I GREW up in a city ravaged by religion, scarred by sectarianism. 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.)
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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. They have 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 that 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 cannae 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 don’t even believe we should have religiously segregated schools despite the fact I attended one. I firmly believe that religious practice is a private matter for home and the gurdawara/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? And what about Ash Wednesday? Can you go to work without forehead-cleaning?
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; since Madonna in the 1980s, crucifixes and crosses have become fashion items. And 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.