Archive for the ‘Newspaper’ Category

A Toronto private school is being sued by a Muslim student for defamation, as a result of the school’s response to a fight in which racial slurs were made against the student:

A private French school run by a former Liberal MP defamed a 15-year-old student during an assembly and did not treat alleged racial slurs made against him seriously because he is Muslim, a lawsuit alleges.

Omar Elgammal is suing the Toronto French School, headmaster John Godfrey – who was first elected to the House of Commons in 1993 – and principal Heidi Gollert over alleged remarks at a school assembly denouncing the teen after a fight apparently sparked by racial slurs.

In the defamation lawsuit filed in Ontario Superior Court, Elgammal alleges that on Oct. 23, 2008, a student from another private school was at Toronto French School and insulted Elgammal.

The student “seized” upon Elgammal’s Muslim heritage, calling his father “bin Laden,” calling them terrorists and saying, “What are you guys going to do, call out, `Allah, Allah, Allah, Allah, Allah?” Elgammal alleges. (Read more)

The Canadian government has decided not to pursue legislation that would have forced niqab-wearing women to show their faces when voting in Canadian elections:

The federal government has no plans to move forward with proposed legislation to force veiled women to show their faces when voting, the minister of state for democratic reform said Thursday.

“We have other priorities as far as increasing voter participation and with the expanded voting opportunities legislation,” Steven Fletcher said in an interview.

“And that is our focus. That obviously will affect a lot more people.”

Dmitri Soudas, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, confirmed the government still supports the idea of forcing voters to reveal their faces, but said the bill doesn’t have opposition support.

“The bottom line is even if we were to proceed with legislation, it would be voted down immediately,” Soudas said. (Read more)

More on Adil Charkaoui’s cross-Canada speaking tour, this time from Vancouver:

“The purpose of this Canadian tour is simple,” said Charkaoui at a news conference this morning. “I want to talk directly to Canadians, to show them that I was treated unfairly by their government, by our government.”

Charkaoui arrived in Canada from Morocco as a permanent resident with his mother, father and sister in 1995. On May 21, 2003, he was arrested after the federal government signed a security certificate against him, and later accused him of being a threat to national security. Charkaoui was jailed for 21 months and released under the strict conditions of a security certificate in 2005. Today, he wears a GPS tracking device and must alert the Canadian Border Services Agency 48 hours before leaving the island of Montreal. As well, he is not allowed to associate with anyone with a criminal record or use the Internet outside of his home.

“Never has the federal government been able to prove the so called ‘reasonable character’ of the security certificate issued against him,” said Fernand Dechamps, who travelled to Vancouver with Charkaoui. (Read more)

The Ottawa Citizen reflects on a Canadian magazine’s portrayal of Jordan’s Queen Rania:

As it happens, Queen Rania does have very strong ideas about Jordan and its place in the world, although you’d never know it from that Hello Canada article. On her dedicated YouTube channel, you can hear her speak in a intelligent way about the education of girls, for example.

She’s at her most inspiring when she’s talking about the need to eliminate the suspicion and mistrust between the West and the Arab world.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, her personality is her most powerful tool in that project. She’s a high-profile Muslim woman who wears jeans and lets her long hair hang loose and uncovered because that’s her choice. She talks about her relationship with her husband as an equal partnership. She is Queen, and she calls that a “mandate” and takes it seriously, especially given the state of the Middle East. “We live in a tough neighbourhood,” she told Hello Canada. (Read more)


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Image by Rick Westhead via Toronto Star

Image by Rick Westhead via Toronto Star

Before the semester ended, a fellow classmate at York University had informed our African Studies class of a new project concerning children and technology in Africa. Similar to the Bike program where a store donates a bicycle for each child in (particular country), laptops were being given to very young children. After an hour of debate and discussion, I left the class thinking that laptops were the last thing a kid needs for a chance at a normal life. Basic needs have to be met first.

So when I came across this article on the Toronto Star website, I was immediately interested. I am one of those people that hates to hear news about wars or violence anywhere, especially Muslim countries. So I have not been keeping up with developments of any kind concerning in Iraq or Afghanistan. The little that I do hear tends to be notions of decay and lack of progress. Although I wasn’t too keen about laptops in African children’s hands, I didn’t mind, and was actually pleased, to hear about the skateboarding program.

I believe Oliver Percovich, originally from Australia, is doing the right thing by introducing skateboarding as a sport to Afghani children. In the Skateistan School in Kabul he has established, kids do not only learn the art of skateboarding, but learn about general health and language and music. Kids are also hired as skateboarding instructors and paid to teach younger kids or lower levels basic moves, thus enhancing their self-esteem and allowing them to get off the streets.

