News Analysis

Monday 1 September 2014

Granting special status doesn't help integration

Published 19/08/2007 | 00:00

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A woman I knew whose father had been a Japanese prisoner of war during the Second World War once told me of a Catholic nun he'd met after the liberation of Singapore.

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The nun had been taken prisoner along with two Sikh men and was confined to a small hut with the two men for several months. Not merely was she not raped or in any other way violated, but the two men violated their own religious code in order to protect her dignity: they unwound their turbans and used them as a curtain to divide the hut. It is a story of extraordinary nobility, and of course also carries the echoes of the horrors of that war in particular, and its dreadful complexities in the far east.

During the week, the President of the Irish Sikh Council, Harpreet Singh said that "asking Sikh community members to get rid of the turban is like asking a Sikh to remove his head." It's a fairly extreme statement, but most of us, however vague and slight our knowledge of the Sikh tradition and culture may be, would have little trouble accepting it. It is the one fact universally known: wearing the turban is a primary and deeply spiritual matter for a Sikh. And spirituality is particularly strong in all eastern traditions.

So a member of Ireland's Sikh community is faced with a problem. He volunteered for the garda reserve, and has trained for membership. He's in his twenties and is an IT professional, obviously an extremely solid citizen, and determined to play his part in Irish life.

Maybe it was even in response to the very specific calls on minority races and communities in Ireland to volunteer for garda service that he decided to apply. But this young man will not be taking up a place in the garda reserve because a decision has been made that there can be no exceptions to the requirements for uniform. He will have to replace his turban with a cap, and he's not prepared to do this. Stalemate.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to say that this is discriminatory against the man himself and indeed against his religion. It has already been pointed out, quite indignantly, that in Britain and the United States, Sikh police officers are allowed to wear their turbans. And of course, as is to be expected, they are allowed to wear them in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, where turbans are to some extent the indigenous headgear of the male population.

Sikh community members here have also pointed out that officers of the Garda's intercultural office had never signalled that turbans would not be permitted to Sikh officers. Is this racism? Well, the Minister of State with responsibility for integration Mr. Conor Lenihan believes it is the exact opposite. And if the issue is examined dispassionately rather than emotionally, he is absolutely right. "If we're to take integration seriously," Mr. Lenihan said during the week, "people who come here must understand our way of doing things. When the President and Ministers travel to the Middle East, they accept cultural requirements of the country and the culture they are operating in. It is a vice versa situation with regard to Ireland."

He's right again; we all remember the notorious photographs taken in Saudi Arabia, with the Minister for Education Ms Hanafin and the Minister for Agriculture Ms Coughlan, their veils (token, but very evident) draped across their shoulders, shoved offensively and obviously to the perimeter of the action, while the men got on with the serious business. In Saudi Arabia, women don't do business, you see. They don't even drive cars. Ms Hanafin and Ms Coughlan, of course, said gamely that they were not discriminated against in any way. Yeah, girls, we know. You've got good manners too, obviously, and didn't think it seemly to let fly at your hosts.

We've also all seen photographs of Queen Elizabeth visiting Muslim countries: her hats are specially designed with token veils. They look ghastly, but Her Majesty has never been interested in fashion, so she is hardly worried. But, and it's a big but, the gesture is an extremely gracious one: not merely is she a Head of State, she is also temporal Head of the Church of England, a religious leader herself, yet prepared to bow to the religious and cultural customs of other traditions when she is in their jurisdiction.

If the uniform requirements of the Garda Reserve were to be waived for a Sikh officer, then they would have to be waived for everyone else who pleaded cultural or religious custom. Male Jewish officers would be allowed to wear the yamulke instead of the cap; female Muslim officers (if their husbands allowed them out) would wear the veil instead of the cap; some might even cover their uniforms with a burqa. Buddhist members (although I'm not sure if their beliefs would allow them to join a force which might be required to use even limited violence against violence) would be able to wear a yellow robe. The possibilities are numerous, and while they might make for a more colourful air around the Phoenix Park and Harcourt Square, it would be the end of uniformity and the discipline it both implies and requires.

Even more to the point, it would further endorse our skewed version of multi-culturalism. The idea of having people of various cultural traditions and ethnic minorities in our defence and garda forces is to ensure integration, not reinforce difference.

It is assumed that members of ethnic and religious minorities would probably be more acceptable to 'their own' than would the indigenous Irish. In fact, it has often been found, particularly in Britain where multi-culturalism has a much longer history than it has here, that they are regarded as traitors to their communities and heritage if they join 'the enemy'. That's called a ghetto mentality.

If we are to treat people of different colour, religion, and cultural background the same way we treat white Roman Catholic Irish people, the way to do that is to respect their difference, as we expect them to respect ours. That does not mean granting them special status, particularly in matters of citizenship. We all have a civic duty. Some of us are more public-spirited than others, and are prepared to take on the unenviable task of keeping law and order.

Young Irish men and women do that in the uniform that is considered most suitable to the conditions in which they will work. Now a young Sikh wants to be part of that force; for the purposes of such membership, he too is a young Irishman, no more, no less.

And while the quietly heroic circumstances I described in the story from the Second World War may be a lot more exceptional and fearsome than patrolling the streets of an Irish town, there have been situations in which Sikh men have bowed to an alien, but far greater good than the sacredness of the turban: the peace of mind and dignity of another human being.

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