BELGIUM: Sikhism’s quest for recognition

Request for Sikhism to be officially recognized as a religion in Belgium is set to be discussed in parliament before the current legislative session ends in June.

La Croix International (15.04.2024) – In early April, Belgium’s Justice Minister Paul Van Tigchelt revealed that Sikhs had sought official recognition of their religion, and comes at a time when a similar plea for Buddhism is under consideration. Belgium officially recognizes six religious denominations Catholicism, Judaism, Anglicanism, Protestant-Evangelicalism, Islam, Orthodoxy — along with one philosophical belief — liberal-humanism. Currently, there are more than 10,000 Sikhs in Belgium, and Sikhs have played a role in Belgian history for years, fighting as part of the British troops in Belgium during World War I.

Sikhism, established in the 15th century in the Punjab region of northwest India, bordering Pakistan, is a religion followed by Sikhs, meaning “disciple” in Punjabi. Sikhs believe in an eternal, creator God, who is both immanent and transcendent. The faith promotes an honest life, eschewing the consumption of meat, alcohol, and tobacco. Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), followed by nine other Gurus. Following the death of the tenth Guru in 1708, the Sikh holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, was designated as the eternal Guru.

Fifth-largest religion in the world

As the fifth-largest religion globally, Sikhism boasts 30 million followers, primarily in Punjab, where it surpasses Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. Sikhs assert their faith’s distinctiveness from Hinduism, although some Western scholars view it as an offshoot of Hinduism with potential Islamic influences through historical interactions with the Mughal Empire that dominated India in the 16th century.

A significant evolution of Sikhism occurred under the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, who added a temporal authority to his spiritual leadership, challenging the Mughal Empire. This political endeavor eventually led to the foundation of an independent state in 1799, later annexed by the colonial British in 1894. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and final Guru, established the Khalsa, a warrior order, selecting its first members from disciples willing to sacrifice themselves.

The “Five Ks”

Contemporary Sikhs, by joining the Khalsa, adhere to distinctive practices and the markers of Sikh identity, known as the “Five Ks,” including uncut hair (kesh) covered by a specific type of turban, and a beard; a wooden comb (kangha)  for the hair; a bracelet (kara); an undergarment (kachera), and a small curved sword or knife (kirpan). Many Sikh men adopt the name “Singh,” meaning “lion,” as seen in former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while women often carry the name “Kaur,” meaning “princess,” like Canadian poet Rupi Kaur.

Since the 1970s, a faction of Sikhs in India has been pushing for the establishment of a theocratic state. This culminated in the tragic 1984 event where hundreds were killed in the Golden Temple by the Indian army, which then led to the retaliatory assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards.

Further reading about FORB in Belgium on HRWF website