“Look at Fazillah,” Percovich says to the reporter. “I remember the first day she came here in January. She was walking through the park with a pile of sticks on her back. Her family had her quit school and she was selling chewing gum in the streets for $2 (U.S.) a day. Now she’s far more confident, and we pay her the same as she made on the street to stay in school and come here afterwards and teach skateboarding to the younger children.”

Even when I look around Toronto or Chicago, families from every sort of ethnic background are putting their children in athletic camps and team sports. At the YMCA I belong to, kids have their own gym times, classes and playground so parents are more than happy to buy them memberships and bring them along. Many spend weekends there as a way of getting in quality family bonding time.

No doubt sports have countless benefits. Team sports encourage fitness, peer interaction, leadership qualities, and discipline that comes with practicing a certain skill and working with a Coach.  Individuals who practice non-team sports often admit that they feel fresh and attentive and stress-free. Therefore, many students are encouraged to participate in various sports. However, in a country that is recovering from war and where schools are still being built and where many children must help out their families, kids often struggle to find other forms of recreation.

So far, the Canadian government has donated $15,000, “the German embassy has invested $140,000 and Denmark has contributed $125,000.” From the proceeds, a 1,750-square-metre indoor skate park with a steel-roofed building that costs $200,000 will be completed this August.

Along with spaces for language and music classes, there will be segregation along “the skate park’s concrete surface and ramps so girls can continue to skateboard after they hit puberty – when they begin to wear head-to-toe burqas.”

Unfortunately, many critics have raised concerns over Western cultural influence even though none of the students have adapted the Western skateboarding outfit of baggy jeans and none of the kids know Tony Hawk.

There have been reports that some girls have been beaten by their brothers and some of the student employees have been threatened. To be safe, Oliver and his family moved across town. He insists that his aim is not to bring Western culture to the kids. From time to time, he holds girls-only sessions to include younger children and females who may not get as much of a chance to practice their skills.

The kids just skateboard because of the physical enjoyment of the sport. “This is really fun,” says Fazillah, who has two brothers and six sisters and plans to be a doctor some day. “Why do I like coming out skateboarding?

“It’s just a great time passer.”

I look forward to hearing more about this project and I hope that all cultures will be open and accepting of new ideas before shunning them in fear.

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Reading through Licia Corbella’s  Calgary Herald article “Obama’s Speech filled with dangerous equivocations”, I was filled with a sense of disgust and awe. Disgust because of the assumptions and generalisations she makes and awed because, considering her experience, one would not expect such a shallow analysis of Obama’s speech addressing the Muslim people. Early on in her article she divides the world into a Muslim and a Western world, with the no possibility of overlap between the two. Clearly from her article one is backwards, and primitive, and the other civilised and progressive.
She presents the Western world as being the ideal of humanity and the Muslim world being primitive, ruled by “medieval-minded men” and with human rights “rare to non-existent in these countries”. The amount of generalisation and over-exaggeration in the article is incredible. She repeatedly implies the practise of certain Muslim countries as the practices and laws of all Muslim countries through the use of “Islamic world” and “Muslim world” as a whole, practising certain laws. She states

that women in Islamic world should not be forced to wear a hijab or niqab…

She ignores the fact that only two countries in the “Islamic world” (Iran and Saudi Arabia) enforce a head cover. Similarly she states that the Muslim world is ruled by “brutal dictators” suggesting every Muslim country is a dictatorship. Clearly this is not the case. Although dictatorships may exist in some countries of West Asia, the majority of Muslim-majority countries, are not dictatorships. (Some examples include Pakistan and Turkey, which are democracies; Malaysia, which is a constitutional monarchy; and the UAE, which is a federation.) Before the war, Iraq would have been a dictatorship, though it should be noted that it was supported by the US at some point.

Additionally, all Muslim men in this article are represented as extremely backward people with no individuality and with no hope for progression.

One stunning accusation she makes, without giving any substantial proof, is

…in all of Muslim world beating one’s wife is not just condoned but even encouraged and taught in the mosques.

Such an accusation assumes that all Muslim men beat their wives regularly and their society not only encourages such an act but also teaches them how to perform this act. This implies Muslim women have no freedom whatsoever and all Muslim men at some point in their life will be abusive towards their wife. This accusation is hard to absorb, considering that I belong to a Muslim family and have never once witnessed encouragement of wife battering in any mosque in the west or in the east. As a matter of fact, wife beating and domestic abuse are extremely discouraged and looked down upon by societies and mosques themselves. Domestic violence is part of every society regardless, of whether it is in the west or east, and it can’t be generalized to just one society.

