Commentary by: Fred Maroun in Ottawa
Quebec recently passed a law banning face coverings for people delivering or receiving public services, which has re-ignited the debate across Canada on banning the burqa and niqab.
Some people, such as Idil Issa, have accused Quebec’s politicians of going after Muslims because they are a minority and an easy target. Knowledge of Quebec history and culture, however, contradicts that accusation.
Quebec’s strong liberal values
Quebec is by far the most progressive province in Canada. Its two main parties are centrist (the Liberal Party of Quebec) and centre left (the Bloc Quebecois) whereas all other provinces have strong conservative parties. Quebec’s support for same-sex marriage is at 78%, possibly a world record. Quebec is a striving multicultural and diverse society.
Quebec was the only Canadian province to undergo a revolution (albeit a non-violent one, aptly named the Quiet Revolution) against religious and political conservatism.
There is a problem when women live in a society as liberal as Quebec and yet feel the need to comply with some of the most conservative and patriarchal religious rules ever invented. The fact that many Quebecers recognize this as a problem is not a symptom of intolerance.
When Quebec’s new law is discussed, the discussion invariably drifts towards the face covering of some Muslim women due to a version of Islam that is highly sexist and regressive, commonly referred to as Islamism. The concern of citizens is clearly not face coverings in the abstract but the religious radicalism that it implies.
I grew up in Lebanon at a time when Muslims were already the majority, and yet I never saw a woman with her face covered in public, even in Muslim neighborhoods. Several members of my family grew up in Egypt and make the same observation. With the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, however, the niqab and the burqa are now often seen in the streets of Cairo.
Raheel Raza, president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, wrote, “[I] never saw a niqab when I was growing up in Karachi, Pakistan. […] But in the 25 years I have called Canada home, I have seen a steady rise of Muslim women being strangled in the pernicious black tent that is passed off to naïve and guilt-ridden white, mainstream Canadians as an essential Islamic practice”.
Islamism is the opposite of social liberalism. Whereas liberalism aims to achieve for women equal rights and opportunities, Islamism considers women inferior and expects them to be subservient. The infiltration of Islamist values into Canadian society can only send chills into the backs of liberals.
A political hot potato
There are however no easy answers to fighting Islamism in Canada since we also value freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and personal choice. A ban on face coverings can be seen as a patriarchal imposition on women who may in theory choose to cover their faces. And if a husband prevents his wife from leaving the house with her face uncovered, a ban may transform her house into a jail.
Politicians try to avoid complex issues, and the growth of Islamism in liberal societies is undoubtedly a complex issue. Quebec politicians deserve credit for at least trying. Federal politicians refuse to even talk about it.
During the Conservative leadership campaign, Kellie Leitch attempted to bring forward a proposal to defend Canadian values by asking some tough questions of potential immigrants, but she faced strong opposition even within her party. After Andrew Scheer won the leadership, he left Leitch out of his shadow cabinet and gave another former candidate, Lisa Raitt, the position of deputy leader even though Leitch received almost twice as many votes as Raitt on the first ballot.
The federal Liberal Party and the NDP stay even farther away than their conservative counterparts from fighting Islamism. Almost all Liberal Members of Parliament (MPs), all NDP MPs, and a small number of Conservative MPs passed a vague motion condemning “Islamophobia” without defining its meaning, which could be interpreted as an attempt to muzzle legitimate criticism of Islamism.
Demagogues could fill the void
While I never saw burqas and niqabs in Lebanon, I see them now in Ottawa, far too often. Such occurrences are frequent reminders to Canadians that the issue of Islamism is not a faraway problem but a local one.
Canada has no leading politician resembling Donald Trump at the moment, but neither did the U.S. until two years ago. Then Trump barged into the political scene and raised issues that Americans were concerned about, such as Islamic terrorism, issues that other politicians were afraid to discuss.
There are likely more significant reasons why Trump was elected, but his willingness to be politically incorrect was undoubtedly one of the attributes that attracted voters to him. We see such a phenomenon occurring in parts of Europe as well, such as Germany where the extreme right has significantly weakened Chancellor Angela Merkel’s dominance.
Politicians must find the courage to ask the politically incorrect questions, even when they do not have all the answers, so that intelligent solutions can emerge. If competent politicians ignore the challenge, demagogues may take advantage of the vacuum and propose ill-conceived populist ideas, which is the last thing we need.
Fred Maroun is a Canadian of Arab origin. He lived in Lebanon until 1984, including during 10 years of civil war. He regularly blogs for The Times of Israel.