The problems and challenges going forward

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This is the fourth and last in a series of posts on Sikhism, written by Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, Senior Lecturer in Sikh Studies at the University of Birmingham.

In my last post I discussed the way that people interact with their respective community members.  For the Sikh community, the impact of social media and its use by certain individuals and organisations to discuss Sikhi is in fact an attempt to reinterpret scripture and Sikh history to fit a particular worldview.  In this post, I want to focus on how groups can hijack particular issues, such as interfaith marriages and sexual grooming, and claim to have a monopoly of truth, which often leads to intimidation and bullying of members, particularly female members, of their own community. This public discourse also has the negative consequence of creating a perception of the Sikh community being regressive and intolerant.

Very recently, the issue of interfaith marriages in gurdwaras has become a rallying point for what can be best described as the, predominantly male, religiously conservative Sikhs in the UK. People adamant on stopping, what appears to be mainly Sikh women marrying non-Sikh men in gurdwaras, have seen it their God-given duty to stop marriage ceremonies of inter-faith couples being conducted in gurdwaras. Their tactics have included threats of intimidation to local gurdwara committees and sit-in demonstrations on the actual wedding day, resulting, in many cases, weddings being postponed. This form of direct action has been led by Sikh Youth Birmingham, also known as Sikh Youth UK, and they have used WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook to organize protests, sometimes at less than 24 hours’ notice. Their actions culminated in the high-profile protest which took place at Leamington Spa in September 2016.  They perceive theirs as a mission to enforce the ‘true’ teachings of Sikhism and seem to pride themselves on the disruptions they cause.  When asked in one radio interview by the BBC about whether they were fundamentalists, one of their supporters said that if people want to call them that, then maybe they are fundamentalists. It is somewhat ironic, that  many of the male protestors who aim to be  representing, reclaiming and protecting  ‘true Sikhi’  do not observe the Rehat Maryada (Code of Conduct) or even the Khalsa identity and its articles of the faith themselves, indicating that ‘truth’ is not the main motivating factor here but it is the desire to control communities, particularly women that is driving these movements – and this is evidenced when comments such as ‘wake up Sikh girls!’ are posted on social media.

Having seen the impact that the conservative Sikh groups have had on the Sikh community, others on the radical wing of Sikhism in the UK have decided to join ranks with them as they now see the conservativism and orthodoxy that is being propagated by the conservative Sikhs within the community as necessary for ensuring the future of the Sikhi in the UK. This was quite clear from how all of the groups united against the issue of interfaith marriages, and the media coverage they got from it. Alongside interfaith marriages, sexual grooming has become an issue that is led by Sikh Youth UK  and Sikh Awareness Society.   While these groups have been successful in raising some legitimate concerns on the subject, their rhetoric is quite clearly Islamophobic, and the impact on community cohesion in various parts of the UK is, and should be of concern particularly when their actions have culminated in them aligning themselves with people like Tommy Robinson, the  founder of the English Defence League

In these two very important debates on social media, what has been noticeable is that whilst these discussions focus on female issues, i.e. women’s behaviour and who they can marry, women are virtually absent from the conversation. The debate is almost entirely between men, who see themselves as ‘protectors’ of women’s honour, a notion that harks back to days gone by in the fields of the Punjab.   As in real life, Sikh men continue to curtail women’s right to engage and challenge the conservative religious discourse, and when women do attempt to enter the debate to contribute a contrarian perspective they are silenced by intimidation and bullying.  As a result, women have created their own ‘safe’ spaces within which to have religious dialogue that is not biased against them.  However, the question that needs to be asked is why, in a community that espouses optimistic narratives of progress, equality and emancipation of women, do women need to do this?  Why are they forced into having these debates in so called ‘safe spaces’?

Thus, social media is a powerful and liberating tool for religious communities in the 21st century and could be used democratically to freely allow different opinions to be expressed and ideas to be exchanged and challenged without fear of reprisals. However, for now it may be argued these tools are most successfully used by a vocal minority who wish to push a particular religious worldview, and this is very evident in the Sikh community in the UK.  Difference of opinion is not a recent feature of the Sikh faith; diversity in belief has existed since its inception, but what is evident today on social media is that instead, of encompassing all Sikhs, irrespective of level of observance or non-observance,  some conservative groups have managed to stifle the voices of the moderate majority, in particular women’s voices.  This lack of moderate and female voices, means that the debate on the future of Sikhism is being framed entirely by a minority of well organised radical voices, whom have skilfully utilised the power of social media to their advantage. It is the power of the echo chamber, and the mutual support that they derive from each other, that has given them the strength to claim they are the true representatives of Sikhi and its values. The moderate majority of Sikhs need to enter this debate and provide a counter to the radical narrative, and most importantly women need to take the lead on particular debates which affect them, or otherwise Sikhs and the wider community will continue to hear from voices that only seem to want to expand their influence and gain religious and political power, and in this quest they truly cannot claim to represent the values of the majority Sikh community.

Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal

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