Her constant attempt to not regard Muslim women’s struggle for rights as equal to problems faced by women in the West is quite bleak. She repeatedly suggests that problems faced by western women are minor to the problems faced by Muslim women because western laws protect them and they are literate and aware of those laws. In contrast to them, Muslim women living in the whole of “Muslim world” are supposedly illiterate, unaware of their rights or even unaware of being victimised. Hence the struggle is greater and harder for Muslim women. It is quite astonishing that she fails to recognise, being a Canadian writer, the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act introduced by Stephen Harper in parliament that revokes the right of Canadian women to demand equitable pay. If revoking a right of a western woman is this easy (and, according to Corbella, minor) then how are Muslim women’s struggles greater than Western women, if even some Western women are illiterate with regards to their own rights?

In addition, she also fails to recognize the continuing plight of non-white women trying to achieve equality in the Western World. By assuming that Western women’s plight is minor to that of Muslim women’s struggle, she undermines the struggle of Native women and women of colour in trying to achieve equality. Native women’s struggle for equality is a continuing and by no means minor struggle. They have to face racism in every aspect of Western law. Hence, they are not even recognized as equal in Western law, contrary to Corbella’s belief that “before the law, all western women are equal citizens.” Western women in this article seem to be only white women who supposedly do not have to struggle anymore for their equality and rights. Maybe Corbella needs to talk to a few Western feminists. I’m sure they would clear up this misconception in a second.

By generalizing and exaggerating, Corbella creates a perception of only a misogynistic Muslim society without acknowledging the reality that Muslims come from a wide variety of cultures and countries practising their own laws. If one were to read this article without having any prior knowledge of diversity of Muslim people, one would probably believe Muslim men as patriarchal, and animalistic, Muslim women as being brutalised at the hands of their male counterparts, without having the ability to think and decide for themselves, and Muslim society as the most primitive of societies in the modern progressive world of today.

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Written by a guest contributor and originally posted at Getting a life.

Scrolling down Antonia Zerbisias’ blog today, my eyes lighted upon the title, “American Taliban.” Something about an American Muslim extremist, I surmised—but, I was wrong. She was in fact blogging about the murder of a well-known doctor in Wichita, Kansas.

Nowhere does Zerbisias indicate what connection this tragic event has to Muslims (extremist or otherwise), the Taliban, or even Afghans or Pakistanis. In fact, she gives plenty of evidence that Dr. George Tiller was killed by an extreme right-wing American Christian anti-abortionist. So why not a headline which reflects that? Why bring the Taliban into it, as though non-Muslim Americans have always been and remain incapable of committing acts of violence intended to keep women “in their place”?

It gets worse, with Jed Lewison at the Daily Kos going on about Bill O’Reilly’s long-running “jihad” against George Tiller on Fox News, as though there is no history among non-Muslim Americans of people using public platforms in order to whip up popular sentiment against those they disagree with, and then acting surprised when violence is done against the target of their rantings. Apparently, that sort of thing is just beyond the ability of nice white Christian (or post-Christian) Americans; it takes the Moozlems to do rotten stuff like that.

And the thing is, Zerbisias reads www.muslimahmediawatch.org. So, why doesn’t she get it?

I suppose from the perspective of Zerbisias and Lewison, my objections are just an exercise in splitting hairs at best. After all, isn’t the Taliban by far the most misogynist government in living memory? Haven’t they blown up girls’ schools, thrown acid at girls going to school, publicly whipped women for “crimes” such as leaving the house without a male escort… so why does it matter if they are also rhetorically associated with one crime evidently committed by a white Christian in Kansas? What difference does it make, adding one more misogynistic act of vigilantism to their already lengthy balance-sheet?

What difference does it make, indeed? Probably no difference to those who, every time they read a headline such as “Bomb threat closes school” or ”Woman stabbed to death by husband” don’t know what it’s like to reflexively wish, every single time, that it’s not a Muslim who did it. It makes no difference to those who have the privilege of being judged as individuals. If a white and/or Christian man (or woman) killed Dr. Tiller, no one will assume that this indicates that whites or Christians in general are innately predisposed to be violent. But when any Muslim individual, group or government commits a crime, this is somehow believed to reflect on Muslims in general. Every crime, every horror which makes the news reverberates through school yards and work-places everywhere.

The other day, my middle-school-aged daughter told me that a boy in her class had been calling her a terrorist. Why, I asked. She replied that it is because he knows that her father comes from X [a Middle Eastern country].

Aside from the blame question, there’s also the weight of grief that one carries from over a half a lifetime of hearing largely horrible news about one’s coreligionists. I don’t need one more thing added to it. Not one more thing. I’d say that we have enough to deal with already without also bearing the sins of Christian anti-abortion extremists, even rhetorically.

