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Sikh Separatism Is a Problem, Not a Solution

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has won numerous awards for her work. Most notably she was appointed M.B.E. in 2001 for services to journalism. She has also won the B.B.C. A.S.I.A. Award for Achievement in Writing 1999, the Commission for Racial Equality Special Award for Outstanding Contribution to Journalism 2000, E.M.M.A. Media Personality of the Year 2000, Windrush Outstanding Merit Award 2000, and the George Orwell Prize for Political Journalism 2002, among others. E-mail her at

The Independent, Sep. 15, 2003

What the world needs today more than anything is to foster a sense of obligation to people who are utterly unlike ourselves.

This weekend thousands of Sikhs gathered in Wolverhampton to attend a national convention to launch a new 'political party' with the explicit aim of pushing for better Sikh representation in key British institutions and more state-funded Sikh schools. Where greasy opportunism beckons these days, hopeless Tories rush towards it, and so it was at this convention. Oliver Letwin with his beatific smile praised the event, the organisers, the nice day, Sikhs, their contributions, probably their pets and well-kept gardens. Three-quarters of the people he was addressing vote Labour. Maybe a dozen or so will be kind enough to switch to his party. Oliver works ever so hard for so little reward. New Labour and the Lib Dems will no doubt have sent in their blessings too.

British Sikhs are only following what British Muslims have been doing for a decade, and before them British Jews. They observe politicians sucking up to the Board of Deputies of British Jews and increasingly the Muslim Council of Britain. They want to get in on the act. This is no different from the battles that Roman Catholics have fought to gain more rights and the interminable struggles for greater power between the two Christian factions in Northern Ireland. British Hindus are quieter and work more skilfully behind the scenes. (A senior M.P. told me recently that wealthy Hindu businessmen had considerable influence in all three parties and that some of them were supporters of the Hindu nationalism that today blights India.)

Of course, while the Church of England is massively privileged in our unwritten constitution and Parliament, other faith groups in this multifarious society can only respond competitively, using valid arguments of equity. Meanwhile, the English too get more covetous and evil-tempered as they watch devolved Scotland and Wales. They complain that the Scots are everywhere. The media is full of them and all the political bouncers employed by New Labour, from John Reid down, seem to have threatening Glaswegian accents which make dainty English dispositions quiver with fear. They are also most mistrustful of the E.U. and the euro. In Wales and Scotland, anti-English opinions are de rigueur and there is much loose talk about who can be accepted as 'real' Scots and Welsh and about the preservation of cultures.

I despair of these developments. I detest the politics of community and singular allegiances, forced or stipulated. They imprison us and hold back our nation from the demands of life in the 21st century. In his exceptional book On Identity, Amin Maalouf is rightly repelled by 'the notion that reduces identity to one single affiliation and encourages people to adopt an attitude which is partial, sectarian, intolerant, domineering, distorting their view of the world as it is.' Just as our collective lives are meshed together, as the nation state loses definition, as globalisation begins to show itself as more than merely nomadic capitalism, as identities and values become more complex and mixed, we get the rise and rise of ethnic, religious and nationalistic politics which, instead of being marginalised, are promoted by the powerful.

Did you know that in August, a ministerial steering group was set up to consult faith groups on public policies? Why do we need this? Most religious leaders are men of a certain age. Far too many of them have intolerably retrogressive views of what God wants women to be and believe children are possessions of adults. What are the implications of this for the progressive agenda? I have faith. I hold some imams, priests (Christian, Sikh, Hindu), bishops, and rabbis in great esteem and often seek their advice and views. In many ways they are more empathetic acquaintances than rampant, fundamentalist secularists. But I no longer support single-faith or race-based schools and the special dispensations that they seek and get. They are just as detrimental as all-white institutions: places where people who share the same values reinforce each other and their own exceptionalism, with nobody to interrogate their presumptions or unsettle their clubbiness.

Academic results, discipline and self-motivation can be excellent in these schools, and we could consider state-funded schools that offer serious education about all the major faiths, and an alternative stream of positively secular education, as a better alternative to existing arrangements which are so out of date and sync with our fast-moving times.

It is disturbing how pervasive have become the ideas of 'strong communities.' Pundits have successfully sold the idea that these are per se a desirable goal because they have cohesion and that American import, excellent 'social capital' or mutuality. Who can argue with that? Post-industrial societies broke those bonds, and we should re-make them to enable people to feel more secure, nurturing and productive. But we need to do this across imagined boundaries not inside them.

Take Neighbourhood Watch. In many ways it was a good thing which brought people together to fight crime. But where I live it quickly became paranoid, with neighbours panicking every time they saw a group of black men or people who looked like 'asylum-seekers.' Getting diverse people to develop local ties that bind is quite different from fostering exclusive and excluding identities. That is remarkably difficult, but unavoidable if we are to belong in this small, spirited island.

There are other reasons why we should reject the politics of ethnicity and community. They are based on the idea that culture stands, or must stay, still. Young people are stifled by such assumptions. Third-generation Sikhs, like Muslims and others, are agents of change in the transforming of modern British sensibility. Why should they be directed into new ghettoes? This is a game that gatekeepers love to play. It helps keep power 'hideously white,' as Greg Dyke memorably described the B.B.C., which has just announced an 'Asian' season with exciting programmes on Asian millionaires and Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen telling us about curries. Ho hum.

What the world needs today more than anything is to foster a sense of obligation towards people to whom we owe nothing or who are utterly unlike ourselves, what that humane sociologist Richard Sennett describes as 'the act of turning outwards . . . a new relation to other people as well as to shared symbols like those contained in a religion.' Community loyalty militates against that kind of generosity or understanding.

Last week I said on television that I was terribly upset by the murder by a suicide bomber of a 20-year-old Jewish woman who was to get married the day she died. I received dozens of e-mails denouncing these sentiments. What was I doing feeling sorry for an Israeli, when Sharon does such wrong? Is compassion to be based on ethnic/religious/political loyalties. If a young Orthodox Jewish woman was being assaulted on our streets, should a Muslim or Christian not rush to help?

If Sikhs are now to think of themselves as only Sikhs and not Asian, black and inextricably British - and the same goes for Muslims, the English, the Baha'i and the hundreds of other tribes of Britain - how will the centre hold? How will that change the unyielding British Establishment?