That non-weapon sure is pointy

Reciting “It’s not a weapon” won’t allow us to avoid the debate

I am unpleasantly surprised to find Colleague Geddes sowing nonsense in the Quebec National Assembly kirpan debate—a conversation that has quite enough of it already. In his introduction to a Q&A with Liberal Sikh MP Navdeep Bains, Geddes links to the 2006 Supreme Court decision in Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite‑Bourgeoys, stating that the court “found that the kirpan is a religious symbol, not a weapon.” Begging his pardon, the court found no such thing. The court’s members are carefully trained in logic: it would never occur to them that an item had to be either a religious symbol or a weapon, and could not possibly be both. That would be a pretty silly conclusion! Justice Charron actually wrote:

There is no denying that this religious object could be used wrongly to wound or even kill someone, but the question at this stage of the analysis cannot be answered definitively by considering only the physical characteristics of the kirpan. …In order to demonstrate an infringement of his freedom of religion, Gurbaj Singh does not have to establish that the kirpan is not a weapon. He need only show that his personal and subjective belief in the religious significance of the kirpan is sincere.

The court didn’t find for the appellants on the grounds that “the kirpan is not a weapon”. Indeed, all parties to the suit accepted the premise “that the kirpan, considered objectively and without the protective measures imposed by the Superior Court, is an object that fits the definition of a weapon.” The court found for the appellant because the school board’s zero-tolerance policy towards weapons, based largely on fears that the presence of a knife would somehow allow spooky negative vibes to propagate throughout the school, did not constitute a minimal infringement upon the rights of a religion that happens to insist upon the carrying of a weapon. (Anyone who has studied the remarkable history of the Sikhs can only be surprised that they don’t carry about five of them.)

I hate to break it to Nav Bains and to admirers of leading comparative-religion scholar Michael Ignatieff, but reciting “It’s not a weapon” won’t give us a magic wormhole we can all leap through to avoid debates over religious accommodation in public services. As I understand matters, and I am perfectly prepared to receive instruction on this point, the whole point of the kirpan is that it’s an avowedly defensive weapon. The reference books, including those written by Sikhs, tell us that it is worn precisely to signify and reinforce the Sikh’s wholly admirable preparedness to protect his faith, his community, and innocent human life. I suppose I could have added the words “just as a handgun might be”, but that would send altogether too many of my readers scrambling for the Preparation H.

Respectable efforts to establish a modus vivendi on the kirpan in secured public spaces can’t begin with evasion if they hope to be successful (and certainly it sets a terrible precedent for evasion to be designated courage). I’ll add that the problems are not really all that thorny for those of us who have never consented to fanaticism about security theatre or to cretinizing “zero tolerance” of blades in schools.

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