How to Reassure a Concerned Citizenry … and how NOT to

A Thought Experiment


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J’évoque l’exemple d’un pays hypothétique dans lequel un petit groupe d’intégristes chrétiens a obtenu, par des moyens purement légaux, le privilège de faire une courte prière au début de chaque séance journalière de l’assemblée nationale. Je compare cet exemple fictif avec le scénario tristement réel où des intégristes islamistes ont obtenu le privilège de se soustraire à une règle gérant les cérémonies de cityonneté et ce, pour des motifs religieux.
La solution évidente et nécessaire : modifier la loi pour que cette exception ne soit plus permise.
Ce qui est totalement ridicule dans cette affaire, c’est que les gens qui veulent mettre fin à ce privilège religieux et osent appuyer l’idée d’une prohibition sont traités d’« intolérants » et même de « racistes ». C’est le monde à l’envers.

In the fictional country X, a small group of fundamentalist Christians has just taken advantage of a loophole in X’s legislation and won a legal victory which allows them to hold a brief prayer at the beginning of every day’s session of the country’s legislative assembly. Although perfectly legal according to the laws of X, this is clearly a violation of everyone else’s freedom of conscience and a privilege granted to a particular religion, Christianity. The population of X is, in a very large proportion, opposed to this situation. So-called moderate Christians are divided on the issue: some sympathize with the fundamentalists, but many recognize that this situation is unfair and reject this unwanted privilege. A degree of hostility towards Christians begins to manifest itself in public opinion. Although no recent cases of anti-Christian hate propaganda or violence have been confirmed, there is fear—among both authorities and the population itself—that such incidents may in the near future begin to occur. What is to be done?

The answer is obvious. Doing nothing is not an option. The government must introduce legislation which will put an end to this privilege by removing from the laws of the land whatever it was that allowed the fundamentalists to win it. At the same time, it must make sure that the new legislation in no way threatens the freedom of Christians or any other sect to practice their religion as they always have—in private, with co-religionists, or even in public, but NOT in public institutions such as the legislature. The media also have a duty, the same duty they have always had, to report events and facts objectively. They may very well be sceptical of any new legislation which the government proposes, so they should examine it in detail, of course, in order to determine whether it is as fair as promised, or whether it goes too far, or not far enough. As for those “moderate” Christians, any who sympathize with the fundamentalists must be made to understand that they are part of the problem because their support enables their more radical co-religionists.

Canada has just gone through a situation very similar to the hypothetical one described above. In our real scenario the religion is fundamentalist Islam, not fundamentalist Christianity, and, instead of a brief prayer, the privilege accorded is the wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. Now some might argue that prayers and full veils have nothing in common. They would be wrong, because each is being imposed on a civic event by an appeal to religious privilege: the Christians demand the privilege of reciting a sectarian prayer before an assembly whose purpose should be to represent all citizens, whereas the Islamists insist on a special exception, for religious reasons, to a rule against face-coverings during official ceremonies. Each of these demands involves a religious manifestation in an inappropriate context. It is true that wearing the niqab does not necessarily take up other participants’ time (although it might, because of extra time required to verify identity). However the niqab is worse in that it imposes a serious barrier to human communication and interaction, indeed it is a refusal to participate fully with other citizens.

As I write these lines, the 2015 federal election campaign is drawing to an end. Today, October 19th, is election day. By the time you read this, it will be over, but the niqab issue will almost certainly not be resolved. And even if it were, similar issues are sure to rear their ugly heads in the months and years to come. This controversy is no isolated incident. The problem will not go away on its own.

So how did authorities react in this real situation? The government’s response went in the right direction—i.e. they plan to appeal, yet again, the court decision ending the niqab ban—but inadequately so. The appeal cannot succeed because the ban is based on a mere ministerial directive. What is really needed is legislation to modify the Citizenship Act at least, and probably other laws as well. On the other hand, the response of both opposition parties was worse: a promise to do NOTHING, to capitulate to religious fanaticism and religious privilege, to allow the niqab. End of story.

As for the media, their response to the crisis was much worse still. Most English-language media, as far as I could tell, failed to evaluate and criticize objectively the government’s action and fell totally into line with the complacency of the Trudeau Liberals and the Mulcair NDP. Furthermore, the media undertook a campaign of denigration of supporters of a ban on the niqab, accusing them of intolerance and even racism (since when is Islam a “race”?), painting them all with the same brush as the Conservative government. This campaign was directed not only against the government party but also against anyone who did not tow the line that wearing the niqab anywhere and everywhere is an inalienable “right.”

The campaign became so intense that we can legitimately qualify it as hate propaganda against secularists and against anyone who holds that religion has no place in state institutions. Instead of championing the voices of Muslims or ex-Muslims who understand why the niqab must not be allowed to become commonplace, the media have given priority to those who play the victim—often hidjab-wearing women—and sympathize with the radicals. The example of three recent articles (See “Three Examples of Inflammatory Nonsense in the Media” at the end of this blog) is sufficient to establish this point. One author even made the utterly surreal claim that the niqab ban is like the residential school system where First Nations children were mistreated.

Returning to the hypothetical example of the Christian prayer for a moment, it is as if anyone who opposed the prayer were accused of “racism” against Christians, whatever that might mean. Christianity is a “race”? Totally ludicrous.

This is obviously NOT the way to reassure the Canadian population. Because of this overwhelming attitude of hostility towards taking any reasonable measure to resolve the niqab issue, the anxiety among the population is not only left to fester, indeed it has been actively inflamed. The Canadian citizenry, especially in Quebec where secularism is more solidly supported, is understandably very upset about this situation, they are sick and tired of being insulted and vilified for their eminently reasonable anxiety about radical Islamists, and they are taking creative measures—such as wearing bizarre face-coverings at advance polling stations—in order to protest and express their outrage.

In summary, both the two opposition parties and the media have failed miserably to do their duty. Instead, they have made a difficult situation even worse, and have increased the danger that acts of hateful violence may occur.

Recently the Conservative government indicated that, if re-elected, it will consider legislation to require removal of any face-covering when working as a public servant or receiving public services as a citizen. This is obviously a good idea, especially for employees on the job. It would be unacceptable for a public servant to hide his or her face, especially behind a symbol of a religious sect. But why is the government proposing this now, at the very last minute of an election campaign, when they could have done so years ago? The media, rather than ask this necessary question, have instead reacted with ever more specious accusations of persecution of Muslims.

Have we gone down a rabbit-hole and entered some crazy parallel universe where up is down, in is out, green is pink, and religious privilege is a “right”? Canadians who have been duped by the pro-niqab propaganda of the Liberal Party and the NDP—and the media who malign any reasonable constraint on religious fanatics—need to return to reality.

All federal politicians must do the right thing: reassure the public by taking reasonable measures to stem the tide of fundamentalist influence, including banning face-coverings in official ceremonies and public services, and by banning blatant displays of religious symbols by public servants while on duty.

Three Examples of Inflammatory Nonsense in the Media

  1. Can Stephen Harper stoop any lower on the niqab?, editorial, The Toronto Star, 2015-10-07.
  2. ‘Little Mosque’ creator says niqab ban repeats mistakes of Canada’s past, CBC News, 2015-10-07.
  3. Fifty years in Canada, and now I feel like a second-class citizen, Sheema Khan, The Globe and Mail, 2015-10-07.

Next blog: Secularists Have Nothing to Celebrate

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