As a boy in a tur­ban I got sick of ge­nie jokes

Sunday Herald - - 19.03.17 WEEK IN PERSPECTIVE - Hardeep Singh Kohli Hardeep Singh Kohli is a Scot­tish writer and broad­caster. Fol­low his an­tics @mis­terhsk

IGREW up in a city rav­aged by reli­gion, scarred by s ect ar i anism. Cleaved by Chris­tian­ity, some Protes­tants and Catholics still de­fine them­selves by dif­fer­ence. It’s about the only thing that con­tin­ues to hold my beloved Glas­gow back from be­com­ing a truly great city. In this city I have seen the very best and the very worst of what comes with reli­gion.

As a school­boy, barely a teenager, wear­ing a tur­ban was trial and tribu­la­tion. The week was mea­sured against the num­ber of times some­one had tried to part me from my tur­ban in the name of hi­jinks

I was once asked why I would ex­pect things to be any dif­fer­ent; ap­par­ently, by sim­ply be­ing a prac­tis­ing Sikh in the early 1980s, I was inviting this ig­nominy upon my­self. “This is Glas­gow, pal. If I wanted a ge­nie I would have rubbed my lamp …” It was a good line, I have to con­cede. (Fun­nier and yet more ironic still since I played the Ge­nie at Le­ices­ter’s De Mont­fort Hall’s Aladdin a few years back.) My tur­ban might as well have been a tar­get em­bla­zoned across my back. But that was then; to­day, tur­bans have been part of Glas­gow for gen­er­a­tions. From the cor­ner shop to the cat­walk, tur­bans have (fi­nally) be­come passé. They even let some of us on the telly. But there has been a rather wor­ry­ing rul­ing at the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice that might bring hurtling back those days of back­ward think­ing. We all know that the world is strug­gling to come to terms with Is­lamist ex­trem­ists and a tiny but vo­cal, head­line-grab­bing mi­nor­ity within Is­lam are strug­gling to come to terms with the world. Now, a ground­break­ing de­ci­sion on the

is­sue of women wear­ing Is­lamic head­scarves in the work­place has been made by the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice in Lux­em­bourg. It has ruled that gar­ments such as the hi­jab could be banned, but only if the ban ap­plied to all re­li­gious, philo­soph­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal sym­bols. The court ruled it was legally ac­cept­able for a com­pany to project a non-re­li­gious, non-po­lit­i­cal im­age of it­self and ergo could gen­er­ate in­ter­nal cor­po­rate dik­tats to that ef­fect.

Does that mean you can’t wear a CND badge to the of­fice away day? What if I take Marx’s Com­mu­nist man­i­festo as light lunchtime read­ing? And, if you de­cide that your com­pany wants noth­ing to do with reli­gion are you al­lowed to throw a Christ­mas party? Or does it be­come a Win­ter­val cel­e­bra­tion, com­plete with ve­gan food and an acous­tic sound­track?

I am com­pelled to say, with half an eye over the pond, that this is a Mus­lim ban. Plain and sim­ple. Mean­while, men like me, along with yarmulke-wear­ing Jews and cru­ci­fix-car­ry­ing Chris­tians, have pretty much moved around the world with min­i­mum reliance on Euro­pean Court rul­ings. Both the cases the court con­sid­ered in­volved Mus­lim women.

I sel­dom wade in to mat­ters of reli­gion. I know bet­ter. My own po­si­tion is rather con­tra­dic­tory. In gen­eral, I be­lieve all re­li­gions have a di­chotomy be­tween the the­o­log­i­cal and the cul­tural. I love the cul­ture, the phi­los­o­phy of Sikhism.

The­ol­ogy and mat­ters of be­liev­ing in a higher power I find more chal­leng­ing. I don’t think reli­gion has a role at work. I firmly be­lieve re­li­gious prac­tice is a pri­vate mat­ter for home and the gur­d­wara/masjid/syn­a­gogue.

But the im­pli­ca­tions of this rul­ing are seis­mic and Europe’s far right are ju­bi­lant. What if a com­pany I free­lance for de­cides they don’t want to project a re­li­gious im­age? Do I get to host their awards cer­e­mony? Are we go­ing to see heated de­bates about the dif­fer­ence be­tween a cross and a cru­ci­fix?

The truth is this. Sym­bols are just that. Sym­bols. They are not per se the reli­gion. Head­scarves are worn by many faith fol­low­ers; tur­bans are by no means unique to Sikhs; and since Madonna in the 1980s, cru­ci­fixes and crosses have be­come fashion items. Cer­tain Jews and Mus­lims have dis­tinct fa­cial hair – is that an out­ward show of reli­gion?

Wouldn’t we all be bet­ter try­ing to engage with dif­fer­ence and learn about each other rather than this pyrrhic vic­tory for the sec­u­lar?

Some years back af­ter an Old Firm game, a poor, un­for­tu­nate young man was stabbed and killed by a foot­ball fan. He was wear­ing a scarf in the ri­val team’s colour. Sym­bols, beards, colours: if only the courts could leg­is­late for com­mon sense.

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