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As many will know we have strenuously opposed the Sikh Federation UK’s (SFUK) ill conceived campaign to classify ‘Sikh’ as an ethnicity for many years.

In recent months this increasingly divisive debate has become the subject of significant mainstream media coverage, including an article in the Times last month. The  article ‘Sikhs may get ethnicity status’ instigated another flurry of debate and conversation for and against.

Meanwhile during this period, some exchanges on social media turned rather unpleasant, troubling and on occasion personal. Our Director responded to the Times article with a letter (below).

 

To help provide a summary of arguments against we refer to the following Q&A and a short summary below. We have spoken to many Sikhs who are undecided whether the SFUK campaign is a good idea or not, and this is largely based on not understanding the issues at hand. Some elements are admittedly complex. We hope the explanation below which has been shared with key stakeholders and decision makers, provides absolute clarity for those grappling with this important issue. In short Sikhism is a great world faith open to all, it is not an ethnic group.

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(Above: Afghan Sikhs carrying a coffin of one of the victims of the Jalalabad suicide bombing)

Following the deadly suicide bombing in Jalalabad targeting Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu minority the NSO has flagged its concerns with the government and taken steps to raise the issue with the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB).

You only have to look at the declining numbers of minorities to realise the gravity of persecution they face in Muslim majority Afghanistan. Prior to the collapse of Kabul government in 1992, there were 220,000 Sikhs and Hindus in the country, and today only 220 or so families remain. Sikhs and Hindus need police protection to cremate their dead as it is deemed offensive to Muslims, they are forced to pay the jizya or ‘tax of humiliation’, and are fearful their women and daughters will be kidnapped and converted to Islam.

Afghan Sikhs we’ve spoken to in London have told us it is now time for Sikhs to leave Afghanistan and seek sanctuary elsewhere. The victims of the Jalalabad attack included Awtar Singh Khalsa who had planned to stand for parliament in elections this October.

In light of this most recent atrocity, our Director Lord Singh has asked the government 1. What discussions they intend to have with the Afghan authorities to safeguard the security and right to freedom of belief 2. What representations they intend to make to the government of India to encourage them to grant asylum to victims and families 3. Whether Britain intends to offer asylum to the families of those who were killed. We will be sharing the response received from Ministers.

We’ve also contacted the APPG for FoRB to ask them to follow up on this issue and include the persecution of Afghanistan’s minority faiths on the agenda for their next meeting.

News of the Jalalabad attack comes in the wake of a case highlighted by Justice Upheld involving a Pakistani Sikh forced to go on the run having received a fatwa (to kill him) by the Taliban. His only crime in the eyes of Islamists – the setting up of a Sikh school in Peshawar.

(Above: graph from Dr Pannu’s paper showing mortality relates related to alcohol abuse amongst different groups)

Dr Gurprit Singh Pannu’s editorial on the consumption of alcohol amongst different groups has over the years highlighted a troubling trend for Indians, and in particular Punjabis among them. It is well known that the Scottish and Irish have higher rates of alcohol consumption compared to England and Wales. However a recent paper shared by Dr Pannu on social media indicates Indians, (of which Punjabis are the most significant proportion) have a 60% higher mortality rate from alcohol use when compared to the average in England and Wales. This startling statistic is supported by evidence that indicates higher hospital admissions rates, (including psychiatric ones) than the general public. We all have a responsibility to reduce these admissions and deaths within our community.

To be clear Dr Pannu isn’t talking about the majority of Punjabis who drink socially, but a minority who end up on a slippery slope, which eventually leads to higher mortality rates, and associated social problems. Criminality, domestic violence, workplace problems and social disorder are just some of the consequences pointed to in the paper. Just on domestic violence, according to Dr Pannu’s paper a third of all cases nationally are linked to alcohol abuse, with over one million children affected by their families problematic circumstances.

