Sikhs and Western law: A review

Civil Rights in Wartime: The Post 9/11 Sikh Experience
Dawinder S. Sidhu and Neha Singh Gohil
Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.

The story of what happened to Asian traditions in their contact with the West, especially through colonialism and what Edward Said later called Orientalism, and the more recent embedding of Asian communities within Western countries, is still to be fully written and understood. This book, while ostensibly written to shed more light on the Sikh diasporic experience, particularly in the fraught period after 11th September 2001, will unfortunately not contribute to that debate significantly. It is, however, a sharp reminder of how Asian traditions continue to be reconstructed under the gaze of the West, which is now transformed as an interlocutor in a discussion through which Asians ‘explain’ their traditions to a Western audience. Much is lost in the translation process, since Asian scholars do not appear to have understood the West’s Christian intellectual heritage but have adopted, often through indoctrination and lack of reflection, the latter’s religious and nationalist language in which to cast their own traditions.

The writers’ evident concern to address the traumatic period of victimisation in the United States, particularly after the New York and Washington attacks, is understandable and laudable. Sikhs were often attacked, harassed, bullied and discriminated against after those events, being targeted on the basis of stereotypes of what a Muslim and/or terrorist looks like. Furthermore, American society remains largely unfamiliar with Sikh traditions and customs, which therefore leads to many types of discrimination on the basis of ignorance or simply not wanting to make concessions to minority Sikh practices. So the authors’ self-appointed task in Part I of the book, which has an ‘educational purpose’, is to explain who the Sikhs are and what Sikhism is. This is the most disappointing section of the book, and should probably be ignored if one is after a balanced account.

It is here that the writers bring in, in a selective manner, their version of the Sikh tradition. Reading it, one comes away with the ‘knowledge’ that Sikhs are a ‘faith’ and a ‘monotheistic’ one at that, with a ‘strict’ set of rules which Sikhs must follow, ‘laid down’ by the ‘founders’ of Sikhism, the ten Gurus. We also learn that there is only one holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. At some point in the early 20th century, a code (the Rahit Maryada) was formulated by which all Sikhs must abide and which ‘mandates’ the wearing of the turban. We also find that Sikhs have ‘baptismal’ rites. Reading this list of items, one could be forgiven for thinking that Sikhism has been transformed into a positivistic tradition, in which doctrine supersedes ancestral practice, and which apes the Abrahamic religions in general and Christianity in particular. What better reason, then, to protect Sikhism, since it is a tradition which the West can recognise according to pre-determined criteria of what a proper religion looks like? If that were not enough, we find a distinct tone in the account which presents Sikhs as defenders of all that is good and as those who are unjustifiably made victims in their adopted countries.

Several writers have been enlisted to ‘prove’ these various features of the Sikh tradition. While one is thereby provided with substantial extracts from those writers who endorse the above-mentioned Sikhism-as-reconstructed tropes, the process of selection is interesting. Those writers who have taken a more detached and indeed critical position on the purported existence of a Sikh ‘religious nation’, and documented just how Sikhism has been transformed in the last century or more under the influence of colonialism and the requirements of Western epistemology, have been excluded from the account altogether. They notably include W. H. McLeod (1989), Roger Ballard (1993), N. Gerald Barrier (2005), Harjot Oberoi (1995), Tony Ballantyne (2006), and Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair (2009). No reasons are provided for these absences, and readers not familiar with the field of Sikh studies, and of Sikh politicking, will remain none the wiser. The unfortunate result is a stereotyped account of Sikhism.

The remaining sections of the book are still useful and interesting, and provide some insights into the Sikh experience, especially in terms of the recognition of their alterity within Western legal systems. In fact, through their own accounts, and by providing extracts from various sources, the writers document the extent to which Sikhs were both harassed and discriminated against, and the results of legal action against such treatment in the United States (Part II). They do the same with respect to a variety of legal experiences that Sikhs have had in various Western jurisdictions in relation to the turban (Part III).  Of interest to some readers here will be the concise chapters on the treatment of the Sikh turban in France, Britain, Ireland, Canada, the United States and other Western nations. Britain and Canada come out as the most receptive to Sikh turbans. Lastly there is a section on how Sikhs have coped in the aftermath of 9/11 especially by organising and making their voices and concerns heard by various authorities and publics in the United States (Part IV).

Like the debate about Muslim headdress of various types, the focus on the turban seems a very superficial approach considering the extent to which alterity in Western legal systems is being driven underground. A more substantial research project would have therefore included the ways in which all kinds of Sikh practices including marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance fare under the shadow of Western legal systems. Instead, lawyers in particular are largely being misdirected to focus on the more obvious and stereotypical features of alterity, ignoring the accumulation of evidence about other ways in which submission to Western legal orders is being achieved on a daily basis. If Sikh activists and lawyers really want to mount a campaign for recognition by Western legal systems, then they could and should be more ambitious. Spending energy making others believe that Sikhs are Christian-like in all but their necessity to adorn a few religious symbols can even be a distraction from the widespread legalised marginalisation occurring at many levels.

Therefore, while this book has some redeeming features, this review is intended as mild shock treatment for scholars to take more seriously the extent to which Western contact has affected how Asian traditions are viewed, and how Asians have become willing agents in perpetuating self-images perpetrated by their colonisers. Having a long, shared martial history does not inoculate one from ‘colonial consciousness’. I have singled out Sikhism here because of the subject matter of the book under review, but no Asian tradition has remained immune from such mischief. A much more detailed account of how Asian traditions have been constructed by the West and of the challenge of achieving genuinely post-colonial and post-Orientalist accounts is provided by Balagangadhara (1994, 2005).

Prakash Shah

A version of this review was previously published in (2011) Vol. 7, No. 4 International Journal of Law in Context, pp. 509-510.

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This entry was posted in Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair, Canada, Christianity, discrimination, Edward Said, Harjot Oberoi, India, N. Gerald Barrier, Orientalism, Roger Ballard, S.N. Balagangadhara, Sikh, Sikhism, Sikhs, Tony Ballantyne, United States, W.H. McLeod and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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