-terror scheme.

Last week Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked the government whether they intended to set up an independent inquiry to evaluate the operation of Prevent. Minister of State for the Home Office, Baroness Williams of Trafford responded, informing peers that since 2011 Prevent had been expanded in order to account for an increased terror threat.

Defending the strategy she said, “Prevent is working; it is safeguarding people from being drawn into terrorism. The statistics on Prevent delivery are reported in the Contest annual report. We have committed to updating Contest in 2016 and Prevent will be included as part of that refresh.”

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations talked about the difficulty with Prevent because of ambiguity.

He said, “Words such as “extremism”, “fundamentalism” and “radicalisation” all leave us none the wiser—and “Islamist” is a positive insult to the Muslim community. Would the Minister agree that the real target of Prevent is the out-of-context use of religious texts to justify the abuse of human rights and the cruel treatment of women and people of other faiths?”

He went on, “Will she try to engage with faith leaders to ensure that they interpret religious texts in the context of today’s times?”

Baroness Williams responded, “The noble Lord, as always, makes very wise points. So often in the case of religion, religious texts are misinterpreted to the extent that they are completely out of context with the actions of those who would seek to undermine the true tenets of those religions.”

[Image: 'share of arms sales by country' by crossswords is licensed under CC by SA 4.0]

[Image: ‘share of arms sales by country’ by crossswords is licensed under CC by SA 4.0]

Last Saturday’s Saudi-led coalition strikes responsible for the killing 140 at a funeral gathering in the Yemeni capital Sanaa have led to widespread criticism, which last week extended to the House of Lords.

Peers questioned the ethics of British and American arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with Lord Alton of Liverpool asking Her Majesty’s Government if since the devastating strikes they “are reassessing the licensing of United Kingdom weapons sales to Saudi Arabia since the conflict in Yemen began.”

Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department for International Development, Baroness Anelay of St Johns responded thus, “The UK Government are deeply concerned by the conflict in Yemen, including recent events in Sanaa. As part of the careful risk assessment for the licensing of arms exports to Saudi Arabia, we keep the situation under careful and continued review.”

She added, “All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms and export licensing criteria, taking account of all relevant factors at the time of the application.”

Lord Singh, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) said, “My Lords, bomb fragments found at the scene of the funeral carnage were those from an Mk 82 American guided bomb. Saudi Arabia is one of the most barbaric countries in the world, with beheadings, amputations and the enslavement of women, while, at the same time, exporting its medieval version of Islam to neighbouring countries such as Syria, Sudan and Yemen.”

He added, “Can the Minister give me a good reason why the West—principally the United States and ourselves—supplies some £7 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia each year? I might add that boosting our trade by exporting the means of mass killings is not a good reason.”

In response Baroness Anelay reassured peers Britain complies with international humanitarian law and that she herself understood the sense of outrage felt by Lord Singh and others about the suffering of people in Yemen. She said, “I undertake that the UK will continue to press as strongly as we are able in the diplomatic sphere to achieve a peaceful resolution but, in the meantime, continue the aid that we provide there.”

Action Against Hate

Earlier this week, Lord Singh the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, held the government to account following publication of their four-year hate crime action plan – Action Against Hate. The forty-page document contains not one example of hate crime affecting non-Abrahamic faiths, nor commitment to a single government funded project to deal with the problem. This is in stark contrast to the focus in the report on Abrahamic faiths, along with a firm commitment to implement taxpayer funded projects designed to combat hate crime faced by these communities, particularly Muslims and Jews.

Lord Singh asked Her Majesty’s Government: “Why their report Action Against Hate: The UK Government’s plan for tackling hate crime, published in July 2016, does not report on the incidence of hate crimes against non-Abrahamic faith communities.”

Disappointed with the Minister’s initial response, Lord Singh went on:

“My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response but it does not address my concerns over the narrow and biased thinking in a report that details 45 examples of hate crime against Abrahamic faiths but not a single example of the many, well-documented mistaken-identity hate crimes suffered by Sikhs and others—and this in a report emanating from a department with specifically designated officers to consider hate crime against the Jewish and Muslim communities but not anyone else.

He added, “Would the Minister agree that that omission is more due to ignorance than deliberate discrimination? Would she further agree that those who preach the need for religious literacy should first themselves acquire some basic religious literacy, and apologise to those they have offended in such a way?”

Minister of State, Baroness Williams of Trafford made some vague references to “common issues across the strands of hate crime”, and without specific examples said “we also accept that there are issues which affect communities specifically.”

On the question of religious literacy she said, “We have talked about this in the past. People such as the media have a role to play in improving their religious literacy.”

The NSO has been raising the inequalities in the government’s approach to hate crime for some time. Lord Singh has highlighted the wider affects of ‘Islamophobia’ on a number of separate occasions, and earlier this year the NSO released FOI figures obtained from the MET, which revealed that 28% of victims of ‘Islamophobic hate crimes’ recorded by the MET in 2015, were in fact non-Muslim or people of no recorded faith.

The Minister has agreed to meet with Lord Singh to further discuss community concerns.


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