Niqab Politics Commentary – Various

Starting with Margaret Wente:

I loathe the niqab. I agree with Prime Minister Stephen Harper that niqabs are “not how we do things here.” A cloth that covers the face is a symbolic rebuke to Western values – especially when the covered woman is walking three steps behind her jeans-and-sneakers-clad husband.

But I also think a woman has the right to choose – even when her choice is offensive to a lot of people. I believe that religious freedom is a cornerstone of Western values. People should have wide latitude to exercise that freedom as they wish, and we shouldn’t constrain them without very good reasons.

So if Zunera Ishaq, a devout Sunni Muslim from Pakistan, wants to wear a veil while she swears the oath of citizenship, let her. Our democracy has survived greater threats than that.

…I despise niqabs. I really, really do. But I despise attacks on people’s freedom even more. There’s a difference between a woman in a veil and a jihadi sawing off a head. We need to remember that.

Why Stephen Harper is playing niqab politics – The Globe and Mail.

Stephen Maher focusses more on the politics:

The best way to counter the online recruiters who prey on those weak-minded souls is not to set up a mosque inquisition, as Mr. Legault proposed, but to build good relations with the imams who are on the front lines of anti-radicalization efforts.

We need these guys to drop a dime when they’re worried that Ahmed has gone off his meds, and they’re less likely to do that if they feel their community is under attack.

This is a good time to lower the temperature and remind Canadians of what draws us together, not constantly point to the things that divide us.

But Mr. Legault, like Mr. Harper, risks bitter defeat in the next election. So both men are playing with fire, trying to capitalize on fear, the most powerful emotion in politics.

And it is working. Recent polls show the Tories’ tough-on-terror message connecting in Ontario and, especially, Quebec, opening a ray of hope for a government that until recently looked doomed.

That’s fair play, but I’m worried that Mr. Harper will add fuel to the fire, linking terrorism to mosques — as he did when he introduced C-51 — inveighing against niqabs in fundraising emails and scaring everyone by warning about “jihadist monsters” at every opportunity.

Mr. Harper’s back is to the wall. If he loses the next election, or even fails to win it convincingly, his career is likely over.

Since oil prices collapsed, the economy is not the political winner it once was, leaving fear as his best issue.

Things could get ugly between now and the election.

  Stephen Maher: Tough talk about Muslims by Canadian politicians is unnecessary  

And Andrew Coyne issues a further warning:

On the surface, the insistence of Obama and other leaders that “this has nothing to do with Islam,” would seem as odd as that of their critics, that it has everything to do with Islam. As David Frum writes on the Atlantic website, “it seems a strange use of authority for an American president to take it upon himself to determine which interpretations of Islam are orthodox and which are heretical.” But there is a strong case for saying such things, even if you don’t believe them — especially if you don’t believe them — precisely in the service of fighting terrorism.

The one thing that could be predicted to cause more Muslims, here and abroad, to believe that violence against the West was justified would be if they were to become convinced that, indeed, there is “a clash of civilizations,” that Islam was under attack, and that they themselves, as practitioners of the religion, were objects of suspicion and hostility. The phenomenon is often observed in other social groups that, rightly or wrongly, feel themselves besieged: they will close ranks, even with those with whom they might otherwise have no sympathy.

That would be a calamitous setback to efforts, largely successful, to win the cooperation of the Muslim community in rooting out the few radicals in their midst. Which takes us to the rhetoric of the Harper government. Merely referring to “Islamic extremism” or “jihadism” would be unobjectionable in itself. But when coupled with recent, needless interventions in such volatile debates as whether the niqab may be worn at citizenship ceremonies, it suggests at best a troubling indifference to the importance of symbols and the need for those in power to go out of their way to reassure those in minority groups that they have not been targeted.

It may be good politics. But they are playing with fire.

Violent extremism or jihadism: The case for watching our language on terror

Lastly, Salim Mansur’s efforts to compare Indian religious and cultural practice restrictions doesn’t work: there is a difference between bigamy, child marriage, concubinage, FGM, which directly impact upon the rights of others or impact on the health of the person, unlike the wearing of a niqab.

The only valid comparison is that with other religious closing and headgear accommodations  (which the niqab is) and other dress code conventions (i.e., one cannot demand government services or attend a citizenship ceremony full or partially naked).

But we need to compare apples with apples, not oranges:

The same week the Federal Court ruled the niqab ban unlawful, India’s Supreme Court ruled that bigamy and polygamy is not protected under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which refers to freedom of conscience and religion. The justices of the Indian Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the appellant, Khursheed Ahmad Khan, in taking a second wife while remaining married to his first wife, violated the civil service regulations that do not permit bigamy and polygamy as part of religious belief. The justices agreed a “bigamous marriage amongst Muslims is neither a religious practice nor a religious belief and certainly not a religious injunction or mandate.”

The relevant point here is that certain practices — such as bigamy or child marriage, concubinage, female genital mutilation, etc. — even when permitted by a religion, need to be distinguished from religious belief as customary practices. In making this appropriate distinction, the Indian courts have ruled, with the Supreme Court in agreement, that what is protected under Article 25 is religious belief, not practices that may run counter to public order, health or morality.

This ruling of the Indian Supreme Court is instructive. India shares with Canada the system of government and democratic traditions handed down from Britain. India is also the world’s third-largest Muslim country after Indonesia and Pakistan. In ruling that bigamy and polygamy are in violation of India’s laws, the courts have defended the rights of women, especially Muslim women, in terms of equality rights, and against Muslim Shariah-based laws that discriminate against them in favour of men.

Canadian courts would be well advised to make a similar and appropriate distinction between religious beliefs and customary practices, and whether any or all customs should be protected under the Charter provision of religious freedom.

Salim Mansur: Defending the niqab ban

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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