Fearing the Niqab: A Teachable Moment

My reaction to the current Conservative campaign of fear concerning Muslims has changed over the last few weeks. I was deeply troubled by the niqab citizenship ban and actually quite upset when I learned of the establishment of a “barbaric cultural practices hotline,” reinforcing negative stereotypes about Muslims and other religious and cultural minorities.The reaction of many columnists, pundits, editorialists and ordinary Canadians has lessened my anxiety. Instead of stirring up voter support, the Conservatives seem to have made themselves more of a laughing stock, providing fodder for political satirists and would-be satirists who have pointed to the ridiculous and offensive nature of the proposal. Others have talked about the magical properties of the whole discussion to make voters forget the name Mike Duffy.The term “Jumping the Shark” has even been resurrected to describe the situation. For any reader under the age of 40, this term applies to a situation where a TV series, reaching a natural end point, hangs on by having its stars undertake crazier and crazier stunts. Sort of like when Prime Minister Harper called for a ban on bureaucrats wearing niqabs even though there is no evidence of a single niqab-wearing woman in the entire federal public service.This is still, however, a serious matter. Recent attacks upon Muslim women and a general sense of disunity in the country over the issue should not be dismissed. Maybe this current debate could be used as a teachable moment for Canadians — to borrow a term made famous by President Barack Obama in relation to a racial incident in the United States.First, there appears to be confusion about the meaning of minority rights. Simply put, these are rights enjoyed by minorities that cannot be taken away by the majority. It is the recognition that there will always be individuals or groups whose actions or beliefs are so different, that they need to be protected from the mainstream's efforts to curb or stop them.It is a concept that has existed for hundreds of years. The 19th-century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville put it eloquently: “As democracy is conceived today, the minority's rights must be protected no matter how singular or alienated the minority is from the majority society; otherwise, the majority's rights lose their meaning.” Minority rights are protected by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which, according to a recent survey, is seen by most Canadians as an important symbol of our identity as a nation.Many of us enjoy minority rights in Canada — if you are religious, if you have a disability, if you are a member of the LGBTQ community or are a francophone. And there are a hundred other examples.This puts the entire niqab debate in a new light. The fact that the vast majority of Canadians support a niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies actually reinforces our responsibility to protect a woman's right to wear such garb, rather than allowing the majority to impose its beliefs on this minority group.Minority rights are not absolute and our efforts to deal with them are often referred to as accommodation — another misunderstood term. Accommodation is about taking reasonable steps to respect the rights of minorities as long as they do not seriously infringe the rights of other persons or cause huge upheaval or costs. An illustrative example sometimes raised is the banning of syringes in schools. This idea may seem reasonable unless you are a diabetic student. Through accommodation we find a way to allow those students to access syringes without undermining the entire ban.This is similar to the way Citizenship Court judges (when the ban has not been in effect) have found ways to properly identify niqab-wearing women before they take the oath without undermining the entire process.But this is much more than about minority rights. If we are going to thrive as a nation in the face of a growing Muslim population, we have to do more than accommodate each other. We have to begin to understand each other. What if the media had devoted half of the coverage of this debate to trying to explain the reason why some women feel the need to wear a niqab and how they feel that practice fits into their faith tradition? Maybe we would be at a different point in the discussion.And it can't stop there. Our country is facing some very pressing issues. What if we made more efforts to try to work together to solve them by seriously welcoming different belief systems and perspectives to the discussion? Who knows, it might lessen stereotypes, help us understand our differences and actually allow us to tackle some major challenges facing our nation. Now wouldn't that be a positive expression of Canadian values.John Milloy is a former Ontario cabinet minister who served as MPP for Kitchener Centre from 2003 to 2014.  Prior to that, he worked on Parliament Hill, including five years in the office of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. He is currently the Co-director of the Centre for Public Ethics and Assistant Professor of Public Ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural Practitioner in Residence in Wilfrid Laurier University's Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo's Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at: [email protected] or follow him on twitter at: @John_Milloy.