Sikhs should be allowed to carry ceremonial knives in schools and other public places, says Britain's first Asian judge. But can religion ever justify loopholes in the law, asks philosopher Rebecca Roache.
The idea of children being allowed to carry knives while at school sounds like a red rag to a bull. But that is what Sir Mota Singh QC, Britain's first Asian judge, who is now retired, says should be allowed. Not any old knife - but the ceremonial dagger known as the Kirpan.
The Kirpan is one of five "articles of faith" which also include Kesh (unshorn hair) and Kara (steel bangle) that are worn by practising Sikhs.
Given the UK's well-publicised problem with knife crime, his suggestion is controversial. It raises the question of how far society should "bend the rules" to accommodate people who wish to practise a religion.
CARRYING KIRPANS IN THE UK
Worn by fewer than 10% of Sikhs in UK, according to Dabinderjit Singh, adviser to Sikh Federation UK
Banned by many schools in the UK, and have been confiscated in public places
Yet Criminal Justice Act 1988, which bans blade carrying, has exemption for religion
Toleration, equality, and respect for others are important values in Britain today. Indeed, it seems unlikely that any multicultural society could be harmonious without them. Even so, the balance between them can be easily upset. Respecting the views of one group in society by allowing them special privileges can seem like favouritism, and this can foster resentment and undermine toleration.
So, how much freedom should people have to live the way they want to live?
The political philosopher John Rawls believed that everyone should have the maximum amount of freedom compatible with everyone else having the same amount. In other words, we should be free to act as we please, provided that our doing so does not restrict the freedom of others.
This principle - with its commitment to both equality and liberty - underpins much UK legislation. For example, car owners living in built-up residential areas often face restrictions on how many cars they can park on the street, since there is not enough space to allow unlimited parking for everyone.
Religion v football
Another influential view is that of John Stuart Mill, who argued that, in disagreements about whether or not a certain activity should be permitted, the burden of proof rests with those who favour restricting the activity.
In liberalised societies like the UK, activities are generally restricted only with good reason, usually because they pose a significant risk of harm to others.
So, for example, driving while drunk is illegal because of the increased risk of injuring someone. On the other hand, restrictions on activities that do not pose a risk of harm to others - such as restrictions on sexual activity between consenting adults - tend to be controversial.
Applying Rawls's principle to the case of Kirpan-carrying, it turns out that if Sikhs are to be permitted to carry them, then everyone else should be permitted carry knives too. However, to relax the restrictions on carrying knives in this way would raise the risk of knife injury for everyone.
This risk of harm to others justifies restricting Kirpan-carrying by Sikhs and everyone else, in much the same way that many other potentially harmful activities are restricted.
So, it seems sensible not to allow anyone and everyone to carry a knife.
Is religion special?
Currently, however, there is an exemption - under the Criminal Justice Act 1989, people are allowed to carry blades for religious reasons.
But, is it right that they should be exempt?
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To answer this, we must consider whether a person's religion justifies their being allowed to behave in a way that others are not allowed to behave. What is special about religion?
Well, a plausible answer is that practising a religion is central to the well-being of many people and communities - therefore, we should not curtail the freedom to practice religion without good reason.
However, this could be unconvincing as a justification for allowing Sikhs to carry Kirpans. Many non-religious activities are also central to the well-being of many people and communities, and yet such activities are frequently and uncontroversially restricted.
For example, playing musical instruments is centrally important to the lives of many people, yet we do not allow people to play their instruments loudly in residential areas in the middle of the night. And playing football is important to many people, yet football games are not permitted on busy roads, in shopping centres, on other people's property without their consent, and so on.
The reason these activities are restricted brings us back to considerations of harm: unrestricted freedom for musicians and footballers to practise their chosen activities would cause harm to others.
Of course, religious people may argue that religion plays a far more important role in their lives than music or football play in the lives of those who enjoy these activities, and that as a result, special efforts should be made to accommodate religious practices.
However, not only is this claim difficult to verify, but giving religious people privileges denied to non-religious people goes against the commitments to equality and respect for others, both of which are important values in Britain today. Practicing religion, then, should be subject to the same standards as non-religious activities.
That is, those who wish to practise religion should be free to do so, but they should not be permitted to engage in activities that pose significant risk of harm to others. Relaxing the restrictions on carrying knives would pose such a risk of harm by increasing the risk of knife injuries. As a result, it seems reasonable to restrict the carrying of Kirpans.
On the other hand, the Millian view that activities should not be restricted without good reason calls into question current restrictions on all sorts of other practices, religious and otherwise. It is not clear, for example, that planned French restrictions on Muslims wearing full veils can be justified; nor is it clear that Rastafarians (and others) should be prevented from smoking cannabis. Cannabis is a holy herb of Rastafari religious ritual, yet in Britain it is illegal.
