Friday, November 16, 2007

HOUR: The debate is a farce

Muslim community leaders decry fallout from increasingly divisive reasonable accommodation dialogue

Islamic identity in Quebec rests at the centre of the current storm of debate surrounding reasonable accommodation as the rights of Muslim minorities in the province to publicly practise religious customs are under attack in a state-sponsored commission.

Startling many Canadians is the overt racism towards non-dominant cultures in Quebec, expressed repeatedly in hearings initiated by the Liberal minority government of Jean Charest on the eve of the last provincial elections. Québécois from the rural regions of the province are delivering a social discourse that is shaking the contested conception of Canada as a multiculturally tolerant society.

"The only way to return peace and harmony in Quebec is to ban religious accommodation," announced a woman participating in the state commission in Gatineau in October. Dominant symbols of Christianity in the province aren't up for discussion in the hearings, as the giant cross on Mount Royal continues to shine nightly in the sky.

Muslim community groups throughout the city are organizing their response to the current debate surrounding reasonable accommodation in the lead-up to the public hearings in Montreal, scheduled for Nov. 27 in French and Nov. 29 in English.

The civil rights of Muslim women within Islamic practices are being fiercely discussed throughout Quebec, often by non-Muslims in the rural regions of the province who have never encountered a Muslim face-to-face.

"I think that the motivation was not really to have a real debate

or dialogue around issues that people don't understand or are not comfortable with - they want to apply their own view of women's liberty, so I find this very intrusive, very discriminatory," explains May Hayder of Montreal's Al-Hidaya Association.

In the context of Quebec's discussion on reasonable accommodation, the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, a provincial body that advises the government on issues relating to women, appealed to Charest's Liberals to force public employees to remove visible religious symbols within workspaces.

Apart from large Christian crosses, Sikh turbans and Jewish yarmulkes, targeted symbols include the common headscarf which conceals the hair and neck of Muslim women, arguing its abolition would ensure equality between men and women in Quebec.

"Freedom of religion must be limited, intrinsically, by the right to equality between women and men," explains Christiane Pelchat, the president of the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, in a statement during which she described equality between the sexes as a "hallmark of the Quebec identity."

According to the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, Islamic symbols such as the headscarf send "a message of the submission of a woman, which should not be conveyed to young children as part of a secular education, which is required to promote equality between men and women."

The targeting of Islamic symbols in the context of reasonable accommodation is pushing increasing numbers within Montreal's Muslim community to feel isolated from the broader society.

"How do you want to liberate a woman by imposing on her a certain way of life that she herself doesn't agree on?" asks Hayder. "I don't see this as liberation. I see this as oppression, actually. If for any reason Muslim women feel that things are being imposed on them within their community or faith, we live in a democratic society in which freedom is cherished and where they have the freedom to liberate themselves."

Lost in the current debate is also a recognition that a Muslim community and Islamic customs have existed in Montreal since the late 1800s, when both Christian and Muslim migrants from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine first established communities here.

"A Muslim community first established itself in Quebec more than 100 years ago. People from the Middle East have had an impact on the formation of Quebec society for generations," explains Hesham Hallal of the Centre Communautaire Musulman de Montréal, one of Montreal's largest Muslim community centres.

"For now this discussion on reasonable accommodation is not a debate. For a real debate to happen it needs to occur on a basis of equality. However, today we are witnessing a discourse rooted in a majority against a minority discourse," continues Hallal.

According to Mostafa Henaway of the Immigrant Workers' Centre in Côte-des-Neiges, the current discussion on reasonable accommodation has nothing to do with building a secular society in Quebec.

"Harper's Conservatives and the ADQ in Quebec are targeting the religious elements of the Muslim community to push a conservative and pro-war agenda in this province," explains Henaway. "This debate has nothing to do with secular politics, or creating a secular society. Real secularism would allow people to express their individual religion and spirituality, not in conflict with the rest of society, which is the opposite of the current discussion on reasonable accommodation."