Thursday, February 19, 2015

The niqab/burqa: culture clash and a test of multiculturalism

It seems inevitable to me that, in our diverse world, there will be practices common to some cultures that will be offensive to some Canadians. And it is entirely expected that some of those practices have reached our shores through our broad-based immigration policies of the past fifty years or so.

In some parts of the world, polygyny is practiced, as is some form of female circumcision (FGM). The eating of dog meat is traditional in many parts of the world, including, though rarely, among some cultures in Europe and North America. In Saudi Arabia, one should always use one’s right hand for drinking and eating. One’s left hand is regarded as unclean, because it is assumed it is used to clean oneself after using the toilet. Pretty tough on left-handed people, eh?

Among the more dreadful of cultural practices are honour killings, the aforementioned FGM, forced marriage and other gender-based violence. And among the least offensive are forms of dress like turbans worn by Sikhs, the thawb worn in the Middle East, various forms of kurta worn in Pakistan and elsewhere by people of Pakistani descent and the hijab worn by some Muslim women beyond the age of puberty—the hijab being the less controversial, in the West at least, head-covering used by Muslim women to satisfy the decency and modesty requirements of Islam. More controversial are the niqab and the burqa that cover a women’s entire head except for an open space for her eyes.

Some of these “foreign” practices are contrary to the Canadian Criminal Code while others, though legal, offend many Canadians. It is the latter group we will discuss here.

The majority of Canadians, especially since the 1950s, feel obligated to respect the religious beliefs and cultural practices of others. Tolerance has become one of the stamps of authenticity of the Canadian identity. Moreover, since 1971 when the federal government implemented policies to protect and promote diversity—what we now refer to as “multiculturalism”—most Canadians have come to embrace the principles of equality and mutual respect among our ethnic and cultural groups.

During that same time frame, however, many Canadians began to de-emphasize religiosity, and the U.S. concept of separation of church and state became very much in vogue in our country.

Religious symbols were often removed from public places and prayers in publicly-funded (non-Roman Catholic) schools and city council meetings were often discontinued. Sundays became like any other shopping or entertainment day.  Nuns began to adopt simple business suits rather than wear traditional habits and clerical clothing can now differ little from other street clothes.

Over time, many Canadians became only nominally religious or what one might think of as cultural Christians, cultural Jews, cultural Muslims, etc., who identified themselves with Christian, etc., culture without going to church, synagogue or mosque.

For many Canadians, religious practice means going to church for baptism/Christening, confirmation, weddings and funerals—with, perhaps, a few Christmas and/or Easter services thrown in. For many others, though, not even that minimal level is observed.

After the removal of European immigration preferences in the late 1960s early 1970s, however, the trend towards Canadian secularism took a turn as Muslims began to arrive in significant numbers. Prior to that time, Bosniaks (ethnic Bosnians) and Albanians made up most of the Muslim communities in Canada and one hardly ever heard the words Muslim or Islam mentioned in the same sentence as the words Canada or Canadians.

Arabs had arrived here much earlier, of course, most of whom were Lebanese immigrants who originated from what was then Syria. But they were 90 per cent or more Christians who integrated quickly.

Later many Muslim immigrants, seeking to escape unfavourable social, economic and political conditions in their homelands, brought their religion and culture to multicultural Canada, and have insisted on transplanting their customs without modification or with any regard to the host culture or its religious traditions.

Some of those transplanted customs, I might add, date back to the Medieval period. In contrast, forebears of Judeo-Christian Canadians had mainly adopted modern Western dress generations before. Furthermore, they did not practice polygamy, forced marriage or other gender-based violence—or, at least, it was not socially acceptable when some did so. In other words Canadians were the product of an evolved social system loosely based on the archaic Judeo-Christian model.

Unlike earlier immigrants, some Muslims who have arrived  relatively recently seek accommodation for their religious and cultural practices that is absolute. Some even seek to usurp Canada civil law with their archaic legal system, Sharia. Google, as I did, “Legal system of Saudi Arabia” and experience chills running down your spine as you get a sense of what this Medieval legal code would mean in Canada.

Even the idea of paying respect to the Canadian tradition of not covering one’s face in public seems to be anathema to some Muslims. For them, accommodation is a one-way street without reciprocity.

They seem to be saying that earlier Canadians must accommodate so that newer ones can be doctrinaire and uncompromising. Is that what is meant by being multicultural? I think not.

Multiculturalism is supposed to promote mutual respect.

When a newcomer insists on covering her face at the very moment she is accepted as a citizen, does that show respect? As C. Bowman of Toronto wrote, in part, to today’s National Post:

… in Canada, the accepted practice is for all of us to see each other, to smile at one another and to exchange messages, with or without words. She [niqab wearing Muslim lady] seems to want to become a Canadian—on her terms; perhaps she has made, for her, an inappropriate choice of country in which to reside.”

A harsh judgement perhaps, but maybe for the very few who are so dogmatic about religious/cultural beliefs that have not evolved in centuries, Canada—a country ruled by secular law—is not right for them.

I do not buy the argument that since the Quran is considered by its adherents to be the verbatim word of Allah, its practices cannot change or evolve. From my reading, Islam did seem to evolve from the time of the Muhammad (abt. 570 - 632 CE) through the thirteenth century. Surely its Canadian followers can do, as millions of other Muslims around the world have done before, give up the wearing of the full face covering.

To those Muslims who insist on hiding their faces in public, I say, accommodate those of us who feel you are insulting us, as we’ve accommodated you and welcomed you and your religion and most of your culture to our country.

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