Although the consumption of alcohol is strictly prohibited in Sikhism, the Punjabi contingent highlighted by Dr Pannu of course includes those of Sikh heritage, who are culturally predisposed to drinking. This admittedly could be either Punjabi culture or British pub drinking culture, given these statistics would incorporate British born Punjabis as well as those born in India. It is interesting to note that those of Pakistani heritage, presumably because of stricter adherence to alcohol prohibitions in Islam, have significantly lower alcohol related death rates than Indians. It is a matter of huge embarrassment that non-Sikhs who attend Sikh weddings often marvel at the free flowing bottles of spirits and alcoholic beverages available at receptions, walking away with the wrong impression Sikhs are permitted to drink.

The NSO has supported Dr Pannu’s positive work over the years, and to this end we will be organising a series of workshops with experts to discuss the issue of alcohol abuse among Punjabis. We acknowledge there is a lot of good work out there already, however one of our aims will be to signpost families to access appropriate medical services and local support network’s essential for the process of rehabilitation from alcohol abuse. This knowledge must be readily accessible to all, and we look forward in working with Dr Pannu and allied healthcare professionals to address a social ill we cannot afford to ignore.

Dr Pannu said, ‘Alcohol misuse in Punjabi men is driving a large excess of admissions to general and psychiatric hospitals with 60% higher death rates than the rest of population in England. There is also evidence that Punjabis are more susceptible to organ damage caused by alcohol.’

He went on, ‘These people represent just the tip of the iceberg, with community studies showing high rates of liver damage in apparently well people. Also the associated social problems are often hidden from view. The solutions include prevention. How can we as Punjabis reduce our overall drinking to amounts similar to the general population? This is the key to stopping unnecessary pain and suffering in Punjabi families.’

The NSO’s Director Lord Singh said, ‘I am delighted to support this important initiative. Dr Pannu gave a thought-provoking presentation to a meeting of the NSO a few years back in which he highlighted the serious and disproportionate problem of alcohol abuse in the Punjabi community and we have continued to act on his advice and guidance. Despite clear warnings in Sikh teachings against the use of intoxicants, alcohol abuse is sadly all too evident among some in the Sikh community, leading to serious health effects, domestic violence and family breakdown. Many Sikhs in prisons are there for alcohol related crimes.’

He added, ‘Guru Nanak reminded us that the consumption of alcohol dims our awareness of our priorities and responsibilities. The proposed workshops recognise a real problem and will help many to get back to the direction of the Guru’s teachings.’

 

Baroness O’Loan during debate on conscientious objection

Our Director Lord Singh has supported a Bill designed to afford necessary protection for careers of medical practitioners who choose to object on grounds of conscientious objection when it comes to matters of life and death such as assisted suicide.

The Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill introduced by Baroness O’Loan had its second reading in the House of Lords last week. According to Baroness O’Loan the Bill ‘seeks to affirm as a matter of statute that nobody shall be under any duty to participate in activities they believe to take a human life. That means either in the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, or in any activity authorised by the 1967 and 1990 Acts (including activity required to prepare for, support or perform them).’ Baroness O’Loan believes such reform would re-establish legal protections for medical conscientious objectors, reaffirming Article 9 rights.

Lord Singh the NSO’s Director who has previously opposed Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bills, in favour of ‘assisted living’ said:

‘My Lords, I support this important Bill. It is a timely recognition of the importance of conscience and ethical belief in looking at the end-of-life decisions, and the increasingly complex issues and personal dilemmas, that many face in their daily lives. Speaking from a Sikh perspective, I fully support the Bill’s sentiments as well as its aims and objectives. Majority opinion can, at times, be unthinking and we need to be wary of being pushed, or pushing others, to support debatable attitudes that at times affront ethical and moral principles.

This year, as has been mentioned, while commemorating the centenary of the end of the carnage of World War I, we should pause and reflect that it was also a war in which conscientious objectors were ​brutally treated—or even shot—for their belief that it is wrong to kill.’

He went on: ‘Something of the same dilemma was faced by Sikh soldiers when the Indian army attacked the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. This attack on the holiest of Sikh shrines, on one of the holiest days in the Sikh calendar, was clearly political. Soldiers were ordered to shoot innocent pilgrims. Not surprisingly, some Sikh soldiers refused and were accused of mutiny. Some were shot, others were cashiered out of the army and some were to spend years in prison. They were accused of treason and disloyalty to their oath of allegiance to the state. True, yet in refusing to shoot non-combatants they were being true to the ethical teachings of their religion. This requirement to be true to our conscience is embedded in Sikh scriptures.

