AFT Blog # 32: Turban

Turban: The Real Issue Remains Unresolved

David Rand

After much controversy, the Quebec Soccer Federation (QSF) decided recently to rescind its ban on turbans in light of clarification from the international federation FIFA. However, as David Rand argues here, this does nothing to resolve the underlying issue of religious privilege.

The theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg once famously observed that “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.” Let’s call this the “Weinberg Principle.”

Personally I have observed countless times that in order for intelligent people to do or say stupid things, that takes religion. Indeed, there is nothing like religion to turn otherwise intelligent people into blathering idiots, and I am not talking only about believers. I also mean the vast majority, including large numbers of non-believers. I call this the “Extended Weinberg Principle.”

There has been ample opportunity to see the Extended Weinberg Principle in action in the recent controversy about the Quebec Soccer Federation’s ban on turbans. Numerous commentators qualified the QSF’s decision as intolerant, irrational, xenophobic, even racist. The accusation of racism is especially outrageous, as Sikhism – like Islam – is a religion, not a race. So racism is not the issue here.

The outcry has been enormous. And yet to my knowledge no-one, no-one, has even bothered to mention the most essential and central point of this whole sad controversy: the distinction between an article of clothing and the person wearing it. The QSF decision did not exclude Sikhs. It excluded turbans. And a turban – like any article of clothing, or a veil, or a crucifix – can be removed. Yet no-one seems to remember this elementary point, and the reason for this forgetfulness is obvious: the turban in question here is not just any article of clothing, it is a religious object.

The QSF decision banned the turban during a team sport, not the people wearing one. Failure to recognize the distinction amounts to confusing the person with the religious symbol they are wearing. A turban can be removed during a match without having to renounce one’s religion. A Sikh player remains a Sikh when the game is over. In the Punjab, where Sikhism originated, 80% of young Sikhs no longer wear the turban. At the last Olympic Games in China, only Canadian Sikhs wore this religious symbol inherited from a bygone era.

FIFA has since decided that the wearing of a turban is irrelevant to the game of soccer. So be it. It could just as readily have decided the opposite since its regulations allow it to exclude religious messages. In many sports there are uniforms, there are standards of athletic dress, standards which may or may not have anything to do with security. If the Quebec Soccer Federation were to decide that a sequined evening gown is inappropriate dress for a soccer game and should be replaced with shorts during competition, would they be accused of xenophobic prejudice against drag queens?

I may know little about soccer, but I know something about religion. I know that a religious article of clothing is first and foremost a fashion statement, a question of taste. But it is not just any fashion statement: it is the most pretentious and indeed obnoxious one possible. It is a fashion statement which loudly shouts, “I am not just a matter of taste, I am holy and sacred and if you do not respect me absolutely then you are an evil person.” This is the mentality of a spoiled child.

We must not forget that religious fashion deserves no more respect than any other arbitrary choice of dress. Unfortunately, this lesson will be very difficult to learn for those who have heedlessly accepted the exception granted to Sikhs in the RCMP, allowing them to abandon the standard uniform and wear religious headdress instead. This constitutes a religious privilege for persons of the Sikh religion and is clearly a form of religious discrimination, a dismal precedent that has poisoned the air and set secularism back decades.

In Canada outside Quebec, many commentators extended their accusations of xenophobia to Quebecers in general. Some suggested that Quebecers need to be educated about diversity! This is typical Anglo-Canadian arrogance, patting oneself on the back for being superior than those nasty Quebecers. There is certainly intolerance at play in this controversy, but it did not come from the QSF.

In reality, the difference in attitude can be explained by cultural factors which have nothing to do with tolerance or openness. Francophone culture is strongly influenced by the republicanism and the tradition of laïcité rooted in the principles of the French revolution, a tradition which promotes human rights based on universal values. On the other hand, anglo culture (outside of the US at least) is still mired in the monarchic traditions of the British Empire which favour a divide-and-conquer mentality, elevating religious and ethnic affiliation above individuality. In other words, what we have here is the classic conflict between secularism and multiculturalism.

What if a religious believer claims that their turban or other religious article must be worn at all times, without exception? For one thing, that is the individual’s personal decision, and they must accept the consequences of that decision, including self-exclusion from any activity which requires the removal of the article. It is not up to others to change the rules to accommodate that decision. Furthermore, religious choices – whether those choices involve clothing such as a turban, a veil or a crucifix, or practices such as prayers at specified times or the banning of certain foods or drinks, or whatever – are essentially arbitrary and wilful. And as they are arbitrary, they can be arbitrarily changed.

All that is necessary is for some religious leader to make a declaration (Muslims might call it a fatwah) along the lines of, “Although X must in general be worn or practised at all times, it is hereby decreed that an exception may be made during activity Y without offending the divinity, as long as the faithful return to X when activity Y is completed.” But religious authorities will never make such declarations if civil authorities continue to kow-tow to them by accepting without challenge the “sacredness” of the clothing or practice and not even proposing the simple and obvious solution of a temporary cessation.

As long as non-believers continue to think religiously by assuming that religious beliefs and practices are “sacred,” they will continue to be manipulated and led around by the nose by religious leaders and their followers. This is the underlying issue which remains completely unresolved: religious privilege, which should never be granted. Allowing the Sikh turban just makes the problem worse. Suppose that in future some other religious group demands the right to wear a special armband, or special shoes, or special shirt, etc. as “commanded” by their religion. Having granted the privilege to Sikhs, how could this new demand be refused?

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