On this view, even many apparently innocuous restrictions - such as the restriction that many workers and schoolchildren should wear uniforms - may turn out to be unjustifiable. It is not always obvious whether or not an activity is potentially harmful, and so deciding which activities should be restricted is not always a simple matter.
For example, whilst the French government sees burqa-wearing as undermining the freedom of women, this view is controversial and many disagree that it justifies restricting the freedom of people to dress as they please
However, in cases where it is clear that an activity is potentially significantly harmful - and Kirpan-carrying seems to be just such a case - failing to restrict it is difficult to justify.
Rebecca Roache is a philosopher at the Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford.
Below is a selection of your comments.
My view is exactly that, it is about equality. No-one is allowed to carry blades and this should not be exempt for religious reasons. For an Asian judge to say it should be "OK" to carry these in schools especially! He obviously needs a refresher course in British Law and maybe a dose of common sense. Daggers in schools and public places? Sorry, but Mr Singh, you are a fool.
James Morrissey, London, UK
Could your "philospher" tell us how many baptised Sikhs have been convicted of using their knives?
Your argument is too detached from fact. Please study Sikhism more to understand why Sikhs wear a Kirpan and why it is impossible to be a practicing and baptised "orthodox" Sikh and not wear the 5 K's. It is NOT an optional cultural practice.
H Chohan, Coventry
Being a Scot and wearing Highland dress, the S-Dhu we wear in our right hose (sock) now has to be made of PLASTIC in lieu of the normal metal. So make a law they do the same.
Peter Ward, Brunssum, Holland
I had a Sikh friend at school who used to carry a pewter Kirpan about 2" long worn as a tie pin badge. The dagger is meant to be a SYMBOL of faith and doesn't have to be a functional weapon. Skien Dubhs worn at weddings often have the blade welded to the sheath so although it looks like a knife its not functional. A little compromise and a little common sense is all that's needed here.
Why is it that no Sikh has been asked WHY they carry the Kirpan? Being a Maths teacher who wears a Kirpan to school I would be interested to see how many people have been harmed with the Kirpan over the last few decades. I'm guessing the number is 0, as if they had you would have been quick to highlight it. On the contrary recently a Sikh was stabbed to death whilst protecting an English lady from being mugged. This is just one example I am sure there are hundreds more but Sikhs just don't like taking the credit as they believe all is the grace of god. The Kirpan is a gift of freedom and righteousness from our 10th Guru. It is a reminder to stand up for the oppressed and not shy away from protecting others. Furthermore I would like to add that the future of humanity without the ability to stand up for righteousness and for the betterment of others is a very dark and unsafe future.
Kam Singh, Birmingham
To me religion is a complete nonsense, therefore any changes in the laws allowing religious practices that would otherwise be restricted by the laws of the country should not be allowed. I agree that people should be allowed to worship or adhere to whatever religious beliefs they wish, but only within the constraints of the current laws. If the laws are changed to accommodate the beliefs then they are changed for everyone.
Justin Bolger, Edinburgh, Scotland
People can have the freedom to express their religions, where those practices are acceptable. carrying knives here is NOT.
A knife is a knife is a knife and circumstances will determine whether or not it is used as a weapon to injure or kill. The fact that some people have a cultural attachment to a knife as the Scots do with the Scian Dhu does not alter it potential as a weapon.
Patrick Kenehan, England
Whilst I agree that everyone has the right to practice whatever religion they choose within their own home and own places of worship, restrictions are currently not equal and this causes disputes. As a Catholic working in the pulic sector, I can't wear a Cross round my neck that is visible in case it offends people. Surely if I am not allowed to wear this symbol of my faith, why should Sikhs, or any other religious groups, be given this freedom denied to me? If no one is allowed to show symbols of their religion then Sikhs shouldn't wear the dagger. If they are allowed to, then I should be allowed to wear my Cross in full view at all times. It must be one law for all. That is true equality.
Phil, Romford, UK
I studied Philosophy at Oxford and also happen to be kirpan carrying baptised Sikh. Philosophers often seem too abstracted from reality and sometimes wisdom as well. Often those who are wise look at the complete story and apply their experience. "You judge a tree by its fruit" is a saying that can be applied here. Sikhs have proven themselves to be worthy of wearing kirpans. The Sikhs gave more than their fair share of sacrifice in two world wars. They were loyal and trusted policemen in the British Raj. Justice Mota Singh QC is a perfect example of some who carries a Kirpan and yet is not a threat. To compare a teetotal kirpan carrying Sikh, who carries five centuries of history of equality, service, humbleness and protection of the poor and hungry, with someone playing loud music is ridiculous. It lacks wisdom, though it makes for interesting points in a Oxbridge tutorial. Aristotle wished for a world where the Philosopher was King, but the qualities of such a worldly philosopher included being Truth Loving and to look beyond theory. A true philosopher was only made by having their character moulded by truthful actions. Wise people would put this as "Actions speak louder than words".
J S, London, UK