Not only that, but using Muslim-sounding terminology in order to discuss acts of violence and intimidation carried out by some American Christians on the basis of their own (right-wing Christian) ideology is an act of disavowal which has the risk of short-circuiting some long-overdue critical reflection. It allows right-wingers and others to pretend that Christian misogyny (unlike the Muslim kind) may be a bit over the top at times, but isn’t really dangerous to anyone. A harmful illusion if ever there was one.

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Last week’s Canadian Press story “Sheik aims to stop Muslims who are heading towards extremism” seems at first glance a great example of the way mass media outlets are slowly becoming more attentive to nuance in their coverage of Islam. The article remains careful not to ‘speak for’ either the religious leader who “intervened” in a youth’s path to extremism or for the youth himself; it quotes them directly without overly suspicious paraphrasing, and, perhaps most significantly, insists that islam can in fact be practiced in multiple ways.
However, the ways in – the terms and rhetoric in which it is couched – remains incredibly unfortunate.
There exist many (thinking of Islam as “discursive tradition” instead of a “religion”, as certain anthropologists of Islam have suggested, . If only because the idea of “religion” has a specifically European history, one deeply imbricated in)
Ultimately, it continues to effect a separation between good Muslims
(the spiritual? what about politics? concern and care for Muslims elsewhere?
Sheik aims to stop Muslims who are heading towards extremism
By ISABEL TEOTONIO The Canadian Press
Sat. Jun 13 – 8:56 AM
TORONTO — Omar shakes his head as he recalls “the brothers,” a group of Muslim students who delivered impassioned speeches, laced with Al Qaeda-inspired ex tremist ideology, during Friday prayer ser mons at his high school in Mississauga, Ont.
“Slowly they started getting to your head,” remembers the 18-year-old about his days at Meadowvale Secondary School, where sermons were led by stu dents who were later arrested for belonging to an alleged home grown terror cell.
“I was falling into their trap,” says the man, who asked that his real name not be used.
Luckily, he says, he didn’t fall far. A religious leader, Sheik Say yid Ahmed Amiruddin, saw Omar was asking questions about jihad and defending Mus lim brothers overseas, and “red flagged” the teen as someone be coming radicalized.
Amiruddin intervened, “de toxing” the teen by espousing a more spiritual interpretation of Islam and emphasizing the need to realize one’s responsibility as a Muslim in Canada.
When news broke three years ago that the so-called Toronto 18 terror cell had been broken up in raids that resulted in the arrest of 14 adults and four youth, Omar thought: “That could’ve been me. . . . If I had kept hearing that stuff over and over, maybe I could’ve been there.”
Following the arrests, the sheik devised a 12-step detox pro gram that treats and counsels young Muslims who are sympa thetic to extremist ideology. In December 2008, Amiruddin pre sented his program to members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Muslim community, calling on the community to sup port the program financially and the authorities to endorse it.
“We are not looking to demon ize youth in our community and say they’re all terrorists,” said Amiruddin of the Al Sunnah Foundation of Canada.
He believes extremism can be fought by offering an alternative view of Islam.
“We are working to rehabil itate and ensure others don’t go down the same path as those ar rested.”
Since the arrests, one youth has been convicted and one adult has pleaded guilty, which further fuels concerns of homegrown terrorism, says Amiruddin, add ing: “Canada needs to have a do mestic counter radicalization strategy like those in Britain and the Netherlands.”
The program involves promot ing peace and tolerance and chal lenging a narrow-minded brand of the faith that prevents activ ities such as listening to music and celebrating the Prophet Mu hammad’s birthday. Often, it is parents who bring their children to Amiruddin
Sayyid Ahmed Amiruddin. Image via Toronto Star

Sayyid Ahmed Amiruddin. Image via Toronto Star

Last week’s Canadian Press story “Sheik aims to stop Muslims who are heading towards extremism” seems at first glance a great example of the way mass media outlets are slowly becoming more attentive to nuance in their coverage of Islam. The short article remains careful not to speak for either the religious leader who “intervened” in a youth’s path to extremism or the youth himself; it quotes them directly without overly suspicious paraphrasing; and, perhaps most significantly, insists that Islam is not a single monolithic entity preternaturally doomed to violence and what we know variously as militancy, extremism, fundamentalism, and al-Qaidah. However, the terms by which the article describes this multiplicity in Islam and the rhetoric in which it is couched remain incredibly unfortunate.

The article starts out with an 18-year-old remembering his days at a high school where Friday sermons were “laced with Al Qaeda-inspired extremist ideology”. Over time, he says, the “impassioned” sentiments voiced by “the brothers”(*) began exerting an influence that led him to ask “questions about jihad and defending Muslim brothers overseas.” Sayyid Ahmed Amiruddin, a religious leader active in counseling young Muslims “sympathetic to extremist ideology,” noticed the student’s ‘radicalization’. The article then draws a link between such extremist ideology and the Toronto 18‘s (laughable and contested) “terror cell”, suggesting that, were it not for Amiruddin’s “intervention”, the student might well have been among them. Amiruddin devised a 12-step “detox” program highlighting peace and tolerance and turning to an “alternative view of Islam” that can combat extremism, all in order to turn those susceptible to extremist ideology onto another path. Canada, Amiruddin states, needs a domestic counter-radicalization strategy.

