Diversity and the turban, yet again

sikh-policeAn Garda Siochána have again made it absolutely clear that they do not want foreigners in the police force. In 2007, having appealed for recruits from what is euphemistically called Ireland’s ‘new communities’, it refused to allow a Sikh volunteer to the Garda reserve force to wear his turban on duty. The Garda explicitly denied that the turban ban was based on race or religion, but rather on the imperative to provide an ‘impartial police service’ requiring, among other things, ‘our standard uniform and dress’. According to Kevin O’Donoghue, Head of the Garda Press and Public Relations, ‘within the principles of an intercultural approach, An Garda Siochána is not advocating one religious belief over another, nor are we, in any way, being racist. We are attempting to… retain an image of impartiality while providing a State service to all citizens’. At the same time, An Garda declined to rule out the wearing of Catholic religious symbols such as crucifixes, Lenten ashes and pioneer pins.

It was an opportunity missed. Rather than occasion a much needed debate on the secularisation of the Irish public sphere, the turban ban drew supporters and opponents for an ‘Irish’ way of doing culture. Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, arguing that Garda and state practice is replete with Catholic symbolism and practices, proposed that state institutions either adopt a ‘no religious symbols in public’ ruling across the board, including Catholic religious symbols – his preferred option – or allow all religious symbols, including turbans and veils. In an interesting twist, Harpreet Singh, president of the Irish Sikh Council, linking immigration and Irish emigration, pointed to the large number of Irish migrants in the US who have converted to Sikhism and asked whether they would face the same barriers if they return home.

This was in 2007, towards the end of Ireland’s Celtic capitalism era. In 2009, as Ireland is sunk in the depth of a gloomy recession, the turban issue raises its head again. But wait for it, this time is it explicitly reiterated in the name of none but ‘diversity’. As the Garda’s ‘diversity champion’ chief administrative officer John Leamy said in a Garda conference on diversity on 19 November, the force’s diversity strategy ‘has taken an intercultural model, where diversity was respected and reflected in the force’ rather than an ‘assimilation model where newcomers would have to accept the majority status quo’. And yet again, the Garda claims the ban is about ‘impartial policing’ – as if a turbaned or veiled Garda officer cannot possibly be impartial, as opposed to a Catholic, cross-bearing officer of course.
But hold on a second. If diversity is ‘respected and reflected in the force’ and newcomers ‘do not have to accept the majority status quo’, how come the Garda is still insisting on assimilation, as Dr Jasbir Singh argued, effectively denying ‘equal employment rights’ to Sikhs and other minorities? The ban affects not only naturalised Sikhs migrants, but also their Irish born Sikh children. Dr Singh reminded the conference that in Britain and other countries turbaned Sikhs serve in the police.

Remember however, that the performance of cultural diversity becomes a device, a brand, as state bodies, companies, and educational institutions pride themselves on their ‘happy colourful faces’, albeit without relinquishing control of those diversity projects to the owners of these very faces. The reiterated turban ban denotes the confusion, by the Gardai and other state bodies, about the meaning of ‘interculturalism’, an Irish (policy) solution to an Irish (immigration) problem, both multiculturalism and assimilation under a different name. It is absurd to both claim diversity and interculturalism and demand ‘newcomers’ do things ‘our’ own way without taking any steps towards officially secularising Ireland’s (Catholic) public sphere.