Boris Johnson should have done his research about Sikhism before his gurdwara alcohol gaffe

You wouldn’t hear a politician giving a speech about family planning at a Catholic church or indeed about alcohol tariffs in a mosque, even if some of the congregation use contraceptives or like a drink

Boris Johnson was chastised for discussing whisky tariffs while at a Sikh place of worship
Boris Johnson was chastised for discussing whisky tariffs while at a Sikh place of worship

With the general election just three weeks away, politicians across the country are scrambling for local visits and photo opportunities. Anything that can help them connect with their audience is seen as a good thing, but sometimes a lackadaisical approach towards proper research can backfire spectacularly.

Boris Johnson discovered precisely that when his mutterings about whisky tariffs in a gurdwara in Bristol found him unwittingly offending an entire religion.

Within the Sikh faith, people initiated into the Khalsa tradition are prohibited from taking any intoxicants, including alcohol. All gurdwaras have signs up as soon as you enter the building which say that you shouldn’t come in if you are under the influence or if you have alcohol or tobacco on you. The approach is very clear. Alcohol and faith doesn’t mix within the Sikh context.

In the customary Twitter-storm following any political gaffe, many people condemned Boris for the inappropriate subject matter for his speech. However, several non-Sikhs commented that they had been to the wedding receptions of Sikh couples and seen alcohol consumed by the gallon by guests at a free bar. As far as they were concerned, a Sikh wedding is just one massive booze-up.

The reality couldn’t be more different. Over 95 per cent of Sikhs in the UK can trace their heritage to the Punjab region in the subcontinent, and as such, it can be difficult for some to determine what is Punjabi culture and what is Sikh religious practice. However, there’s a strong distinction between what is perhaps considered to be common behaviour within the Punjabi community and what is theologically acceptable to Sikhs.

The Punjabi community has a strong drinking culture, with many lyrics within Bhangra songs (a Punjabi musical genre) literally singing the praises of getting totally wasted with the lads. Alcohol abuse is rife, and much like the woman who took Boris to task about his comments, I know of relatives who have died from alcohol-related illnesses such as liver failure. It’s an emotive subject for many, but it has nothing to do with the religion. At least Boris’s ignorance has put a spotlight on alcohol abuse within the Punjabi community.

This disconnect between culture and faith can be found in many other areas. For example, Punjabi culture is notoriously misogynistic, while the Sikh faith was preaching total and immediate gender equality in the 16th century, over 200 years before Mary Wollstonecroft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published.

General Election polls and projections: May 18

Boris isn’t the first to confuse culture with faith, and he certainly won’t be the last. However, any basic research on the topic would have shown him it wasn’t appropriate for that venue or audience. After all, you wouldn’t hear a politician giving a speech about family planning at a Catholic church or indeed about alcohol tariffs in a mosque, even if some of the congregation use contraceptives or like a drink. No topic should ever be off-limits within any community. It’s just a simple question of being respectful about the surroundings you find yourself in.

The word “Sikh” means “to be a student”. As students, we are all constantly learning new things, both about ourselves and others. Sikhs don’t condemn, they simply want people to educate themselves. Politicians of all political parties will always be welcome to gurdwaras. All that the Sikh community asks in return is for a little respect and humility while there, and a careful think about what they’ll be saying before they get there. Surely that’s not too much to ask for, even in the depths of an election campaign?

Jasvir Singh OBE is the founding chair of City Sikhs

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