This month, four UK Christians went to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in a landmark case that centred on religious freedom. Their stories are all different, but the case focussed on whether religion had a place in the modern British workplace.
One of the employees, Nadia Eweida, had been fighting for her right to wear her cross on a necklace after her employer British Airways banned her from doing so. The ECHR ruled that Nadia’s human rights and “her right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” had been breached.
Whether its a crucifix, a hijab or a kara, we Asians understand all about wearing symbols that express our religion and essentially, express who we are. Are you a Muslim woman who has been challenged by your manager on wearing your hijab? Or a Sikh person that has been told your kara breaches health and safety regulations? It often feels like we are one step away from this happening with religion increasingly under threat in our society.
Today, as secularism, atheism and in some realms gay rights march on, for many of us who hold religious values dear, it feels like something sacred is being trampled on by people who simply cannot tolerate us or our right to freedom of religion. I’m so glad that the ECHR pointed out in the case of Nadia Eweida, her “freedom of thought and conscience” had been breached. We should all have the right to ‘think’ as we see fit for ourselves, and in this case, we should be allowed to express our religion as we see fit.
Now at this point I know someone will point out the various atrocities carried out in the name of religion. I’m not talking about that kind of expression of religion or conscience (if one can argue that is a justifiable expression of religion, some will try to, but I am not talking about that here.)
No I’m talking about our right to, in some small, peaceful way express publicly that we are Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or whatever. By asking us not to wear a hijab or kara or crucifix, you are asking us to compromise on our identity- because these small symbols, though an offence to some, are as fundamental to expressing who we are as telling someone our name.
Thinking about this also made me realise that if we talk about religion as a matter of identity as well as matter of personal belief, are we not saying that religion is then cultural as well spiritual?
Well for many Asians religion is cultural. Consider Islamic Sharia law that encompasses rules of life on how to dress, what to eat and how to conduct oneself socially- this is religion defining culture. For others, religion defines who we can marry in terms of caste. Though increasingly people are stepping away from those traditions, there are many who still adhere to them.
British Asians, I have found, are actually quite tribal. Even when we come from the same country of origin, we will still exclude or include each other based on our religious affiliations because I think to most of us this most clearly says who we are and what we identify with.
We can only watch to see how religion and the expression of religious identity in the public realm will continue to be challenged. As the Government debate the redefinition of marriage I fear that we are setting a precedent for many other sacred institutions and traditions to be challenged in future. But in the meantime I will display my religious symbol with pride- and if you identify with this post I would urge you to do the same.