It’s a sad day when you have to give an article points simply for recognizing that Islam can be a source of social good. However, the language used even to make this point leads to some uncomfortable questions that unsettle the binary categories active in the article. “We are not looking to demonize youth in our community and say they’re all terrorists,” Amiruddin is quoted as saying. This sort of understatement makes a backhanded generalization: certainly they aren’t all terrorists – whatever the numbers might be, though, we can identify the terrorists in the population. That is, we know they aren’t all terrorists because we can separate members of Canadian Muslim communities into good Muslims and bad Muslims, those influenced by “al Qaeda-inspired extremist ideology” and those committed to a “more spiritual interpretation”. The political consequences of this sort of distinction should be obvious, and range from government endorsements and grants for those who find themselves on one side of the divide to extraordinary rendition and the suspension of basic civil rights for those on the other. My concern here isn’t with the distinction itself (which has its own history and requires more extensive treatment) but with the utter lack of care with which it is deployed. If you are going to imply a distinction between good Muslims and extremists, for G-d’s sake take the time to describe what you mean by extremism!

In this article readers are left to assume that the constituent terms of extremism include: asking about jihad and about the defense of Muslims internationally; being impassioned; and two further points mentioned at the end of the article, not listening to music and not celebrating the Prophet’s birthday. The “alternative view of Islam” espoused by Amiruddin, on the other hand, is “a more spiritual interpretation”; it emphasizes, as said above, “peace and tolerance” and “realizing one’s responsibility as a Muslim in Canada”. I don’t quibble with these principles – but in the way it’s framed, this “alternative view of Islam” (spiritual and musical though it may be) is rhetorically destined to remain an “alternative”, a counter-Islam, an option away from a stronger (more ‘impassioned”) “brand”. It is not described as an independently legitimate understanding and practice of Islam; nor is there any suggestion that these ‘good’ Muslims might also ask after jihad or be concerned about Muslims beyond the borders of the Canadian state. Far from nitpicking over insignificant word-choices, these sorts of editorial decisions carve out the rhetorical space that the article grants good and bad Muslims, Islam, extremist ideology, and so on.

As Ali Eteraz points out in a recent column in Foreign Policy, the impulse leading states to endorse certain “more spiritual interpretations” of Islam is common to American think-tanks “intent on exploiting sectarian divisions…because they insist on addressing the war on terror [sic] in religious terms”. By insisting that extremism is a function of religion (rather than, say, a product of varied religious, political, and other social forces) and by using words like “detoxification”, the article implies an almost medical condition to Islam in its relation to extremism. The implied argument goes something like this: Islam is a religion. There are different sorts of Islamic religiosity. Some are good; some are bad. The good sort is spiritual and responsible to the Canadian body politic. The bad sort is spread through media like Friday sermons; that is, it is infectious (“slowly they started getting into your head”). Spreading the belief is much like spreading a disease. Those who take on extremist ideology are infected, either as victims (as with the student at the high school) or as host-propagators (as with “the brothers”). The permeable boundary between extremist ideology and spiritual interpretation maps itself very neatly onto the model of a pathology, and suddenly terms like “detoxification program” make sense in relation to “radicalization”. In this picture, the host-perpetrators carry toxins, which they then transfer to those infected. The antidote to these toxins is provided by ‘good’ Muslims, which is why Amiruddin calls on political authorities to “endorse” his detox program.

It’s worth remembering, though, that there are always two options available to treat infected limbs. If the antidote doesn’t work, there’s always amputation. Once differentiated, identified, named, and pathologized, the possibility of amputation becomes the phantom presence lurking around discussions of infectious extremism.

Are these really the kinds of metaphors we want to use to describe radicalization?

(*) Given that Muslims routinely refer to men as “brother” and to women as “sister”, the scare-quotes referring to “the brothers” preaching extremism acts only to invoke fear of a secret “brotherhood” (a Muslim brotherhood?) while it’s entirely possible that the young man was referring to those delivering the Friday sermon without intending to call up the specter of terrorism. Terrorism and extremism, let us remember, are very different creatures.

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Barbara Kay seems not to like open secularism.

