Friday, September 26, 2008

Kirpans Again

I was never completely comfortable with the whole kirpan thing, especially in schools.

The issue has come up again as a Sikh boy has been accused of threatening his classmates with his kirpan. Instinctively, the charge would appear to be untrue. Although two of the boys are saying that the Sikh boy drew the knife, it sounds from various reports that the other witnesses saw no such thing.

If it were true, it's an easy decision. He has clearly violated the "but it's only ceremonial" exception to the No Knives Rule, and therefore he may no longer have his dagger at school.

But why should a student be allowed to carry a knife in the first place? Yes, it's ceremonial. Yes, it's a sign of his loyalty to his religion. So what? It's still a knife.

I'm personally rather conflicted. As an atheist, I very strongly believe two things:
1) every person must be free to believe or disbelieve, practice or not practice, any religion.
2) the way to get people free of the oppressing yoke of religion is not by suppressing their religion but by letting them practice it and setting a better example before them.

On the other hand, I also have a very strong belief that we shouldn't let anyone's religion trump the very sensible laws that we have on books. That's why it's legal to gather sticks on Sundays, cook food on Friday nights, be a homosexual without being stoned to death and wear clothing of two fibres mixed together.

If a Christian or a Jew came in to my high school and demanded the right to kill the school's only openly gay student, we would say "no", Leviticus 20:13 notwithstanding. The religious freedom of the Christian or Jew would be trumped by the right of the gay student to be free of their respective religions.

But if a Jewish student wanted to wear a yarmulke, or a Sikh student to wear a turban - despite a "no hats" policy at the school - the school would permit it as it doesn't really harm or infringe on other students. What this really does is allow any student to wear any head covering of any religion. After all, who is to say a specific student is really a Sikh or not? Religion being personal, you can't touch it.

But a knife? Even a ceremonial knife? Yes, all sorts of restrictions were placed on the handling of the knife. It must be firmly fastened within its container. It must be inside the students clothing (great, a concealed weapon). If the student ever draws the knife, he will lose the privilege.

It still doesn't make sense. It's still a knife. Even if we educate every student in that school about the religious and apparently non-violent nature of the kirpan, it is still the case that this student has permission to carry a knife when no other student does.

After that, it gets worse. It is very easy for every other student in the school to declare himself or herself a Sikh and demand the right to carry a knife in the same manner. There is no possibility, at that point, of stopping it. Just because some local body of Sikh officialdom might state, "No, this other child is not a Sikh and should be allowed a kirpan", is no reason to deny these other children their religious rights. All these children would have to do is claim that the offical Sikh church is oppressing them and we would have to cave in.

Is that what we want? Schools full of children carry ceremonial daggers? I actually used to attend schools. I know that wouldn't last long. Some kid's dagger would not be properly fastened and would show up in a fight somewhere.

We have rules. They have to be followed. Accommodation ought to be made in the name of freedom of religion and simply to make sure that the religious don't feel persecuted as this would cause them to cling more devoutly to their religions. But the line has to be drawn where the religious rules present a danger to other people. Where knives, stoning and other irrational punishments are concerned, our society must say, "No. You have your beliefs and the right to express them, but you may not infringe upon our safety."

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Mike said...

The kirpan is sewn into the clothing, it can't just be pulled out (like a dirk in your sock).

Thus the two witnesses are lying. If they aren't lying, then it wasn't a kirpan, but a regular knife and the witnesses assumed it was a kirpan because he was a Sikh. That the third witness saw no knife makes me think the former not the latter.

And this goes to your fear as well. There is no danger from the kirpan as it is usually inaccessible.

But even if it was, so what? Our safety is only endangered if it is misused. I carried a knife to school every day, through public and high school. I have one in my pocket right now. I was safe and sound at my farm school because a knife was merely a tool that most people a watch.

How about we punish individuals for their actions - if anyone pulls a knife, no matter what kind of knife, in a threatening manner or uses it in a fight, then go after that individual, bar the individual from having a knife.

