JAIDEV SINGH RAI’s arguments in his article, “Getting it wrong on the French turban: Defend it as the right of an ethnic community, not as a religious right” (Oped Page, Jan 25) are facile, but fallacious. The facts cited by him are not wrong; their application to this case is, at best, sophistry.
Rai states that Jews, Christians or Muslims wearing their religious symbols are totally committed followers, while turban wearing Sikhs are not always good Sikhs, as seen by the many who indulge in unSikh activities.
This is abysmal reasoning. Is everyone who wears a hijab, yarmulke or cross a perfect Muslim, Jew or Christian? Certainly not! Many Sikhs, too, do not follow their religion very well; in that they are not qualitatively different from people of other faiths. He points to the many Sikhs with turbans that are seen in bars or dance halls etc. But just as many Muslims or Jews are seen there as well. Human failing is no argument for or against any markers of any religion.
Waiting for every Sikh to become a perfect Sikh before we push the argument for public recognition of the turban in French society is suicidal. Most people follow their religions somewhat fitfully; individual failing is not an indictment of a system or a faith. And that is the logical pitfall that has seduced Jaidev Singh Rai.
He points to Harkishen Singh Surjeet or Khushwant Singh, whose commitment to Sikhi is often questioned, and reminds us of the many who have abandoned all markers of their faith. But this is seen in all religions. How does it reduce the import of these symbols for those who choose to value them? We only need to look within the self to see that we have all strayed and fallen sometimes in our lives.
If Sikhism is based on ethnicity, as the writer argues, it, then, cannot be universal, and must remain limited to an ethnocentric existence in Punjab. This means that no non-Punjabi may ever walk its path. (Sikh history tells us how untrue this is.) I know that most religions show some degree of ethnic exclusivity. But those matters are far more complex. Sikhism has never ever argued for ethnic exclusivity, although it is deeply attached to Punjabi culture.
In the new generation of young Sikhs growing up outside Punjab and India, these ties to Punjabi and Indian culture are surely being tested. I am afraid, the writer’s case rests on thin and slippery ice.
Dr I.J. SINGH, Professor of Anatomy, New York University, New York (USA)
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