A Tory blend of burqa-bashing and sex-education protests: Cohn

Martin Regg Cohn on the odd alliances at play and how he perceives Canada has changed:

Welcome to Canada, a country of diversity that imagines itself a beacon of multiculturalism, a bulwark of secularism, and a bastion of pluralism (which means, by the way, freedom for and from religion).

Now, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is lifting the veil on the phobias still lurking beneath our vaunted tradition of tolerance. Who knew so many of us could get so hot and bothered about burqas and whipped into such a frenzy about homosexuality and sexuality?

When I returned to Canada a decade ago, after 11 years abroad as a foreign correspondent, I never fathomed that niqabs — a misplaced symbol of Islamist fundamentalism that I encountered overseas — would one day distract voters in a federal campaign.

And when I took over the Ontario politics column four years ago, I never imagined that dogmatic religious conservatism — the intolerance and inwardness I’d left behind abroad — would make a comeback in my home province.

Some days I feel like I’m still stuck in the Middle East watching Palestinians and Israelis at war with one another — or worse, turning on themselves: The baiting, the poking, the code language.

Overseas, it’s fear and loathing. Here at home, it’s smear and goading.

Sex-education protests and burqa-bashing are crossover issues. Like cross-dressing, they can be curious fetishes and phobias.

The fight against sex-education makes for strange bedfellows, for it is the flip side of the battle over the burqa. A vocal fringe within our Muslim minority — many of them clad, it’s worth noting here, in niqabs or hijabs — has made common cause with social conservatives protesting against the provincial sex-education curriculum.

It’s a classic case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But with friends like that, who needs enemies?

Oddly for anti-sex-ed Muslim parents, their allies in intolerance of gays are in some cases Conservatives stumping on the campaign trail by stirring up mistrust of Muslims who wear the niqab (which tends to drag down all Muslims).

It’s a teachable moment for any Canadian tempted to join in burqa-bashing: Tolerance is a two-way street.

Not every single parent who has reservations about the provincial sex-education curriculum is homophobic. But if you read the work of the Star’s education reporters, Kristin Rushowy and Louise Brown, it’s hard to ignore the homophobic impulses driving many of the protest organizers — rallying religious newcomers by preying on prejudices they may have carried over from their homelands, where homosexuality equals criminality.

People who defend the right to wear a niqab in public (while requiring them to identify themselves when necessary) aren’t pro-burqa, as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair argued in Friday’s French-language debate, any more than people who are pro-choice are “pro” abortion. Their position is more a variation on the Voltarian dictum, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

One can disapprove of the niqab without disenfranchising women of citizenship and voting rights. But as a wedge issue, the burqa is unbeatable.

It presses our buttons, offends our sense of openness, makes it hard to connect with our interlocutor. Hence Harper’s undisguised glee in stirring up public mistrust of Muslims who cover up, and wounding his political opponents in the process.

Today the niqab. Tomorrow the hijab?

Will those armchair religious scholars who argue that the niqab has nothing to do with Islam (they are almost certainly right) next turn their sights on Canada’s ultra-orthodox Jews, the Hassidic (putatively pious) who persist in wearing black hats and silk stockings in public because they believe it an essential tenet of the faith (most Jews would disagree)? Shall we judge them next, stripping them of their garb as others did only a few decades ago?

Ah, but black hats and kippah and kirpans do not offend us as niqabs now do, you say? Recall that they were both proscribed in a proposed Quebec law banning religious symbols just a couple of years ago — so spare me the niceties on niqabs.

As for those who oppose an updated sex-education curriculum — the campaigning Conservatives having mischievously transposed a provincial responsibility to the federal polity — beware your bedfellows. All those Conservative candidates who tempt you into intolerance will lead you astray one day soon. Doubtless after voting day.

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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