Sikhism and war

Exploring the link between religion and war from the point of view of the Sikh faith

As a producer, I like to spend a great deal of time researching current programming on television stations across the Global TV networks. The most publicised trend of recent years has been that of reality television. The power of this genre and its content has been proven this past week from my otherwise timid home county of Hertfordshire.

If you are unaware of the incidents that I am writing about perhaps you have been hiding away in some cave, in which case I would like you to invite me over so that I too can escape from the mind-numbing “entertainment” that passes for terrestrial television these days. But the entire debacle got me thinking about the stories that weren’t making the news headlines as a result, stories which all too often get relegated to inch-long columns beside advertisements for injury-claims legal firms.

One such story was the recent invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian troops. This was undertaken I must hasten to add, with the compliance of the Somali Govt who felt the need to stem back the surge of Islamists in the south and west of the country.

There was plenty of news coverage initially, but there has been little reporting of the clashes and conflict that followed. From my position of basic ignorance of African politics, I understood that this was a conflict that once again involved religion. Talking to friends I was met with the relatively popular idea that religion was the chief cause of war. If this was the case, I was asked, how did it affect my life as a Sikh?

The Sikh Way of Life has long been identified with that of martial warfare. The reality is something quite different. For a Sikh, the ideal is to be a Saint-Soldier: a being that is of the utmost respectability and compassion, but whose strength of character and bravery is unquestionable.

However, this is not as simple a concept to realise as one might first think. For example, the latter description evokes an ideal of standing up for what is right. But who are we to decide what is right? As a Sikh, am I to take a viewpoint of matters with rose-tinted Sikh glasses? It seems there are more questions than answers, but as all good Sikhs know, our basis of Sikh understanding is the Guru Granth Sahib, the revered Guru and scripture since 1708, to which we pose all of our questions.

From the very beginning, Sikhs were taught that on occasion, use of force was a necessary part of life. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh Way of life, in praise of the Almighty stated that, “As you (the Lord) choose and as it pleases you, we wield the sword and take life.”

In this particular stanza, Guru Nanak had described differing elements of life in relation to God. To battle and to destroy was an occurrence that for better or worse was an element of life that could not be shied away from. It happened as God willed it. We as people go to war when we see fit and are able to take or not take life on the battlefield. But the cause of the war itself seems almost immaterial. Today it is a dispute over land, tomorrow an act of vengeance.

I have interpreted the Guru’s words here as such, that the end result is the same: death. It should be noted that war and soldierly deeds like other issues which involve death are heavily intertwined with fate and destiny in Sikh philosophy. This does not absolve the soldier of his commitment and acts, but is part of the bigger picture where the endless cycle of life and death continues unabated.

Guru Nanak’s successors to the Gurgaddi (throne of Guruship) were the Light and soul of Guru Nanak himself, merely in a different form. Focusing on the martyrdom of the ninth Guru Nanak, Guru Tegh Bahadur is where we can find further depictions of the Saint-Soldier relationship.

Guru Tegh Bahadur had been a vociferous soldier in his youth and was skilled in the use of weaponry. In the late 17th century, by which time he had been installed as the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur was approached by pandits of Kashmir. They requested the Guru to speak on their behalf to the Mughal emperor Aurungzeb under whose rule countless forced conversions to Islam had been taking place. The Guru agreed to do so, well aware of the repercussions.

In court the Guru’s position of spiritual authority over so many people of the land was brought into question and he was asked to convert to Islam, prove his spiritual supremacy or face capital punishment.

The Guru chose both of the latter options, declaring that although he did not believe in that which the pandits did, he would defend there right to believe it. This epitomises the Saint-Soldier relationship: righteousness is not defending Sikhs or their interests, but to uphold fundamental freedoms and rights of all people. As the Guru showed, use of force was not merely the ability to wield a sword. In the Guru Granth Sahib we read Guru Tegh bahadur’s words where he describes the spiritually awakened, the Saint as “That being who does not frighten anyone, and who is not afraid of anyone else…”

Sikhs do not battle to defend Sikhs or Sikh concerns. They resort to force, whether through battle or personal sacrifice, to defend the fundamental freedoms that all humans look to have. War is a part of life from which we have not and probably will not escape. Even if for a few days we become preoccupied with the comparatively irrelevant events of a television programme in leafy Hertfordshire.

Harwinder Singh is a 26-year-old Law graduate turned film and TV producer. He is also a record label boss. Born in the UK to Punjabi parents, he been practising and studying the Sikh Way of Life for about 20 years.
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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era