Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Religious Freedoms and the Kirpan

Recently, four Sikhs were not allowed entrance into the Quebec parliament over their refusal to relinquish ceremonial daggers that their religion obligates them to carry. The kirpan,  to quote a helpful wikipedia entry:

[R]ange in blade size from 3 inches (7.6 cm) to over 3 feet (90 cm), though Sikhs in the West wear kirpans with a blade of about 3.5 inches (9 cm). Most Sikhs wear the kirpan concealed under their clothes. To the Sikhs, it is a highly important religious symbol; it is rarely used as a weapon.

Naturally one wonders about the dangers to public safety posed by individuals carrying a concealed blade. I’m certainly uncomfortable with it. In at least one case the kirpan was used as a weapon. One Sikh questions whether or not a knife-sized kirpan should be carried in schools. He notes:

The practicality of baptised Sikhs carrying kirpans is not a new issue. That is why small, symbolic kirpans are attached to combs that Sikhs keep in their hair. Similarly, small kirpan-shaped pendants are worn around the neck, again fulfilling the criterion of the faith that the dagger be ever-present.

Ok, so let me get this straight: it’s possible for a Sikh to fulfill their religious obligations without contravening laws regarding the carrying of weapons or otherwise having something that could be used to stab or cut someone. Then is it still an unjustified infringement upon freedom of religion to therefore ban the carrying of the properly knife-like version, or at least restrict it to places that are not parliament or a school?

Many still say ‘yes’. The Supreme Court of Canada, for one. One friend told me in a discussion on this subject that I was locked within a particular normative discourse wherein I fixated on the weapon-like aspects of a knife, and that I failed to take into account that Sikhs themselves do not see anything weapon-like about the kirpan. While statement is empirically untrue in at least two cases (the stabbing and the editorial by a Sikh who does see it as a weapon), it is certainly true that it is very hard to find many examples of the kirpan being used in an assault. An evaluation of the balance of harms might conclude that any form of injuction on carrying the kirpan is more harmful as an attack on civil liberties than it is helpful to public safety.

There is another reason why I don’t think that a kirpan with any ‘knife’ potential should be carried, and that is based on the notion that laws should be applied consistently and universally in a liberal democracy. Let’s return to my view of what religion is, which I discussed in an earlier post on this blog. The short version is that I think religion is both a belief system (a set of principles and arguments therefrom) and a culture (a body of symbols, rituals, traditions, and narratives that form an important part of one’s identity). If we accept this understanding of religion, I think we should consider these two hypothetical analogies to the carrying of the kirpan:

1. Cultural Practices

I come from a tribal culture, where honour is a matter of enormous social and economic value; it is a matter of survival. Every man in my culture must be capable of defending himself and his family, and therefore must have a weapon. As an immigrant to Canada, I understand that I cannot carry my usual weapon. However, given the vital symbolic importance of weapon-carrying to my personal identity, I want to carry a 4-inch long dagger as a compromise, concealed beneath my clothing. I promise I won’t ever draw it. Will you allow this?

2. Belief Systems

I am a libertarian, and my beliefs dictate to me that the role of government should be minimal. Governments should provide me and the rest of society with physical security, and protect my property, and otherwise not infringe on my economic and social freedoms. The government is a tool of the people in this regard, and if it ceases to serve the public interest, it should be overthrown. To symbolise the right of the public to topple an illegitimate government, I think that members of the public should be allowed to carry weapons. While I recognise that this is not the United States and so my rights in this regard are limited, I am willing to relinquish my preferred weapon in favour of a small switchblade that I should be allowed to keep in my pocket no matter where I go. Will you allow this?

I think the answer to both hypothetical cases should be ‘no’. And I suspect that many of the people who think that Sikhs should be allowed to carry the kirpan would also answer ‘no’ to these cases.

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One response to “Religious Freedoms and the Kirpan

  1. Callum J Hackett January 20, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Interesting post.

    I think the whole notion of what forms of a knife (real or ornamental) are acceptable within the tradition, and especially the accusation that we are too fixated on the ‘weapon-like aspects of a knife’, is frankly watery bullshit that exploits the ambiguous nature of interpretation, as well as the respect unfairly demanded by religious belief. A knife doesn’t have to be in the hands of a psycho for it to be dangerous to carry around.

    More compelling is your statement that “laws should be applied consistently and universally in a liberal democracy.” That’s certainly one of the most important foundations of a successful democratic nation, and concessions clearly shouldn’t be made for select communities based on deference to tradition or personal belief without evidence.

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