Her National Post opinion piece “Religious Symbols Don’t Belong in Public Schools” (May 25, 2009) begins by announcing that last year’s Bouchard-Taylor commission report on reasonable accommodation has backfired: Quebecers today are less willing to reasonably accommodate than before the report came out! Poll responses report an 8% increase in those who consider non-Christian immigrants ‘threats’ to Quebec society. While I wouldn’t tie this directly to the release of the report (correlation, causality, what?), it still points to a curious dynamic in Quebec secularism and culture. The Movement Laique Quebecois (MLQ) recently called for a parliamentary affirmation of the secular character of the province and a “secular charter” ensuring “neutrality around religion in publicly funded fields”. This translates specifically into requesting a ban on ‘religiously symbolic’ clothing for doctors, teachers, and judges.

Kay supports the MLQ and goes further to approve the French model of laïcité, where the ban on what she calls “religious garb” was extended to schoolchildren as well as their teachers. Schoolchildren, she writes, shouldn’t be set apart from their peers by their clothing, because group bonding at school is best encouraged through what she calls “external sameness”. I don’t disagree with her about that – school and military uniforms act similarly to promote “external sameness”. (Prison uniforms too, for that matter.) But the eradication of (external) difference is often less about group bonding than it is about the exercise of social power and the promotion of homogeneity.

Kay then quotes a recent column by Christian Rioux implying that the French policy “put an end to the escalation of fundamentalism” – implying that schoolchildren wearing hijab, for instance, were its “public vehicle” (!). Did Muslim French young women wearing the hijab in school know they were the “public vehicle” of “Islamic fundamentalism”? I think someone should tell them – maybe they missed the memo.  The not-so-subtle implication is that the ever-present threat of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ (the big bearded boogeyman) can be countered even in Quebec – but only if we can keep the publicly-employed or the publicly-educated from wearing their religion on their sleeves. (Or, to be more precise, on their heads.) Kay notes that the debate (l’affaire du foulard) in France “fizzled and died”, and declares that this “points to an obvious, welcome fact: Although their voices were shrill and seemed to point to widespread support, Islamic fundamentalists were revealed as a minority in France’s Muslim community.” Right, because only an “Islamic fundamentalist” would wear a hijab to school. The alternative Kay describes, taken by all but the “fundamentalists”, is ‘integrating’ into “France’s heritage culture”. But what is a ‘heritage culture’? Cultures change and adapt; they’re historical; they transform and shift. Does a “heritage culture” do those things too? Can a “heritage culture” go beyond ‘reasonably accommodating’ non-Christian immigrants to, say, letting them participate in and shape that culture? “Heritage culture” seems too often to be used as a euphemism for, well, less pretty ideas of cultural legitimacy.

For example, one of the specific changes recommended by the Bouchard-Taylor report was removing the crucifix from the wall of Quebec’s National Assembly: “Still in keeping with the notion of the separation of Church and State, we believe that the crucifix must be removed from the wall of the National Assembly, which, indeed, is the very place that symbolizes the constitutional state…” (“Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation”, full English edition, p. 20) and “This cross…suggests that a very special closeness exists between legislative power and the religion of the majority. It seems preferable for the very place where elected representatives deliberate and legislate not to be identified with a specific religion. The National Assembly is the assembly of all Quebecers” (p. 152). The report was simply recommending removing the crucifix from its current place to somewhere more appropriate (less symbolically loud, less imbricated in the workings of legislation), but Jean Charest, the Quebec premier, “quickly rejected” this recommendation, saying “we cannot erase our history.” For all the angst over secularism, Quebec politics continue to be conducted under the aegis of the cross! The justification offered by the premier is significant: the crucifix in the National Assembly is not a religious symbol but is a historical artifact. It is part of the “heritage culture”. (By the by, it was installed there in 1936, which really isn’t that long ago. How long does it take for something to become part of the “heritage culture”?) Could one extrapolate this reasoning to the prayers that were still said at municipal council meetings – are those also part of the “heritage culture”, or are they “religious”? Or – perish the thought! – might they be both, requiring a more complicated picture of the intersection of religion and culture?

Reuters Picture - Crucifix on the wall of the National Assembly

Reuters Picture - Crucifix on the wall of the National Assembly

There’s a lesson to be learned from the French ban on conspicuous religious symbolism, Kay says. She doesn’t describe this lesson in detail, but implies that a similar ban on ‘religiously symbolic garb’ in schools as well as in public offices would 1) promote group bonding through accelerated integration; 2) stop dead any rise in “Islamic fundamentalism”; and also 3) stimulate some reactionary alarms about a supposed “curtailment of rights”: there will “doubtless be the usual suspects charging the group with racism”. Whether or not it is racism is another discussion, but I do think it’s fair to suggest that the MLQ’s demand is rooted in a more fundamental discomfort with difference. Only by eradicating religious symbolism on the part of those in the employ of the state, its argument must run, can Quebec secularism be secured. The question then is how far this logic will go. What about religious symbolism in the workplace? Can a car saleswoman wearing hijab be truly neutral as she works in the public sphere?