Guru Ram Dass, the fourth Guru of the Sikhs wrote:

“All human powers men make pacts with
Are subject to death and decay
Righteous teaching alone prevails”.’

Lord Singh continued: ‘In the Nuremberg trials at the end of the Second World War, many Germans accused of war crimes against the Jews and others pleaded that they were duty bound to follow orders, however questionable. The court held that the requirements of any state were secondary to the overriding norms of civilised behaviour.

Rapid advances in the field of medicine and today’s increasing tendency to overfocus on the rights of an individual can easily lead us to ignore the rights of wider society, and the ethical dilemmas that sometimes questionable procedures pose for those immediately involved. The downside of what we do is not always immediately apparent. The initial, clearly limited and humane objectives of the Abortion Act 1967 have, over time, been largely ignored. Abortion has become contrary to the original intentions of the Act and the ethical teachings of most religions and beliefs. It has simply become another method of birth control. We must have the right to object and to not take part in what we consider to be the unnecessary taking of human life.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which legalised embryo- destructive forms of research, the rapid expansion in molecular biology and new genetic modification techniques can impinge on deeply held ethical beliefs, and people should not be compelled to do anything that they believe is contrary to respect for life. While conscience clauses were included in the initial legislation, they have been continually eroded by social pressures to conform. Those involved in procedures that impact on sincerely held ethical beliefs must be given the right to opt out.

The need to respect conscience goes beyond the field of medicine. Yesterday, I was invited by the DfE to give a Sikh perspective on relationship teaching in schools. As a Sikh, I am appalled at the undue emphasis on sexual relationships and sexual identity currently being taught in school. Young children are led to question their gender and are unhelpfully offered support to make permanent potential differences, which are generally passing phases in growing up. Parents and teachers should have a right to question or opt out of such teachings.

Today we should heed the words of the great philosopher James Russell Lowell who wrote:​
“We owe allegiance to the State; but deeper, truer, more
To the sympathies that God has set within our spirits core”.
This Bill is timely, well considered and necessary. I give it my full support.’

The full debate can be read here https://nsouk.us12.list-manage.com/track/click?u=0f788213c84a862348b0c4265&id=8882ff4ae1&e=39e8e2ed33.

The Bill will now pass on to a committee stage in the House of Lords.

Last week Conservative peer Lord Naseby asked Her Majesty’s Government what measures were being taken to ‘combat extremist propaganda released through multimedia channels, particularly social media, videos, the internet and other online sources.’ The focus of Lord Naseby’s question was limited to online activity, however the NSO acknowledges the issue is not limited to this alone, but is far more complex.

Pointing to issues beyond the internet and specifically interpretation of religion, NSO Director Lord Singh said, ‘My Lords, does the Minister agree that what generally passes for religion is not only ethical guidance for sane living, but a sometimes oppressive culture and a shared history often bent or moulded to dislike or hate others?’

He went on, ‘It is such material that is used to radicalise people. Does the Minister agree that there should be open debate about these things and that this aspect of religion should not be protected by political correctness if we want a truly healthy society?’

Minister of State Baroness Williams said, ‘Lord Singh, as always, makes insightful points.’ She added, ‘The Prime Minister said the other day that we must be prepared to have difficult conversations and I totally agree.’

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.

The extraordinary contribution of Indian soldiers to the Great War effort was highlighted with launch of the ‘Legacy of Valour’ exhibition in Parliament last week.

The exhibition marked the inordinate contribution of 1.5m Indian soldiers who fought in the many theatres of war during 1914-18. The exhibition launch last Monday was attended by His Excellency Mr. Y.K. Sinha (Indian High Commissioner), Baroness Flather, Lord Singh of Wimbledon and Reading West MP Alok Sharma.

Organiser Inderpal Singh Dhanjal said that the overwhelming reaction of those who attended the opening ceremony was that it was both inspirational and informative. Mr Dhanjal said attendees told him the exhibition “must be shown in other cities to educate and raise awareness of the sacrifices of Sikh and other Indian soldiers in WW1.”