That way, people who are dangerous won't have them, people who are not won't have their rights - any rights - trampled by unwarranted fear of what could happen (instead of dealing with what does happen).

Otherwise can should also ban rosaries because they can be used to garrote someone.

Think of the reason that is ridiculous and you have your arguement as to why a ban on the kirpan is ridiculous.

Madrigal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Madrigal said...

I feel any outdated customs in a religion that don't contribute towards once spiritual enlightenment must be left out. I was born in a Hindu family and there are numerous customs and traditions associated with it. I have seen my aunts and grandparents follow these traditions. Some of them don't make sense to me. Therefore I choose to follow the ones that will only keep me on the path towards enlightenment. I would like to know how a kirpan will help an individual in gaining enlightenment.

Greg said...

Mike, there doesn't seem to be a religious rule that the kirpan must be sewn in the clothing, or stories like this couldn't happen where girls in India use the kirpans to defend themselves.

I am also quite certain that the two guys who claim to have been assaulted are lying. That's not my issue.

Are you really comfortable with having every child in school carry a knife? We already decided, decades ago, that this was a bad idea. Sure, you didn't draw your knife, but there are lots of people who would - and taking away their knives afterwards is too late.

As for rosaries, I know that they are effectively banned when participating in sports in school as they are hazardous. No religious persecution argument will let you wear a chain around your neck while playing football or soccer. I suspect even the Sikh student removes his kirpan in that case because it becomes a danger to jab himself or others.

We decided long ago that letting kids have knives in school was dangerous. Why should we now change this rule because of someone's religion? We're supposed to be neutral to all religions, not obedient to all religions. If a "symbol" is needed, feel free to sew a kirpan pattern on to a piece of fabric and wear that.

I just don't buy that somebody's religion should trump well thought out, practical rules that are made for everyone's safety.

Greg said...


As an atheist, it's not really my place to tell people (or worry about) what parts of their religion they find enlightening. If your religion gives you some peace, that's great. If you're removing the archaic and silly parts of your religion, I also think that this is wonderful.

But a Sikh dedicated to this part of the religion will say that the kirpan is a symbol which is a reminder to fight oppression, or a symbol of peace and truth. The Sikh will tell you it is mandatory article on his or her path to enlightenment.

The key to me is this: what is it that allows to tell one kid he can wear his turban or yarmulke but tell another kid that he can't go throwing stones at a gay person? After that, which side of this line do kirpans fall on - given that they are knives and we ban knives in schools.

Beijing York said...

I wholly agree with Mike. I'm an atheist but this strikes me as fear mongering and fueled by bigotry if not racism.

Greg said...

Sorry, I don't buy that I'm a racist or a fear monger.

The very last thing I want to do is give religious people an excuse to feel persecuted. That's the reason I go along with the Sikh in the RCMP who wanted to wear a turban. That's why I don't oppose Christians praying before math tests or having prayer circles and what have you.

What I want to know if where we draw the line. If you want to tell me that the kirpan should be allowed, I am listening.

a) acknowledge that it's a knife and explain why religion can be used to allow a student to break the no-knife rule.
b) explain why it's not a knife.

I'm not particularly worried about a particular Sikh kid going on a kirpan rampage. I'm worried that everyone will demand a religious right to carry a weapon in school and I don't think that's a long term good idea.

Beijing York said...

I wasn't implying that you were a fear monger or racist. It just seems that many of these accusations surface under very suspect situations. Lots of people with an axe to grind when it comes to people they view as "immigrants".

Greg said...

Indeed. I'm very comfortable with the idea of multiculturalism. I like walking around downtown Ottawa and seeing every kind of food, every kind of dress. There's great value in absorbing ideas from all over the world.

I don't want to draw a line around my "culture". I want to draw a line where we say to the religious people, "No, you can't break rules just because you think god, Jesus, the book of Leviticus or Guru Gobind Singh told you to."