The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that male Sikh students cannot wear the turban in school. This prohibition is part of a more fundamental prohibition against the display of religious symbols in public places. Although it is primarily directed against the female Muslim head covering, it has drawn up in its purview Jewish skull-caps and Christian crosses. The French practice is rooted in a thorough-going secularism:
Schools are intended, rightly or wrongly, to educate pupils to become responsible citizens through access to the same knowledge. There is no question of any outside influence by parents, community, groups, political or religious organizations. Religion is considered a very private matter and proselytism is absolutely forbidden in the institutions of the French republic. (Comparative Education Reader , p. 132)
In response, the Sikhs insist that the turban, which covers uncut hair, is an essential symbol of Sikhism, a symbol of “respect”. From a history-of-religions perspective, this is not exactly true. Some background:
Sikhism’s founding teacher (Nanak, later called Guru Nanak, d. 1549) wanted to transcend the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims. (The Mughul empire, traditionally dated from 1526, had by this time begun conquering northern India.) He reinterpreted devotional Hinduism, which attempted to guide the devotee into a mystical union with the divine principle of the universe, in monotheistic terms inspired by Islam. He especially rejected the caste system of Hinduism, and its central symbol, the sacred thread (worn by “twice-born” males, when they came of age). He taught that through prayer, and the repetition of God’s name, one can be mystically united with God. (He maintained the Hindu concept of reincarnation, and the goal of bringing an end to rebirth through divine unity.)
Fifty years after Nanak’s death, Sikhism came under persecution from the Mughal rulers for their denial that Islam had the true God. This mystical ex-Hindu sect was then transformed into a military order to defend themselves against this threat. This order was called the Khalsa; it had five symbols:
- kes: uncut hair or beard
- kangha: comb
- kara: steel braclet
- kirpan: sword
- kacch: short pants
In short then, the turban, and the uncut hair it covers, is a vestige of the peculiar badges of a militaristic elite who protected the Sikh community in a time of mortal threat to its identity and survival. A secularist might suggest: let go of this vestige. It is a symbol that has long past served its purpose. Indeed, secular society does not want people running around with a long-ago symbol of violent defense of religious particularity.
But such a secularist does not understand the crucial nature of “religion.” (I put that in quotation marks since I am well aware that the concept is itself a construct of the scholars who would interpret the phenomena.)
All “religion”—the spiritual, moral, and cultural practices of a community—is particular. Religion is culture, it cultures—shapes, develops, nurtures—the person in his community. It is shaped by specific events that gain their moral power as they draw a person into the community, which in turn continually interprets and indeed re-interprets the symbols.
To say that uncut hair expresses “respect” may sound like a weak excuse to a non-Sikh, but for the Sikh it is so within his community, as it lives out its moral and spiritual convictions. Without knowing the Sikh culture in detail, I suspect that “respect” really means: I respect the laws, the requirements, of the community that has given me that has given me birth, that has made me who I am. Sikhs (and Muslims, Christians, and Jews) are right to resist the secularist efforts to separate the person from the specific transformations that can only take place within “religious” (ethnic, social, moral, spiritual, “existential”) particularity.