The obvious and immediate response, of course, is to reassure everybody involved that in fact nothing bad will happen if a teacher is wearing a kippah while teaching history. Essentially, though, this isn’t a debate between those who see an obligation to wear certain things and those who want to avoid contaminating the public sphere with religion. At its more fundamental level, this is a debate between different models of coexistence, and indeed of different models of secularism. Secularism is a fact of Quebec society, as the Bouchard-Taylor report repeats (p. 133), and so doesn’t need to be constantly reaffirmed. Rather, the report recognizes that there are different models of secularism available, just as there exist different (and equally legitimate) kinds of social unity, and so the question remaining is which secularism Quebec will adopt.

The MLQ includes in its demands the “publication of a white paper” or parliamentary commission on the place of religion in public life. Why does this sound familiar? Oh, right, because the Bouchard-Taylor commission report called for a white paper too (pp. 153-154), as a way of contributing to and structuring the debate on Quebec secularism. The difference between the two, however, seems to be that the report takes the time to outline what it means by secularism (see its chapter 7, “The Quebec System of Secularism”, pp. 132-154). It outlines what it views as four key principles (1) the moral equality of persons; 2) freedom of conscience and religion; 3) state neutrality toward all religions; and 4) the separation – or, better yet, the reciprocal autonomy – of religions and the state) and then describes two very different models: “rigid” secularism, adopted by those seeking to erode religious belief and practice in the cause of integration, and “open” secularism, which seeks not to eradicate but to build dialogue across those same differences. The Bouchard-Taylor report strongly advocates an open secularism, which, it says, is the model that Quebec has historically developed.

Barbara Kay, on the other hand, presents arguments for a rigid secularism that refuses public difference in the name of public unity. “Let diversity flourish in our private lives,” she concludes. “Let unity flourish in public.” I would argue, with the Bouchard-Taylor report, that a fuller, deeper sense of community is possible without leveling all religious and ethnic particularities. Coexistence, that is, does not require uniformity. The report has this to say on the topic of ‘religious’ attire in the public sphere:

prohibitinagents of the State from wearing religious signs has a twofold cost, i.e. the restriction of a)
the freedom of conscience and religion of the individuals concerned and, possibly, of b) equality of access to jobs in the
public and parapublic service. If, as we saw in Chapter V, no right is absolute, a liberal democracy must always have compelling
reasons for infringing the basic rights and freedoms of part of the population. Is the appearance of neutrality aimed at by the rule
prohibiting agents of the State from wearing religious signs a compelling reason?
The appearance of neutrality is important but we do not believe that it warrants a general rule that would prohibit agents of the
State from wearing religious signs. If such a prohibition is better justified, as we will see later, in the case of certain specific
functions, what is important, above all, generally speaking, is that agents of the State display impartiality in the performance of their
duties. A State employee must seek to accomplish the mission attributed by legislators to the institution that he serves. His acts
must neither be dictated by his faith nor his philosophical beliefs but by the desire to achieve the purposes inherent in the position
that he occupies. Why should we think that the person who wears a religious sign would be less likely to display impartiality,
professionalism and loyalty to the institution than the person who does not wear such a sign? Why, therefore, dwell on external
displays of faith? Should we not also demand of State employees that they relinquish any conviction of conscience?34 It would
obviously be absurd to do so. Why think a priori that people who display their religious affiliation are less likely to take things into
consideration than those who do not externalize their convictions of conscience or who externalize them in a much less visible
manner (the wearing of the Catholic cross comes to mind)? Why refuse one person the presumption of impartiality and grant it to

prohibiting agents of the State from wearing religious signs has a twofold cost, i.e. the restriction of a) the freedom of conscience and religion of the individuals concerned and, possibly, of b) equality of access to jobs in the public and parapublic service. (…) The appearance of neutrality is important but we do not believe that it warrants a general rule that would prohibit agents of the State from wearing religious signs. (…) [A State employee’s] acts must neither be dictated by his faith nor his philosophical beliefs but by the desire to achieve the purposes inherent in the position that he occupies. Why should we think that the person who wears a religious sign would be less likely to display impartiality, professionalism and loyalty to the institution than the person who does not wear such a sign? Why, therefore, dwell on external displays of faith? Should we not also demand of State employees that they relinquish any conviction of conscience? It would obviously be absurd to do so. Why think a priori that people who display their religious affiliation are less likely to take things into consideration than those who do not externalize their convictions of conscience or who externalize them in a much less visible manner[?] Why refuse one person the presumption of impartiality and grant it to the other one? (p. 149)

The Bouchard-Taylor report isn’t without its problems, but it – and the position of the Federation de Femmes du Quebec, as covered here by Krista two weeks ago – seems far more aligned with the spirit of ‘reasonable accommodation’ than Barbara Kay. Rigid secularism, on the other hand, promotes a curious attitude toward religion: ‘Want to follow a non-Christian religion?’ it seems to ask. ‘Well, okay, as long as it doesn’t show itself publicly.’

