Fear-mongering at the expense of Muslims is the current political game in Canada. In Quebec we have a public consultation on what constitutes “reasonable accommodation” of minorities. That consultation grew out of the code of conduct adopted by the town of Hérouxville, which denounced such behavior as stoning women to death and female circumcision, a “code” clearly aimed at demonizing Muslims.
The leader of the Official Opposition in Quebec’s National Assembly, Mario Dumont, picked up on the controversy surrounding the Hérouxville furor, to raise questions about accommodation of minorities — “reasonable accommodation” is the term commonly used now. In French there is a colorful turn of phrase which can be translated as “playing the racist card.” That was the card which Dumont has chosen to play, and he has played it well. Premier Jean Charest, rather than standing up to Dumont’s disgusting performance, side-stepped the issue by setting up a public consultation process.
The commission holding the consultation opened on September 10 and 11 in Gatineau, a city directly across the river from Ottawa. While some of the presentations took aim at Islam and a Muslim threat to the fabric of Quebec society, more focused on religion in the schools. Quebec has just gone through a process of eliminating Catholic religious indoctrination in public schools, a move that has been widely supported by the population, but militant Catholics have used the consultation to demand a reversal, or at least some kind of “reasonable accommodation.”
Other major themes in the presentations were the threat to Quebec culture and especially the French language as a result of immigration. Many Anglo-Saxons from Ontario are moving to Gatineau because of lower housing costs, using it as a bedroom Ottawa suburb, and quite a few do not speak French.
The fear of cultural change in Quebec is part of the province’s struggle with modernity. Paradoxically, the resentment against the hijab is a resentment against what is perceived to be too slow an acceptance by Muslims of that same modernity. It’s a classical case of the pot calling the kettle black. In Quebec, women got the vote only in 1940. The period of the 1960s is referred to as Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, involving a major shift in values and political orientation and a movement away from the church domination which, for example, had been instrumental in holding back women’s right to vote. Yet, that revolution is not over, as witnessed by the presentations at the consultation. It may not be in fashion to quote Karl Marx these days, but he summed up the situation well: “The history of all past generations weighs on the human brain like a nightmare.”
At the same time that Quebec’s public consultation was getting off the ground, a phoney controversy broke out about the right of women to vote while wearing a niqab. Marc Mayrand, Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, issued voter regulations for three by-elections, which made provision for people to vote with faces covered. These regulations raised a fury among the political class and the general public. Prime Minister Stephen Harper denounced the provision, and politicians of all stripes joined in on the attack, with varying degrees of vehemence. Mayrand bravely withstood the onslaught, pointing out to parliamentarians that they are the ones that passed the law that he is required to implement, even though they were informed at the time of its consideration that it would allow people to vote without showing their faces. What is missing so far from this controversy is what Muslims are saying.
Mohamed Elmasry, President of the Canadian Islamic Congress, Canada’s largest Muslim organization, pointed out that his group had not been consulted. In fact, he opposes allowing women to vote while wearing the niqab. He correctly observed that the issue is a red herring, an example of Islamophobia.
Has anyone seen a woman wearing a niqab attempting to vote? No. Has any such woman raised the matter? No. However, the issue is useful for political purposes. Let’s take a case in point. A parliamentary committee was to hold a meeting to address illegitimate campaign funding practices by the governing Conservative Party during the last elections. A Conservative MP immediately rose at the opening of the committee meeting to make a motion about niqab-clad women voting. Using a tactic outlined in a booklet developed by the Conservative Party which explains how to tie up legislative procedures, the Conservatives on the committee filibustered on the niqab issue till the meeting was scheduled to end. A Conservative victory and a victory for bigotry and Islamophobia.
In the face of all this unpleasantness, it is heartening to be able to report a faint glimmer of light. Abdourahman Kahin was an observer at the hearings in Gatineau. He represents Présence Musulmane, an organization promoting public education about Islam and interfaith dialogue. His group gives lectures and organizes interfaith forums in Montreal and Ottawa. They tackle the sensitive issues at these events, and they are advocates for Muslim “feminism,” as he called it: the right of Muslim women to wear traditional coverings “and not to wear them. ” There is a need for a lot more of this kind of activity.