Although the exhibition in Parliament is now closed, Mr Dhanjal informed the NSO he is in negotiations with interested parties and will be organising another viewing in the South East.

 

 

Graphic symbols of different religions on white

[Graphic symbols of different religions]

It matters that people learn about religion. The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) has long stressed the importance for us all to have a basic understanding of all the major faiths, which in turn, motivate the behavior and attitudes of significant numbers of people in Britain. In understanding the role of religions in society, we provide ourselves with an informed platform to better engage with others.

Last week our Director Lord Singh asked the government, “What steps they are taking to combat religious extremism and to promote a cohesive society by enhancing religious literacy at all levels of government.”

Minister of State, Baroness Williams of Trafford responded by informing peers the government is countering extremism through Prevent. She said, “We are working closely with faith groups to understand the impact of policies and to improve religious literacy in government. The Home Secretary and the Communities Secretary hosted a round table for representatives of all faiths last November.”

Unsatisfied with the Minister’s response, Lord Singh added: “The Government paper on the hate crime action plan contained no mention of non-Abrahamic faiths. That suggests something about the religious literacy there. Does the Minister agree that democracy implies being attentive to the legitimate concerns of all sections of the community, not those of a single religious or other majority?”

He went on: “Does she further agree that teachings and practices that go against human rights must be robustly challenged, but that we need to know something about what we are challenging before we can do that? Programmes like Prevent cannot be effective without such knowledge. One final point is that I have put the basics of Sikh teachings on one side of A4 at the request of the DFE, and that can be done for other faiths as well. Should that not be essential for religious literacy in government departments?”

The Minister responded thus: “He said that the hate crime action plan did not specifically refer to non-Abrahamic faiths, but the tenets of the action plan cover points on hatred on the basis of religious belief, disability, sexuality and so on. It is therefore implicit within it that, for example, Sikh communities are included.”

She added: “As for the understanding of religious literacy within both government and wider society, both the Home Office and DCLG engage widely and often with faith communities. Shortly after the referendum, I myself met people from different faiths, including Sikhs, in Manchester to discuss religious literacy, the outcome of the referendum and the corresponding hate crime attached to it.”

It is encouraging to hear the Minister often engages with faith communities. However her response didn’t acknowledge the government’s failure in including faiths outside the Abrahamic traditions in Action Against Hate – the government’s four-year hate crime plan. The NSO believes that improving religious literacy in government circles can only enhance policy development, and prevent any future exclusion of minority faiths that aren’t as vocal in their approach to lobbying.

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.

Yesterday, a Department of Health taskforce published a report recommending sweeping changes in the funding and operation of mental health provision for children and adolescents. The report follows a series of Times articles on a growing epidemic of mental health problems in children and adolescents resulting in a huge rise in children resorting to self-harm and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression in schools.

Many are seeking treatment for mental health problems in hospitals, or worse ending up in prisons. In one of these articles, the columnist Libby Purves highlights the urgent need for parents, to re-set their priorities and recognise the ground realities of pressures on their children.

Her comments reminded me of a story of Guru Nanak meeting with a group of people in a mountain retreat searching for an understanding of God. They greeted the Guru with the words ‘ how goes the world below’ the Guru was not impressed and told the group that God was not to be found in the wilderness but in the service of family and wider society.

Today there’s not much wilderness left for retreat – selfish or otherwise – but it is all too easy to spend all our time on personal pursuits or lose, ourselves in the virtual wilderness of the internet to the neglect of those around. Worse, in the absence of comfort and support from parents, children may look to friendship, love and support on internet chat lines oblivious to the dangers of grooming, blackmail and the hurt that can be caused by on-line bullying.

While yesterday’s promise of enhanced provision will help, Sikh teachings and those of sister faiths suggest that the real remedy lies in the home.

Reflecting on parental responsibility, Guru Nanak reminded us that the birth of a child comes with an attached responsibility for the child’s care and comfort that continues even if parents split. It is the family rather than on the internet that children should share both triumphs and concerns and receive time consuming but necessary encouragement and support. Today, obsession with personal fulfilment has replaced a search for God. Our different faiths remind us that both personal fulfilment and God can be found in looking beyond ourselves to the care and support of those around us.

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