There’s another side to this whole question, though, and that has to do less with rigid secularist anxieties than it does about the way the debate is framed. Why are these material items (pieces of cloth, for example) considered religious symbols (as in the title of Kay’s op-ed)? A symbol, according to certain semiotic theories, is a ‘conventional sign’: something socially recognized to stand for something else. Because it stands in for something else, it is in a sense displaceable: signs can approximate each other, so it shouldn’t really matter that much to you if you wear a large crucifix or a small one. By calling the offending articles ‘symbols’, the debate is blindsiding and completely excluding those – like many Muslim women – who consider their adoption the fulfillment of a duty rather than symbolic expression.

If symbols are conventional signs, is there consensus on what the public presence of the kippah represents? Do we agree on what a hijab represents? The debate centers on signes religieux ostensibles – and seems to imply that, collectively, the presence of large crosses, hijabs, kippahs, and other supposed evidences of religious practice signals the incursion of religion into the public sphere. Public officials, the MLQ and Barbara Kay argue, compromise the neutrality of the state as soon as they metaphorically represent religion.

The ironic thing is, though, that throughout all this discussion, the state takes on itself the right – and the mandate – of carefully defining the purpose, function, and form of ‘religious symbols’. (The crucifix is “historical” but the hijab is “religious.” It’s like a game of symbols, but the state is making up the rules…) It dedicates itself to marking the limits of religion, the site of religion, the proper domain of religion. It defines what is correct religious practice. And, finally, it outlines the proper expression of religiosity. The state, that is, engages itself in theological reflection!

So much for the separation of religion and politics.

See also:

Talal Asad, “Trying to Understand French Secularism,” in Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World, ed. Hent de Vries and Lawrence Sullivan (Fordham UP, 2006) (pdf online here)

Joan Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton UP, 2007)

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This post was originally published at Muslimah Media Watch.

Last week, Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean caused a huge storm in the media by eating a piece of seal heart while on a visit to an Inuit community in Nunavut, northern Canada.  In the context of increasing international (and domestic) outrage against the seal hunt in Canada, Jean had this to say about her act (all quotes from this article):

“These are ancient practices that are part of a way of life,” Jean said, framing her gutsy gesture as an act of solidarity with the Inuit. “If you can’t understand that, you’re completely missing the reality of life here.”

(For those of you wondering what on earth this has to do with Muslim women, don’t worry, I’ll get to it.)

Michaëlle Jean. Source: Canadian Press, via Toronto Star website

Michaëlle Jean. Source: Canadian Press, via Toronto Star website

Enter PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.)  Let me be clear that I am a strong advocate that animals should be treated ethically, and that I don’t oppose the objectives of an organisation like PETA.  Their methods, on the other hand, are horribly problematic, and PETA has come under criticism time and time again for campaigns involving offensive representations of slavery, the Holocaust, the KKK, non-status immigrants, and women (several times over.) (Warning that some of the linked articles contain partial nudity and/or images of torture of humans and animals.)

PETA’s response to Jean eating the seal meat was predictable:

“It amazes us that a Canadian official would indulge such blood lust. It sounds like she’s trying to give Canadians an even more Neanderthal image around the world than they already have,” said Dan Mathews, vice-president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

After essentially labelling traditional Inuit hunting practices as “blood lust” and Neanderthalic, the PETA spokesperson claimed that the indigenous people’s hunt was not the main target of their anti-seal-hunting campaign.  However, as the article then tells us,

That doesn’t mean animal-rights activists approve of Inuit seal-hunting traditions. PETA yesterday likened Jean’s sampling of seal heart to “taking part in the beating of women in the Middle East because it is part of local practice.” (emphasis mine)

Yeah.  So what we can learn from PETA is that:

1. The Middle East is the only place where beating of women happens.

2. Beating of women is an integral part of Middle Eastern cultural practices.  (You know, they’ve probably got it on all their travel brochures.  “Come visit the Middle East, and celebrate our cultural pride by taking part in the time-honoured tradition of woman-beating!”)

Do I even have to go into all the ways that that’s wrong and offensive?  It’s as if people have these images of oppressed Middle Eastern women (usually interchangeable with Muslim women, of course) just waiting around in their heads so that they can be expressed in metaphors that are completely out of context. Sigh…

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