Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently vowed to appeal the Federal Court’s decision to lift a ban preventing women from wearing the niqab during the Canadian Oath of Citizenship ceremony. In light of the recent terrorist attack at Parliament Hill, Harper has taken an iron pillar stance in the fight against religious extremism in Canada, highlighted by his proposal of Bill C-51. Setting aside the discussion of exactly how and to what degree the banning of the niqab would benefit this cause, it is worth discussing the prime minister’s recent statements in context. It seems quite clear that Harper’s latest move in his battle against extremism is a regressive and dangerous step for Canada.
Understandably, many Canadians want to see the promotion of secularism and agree with Harper that a religious garment has no place in a governmental ceremony. However, in cases such as this, there is a dangerously thin line between secularism and oppression. To quote the National Secular Society, “[The first principle of secularism..] ensures that religious groups don’t interfere in affairs of state, and makes sure the state doesn’t interfere in religious affairs.” Clearly, Harper is failing to abide by the second part of that principle. Essentially, he is interfering with a religious practice which poses no real threat to the political process of the ceremony.
In fact, Harper previously claimed repeatedly that the niqab was more of a cultural issue rather than a religious one. This claim might be convincing if not for the fact that his main points of argument regarding the issue were ridden with phrases like, “Muslim extremists,” and “Jihad terror.”
Harper also criticized the niqab, calling it an offensive symbol of oppression which is “rooted in a culture which is anti-woman.” This is a sentiment which the majority of Canadians seem to agree with, according to a poll by the Toronto Star. However, it is difficult to miss the intolerant and regressive nature of this kind of close-minded thinking. This belief readily assumes that all women who wear a veil are either brainwashed or oppressed, and are forced to do so by a male patriarch, whereas in reality many women wear it because they consciously choose to, whether it is to express their faith or their character. Furthermore, the logic behind banning an object which women wear to feel comfortable, both physically and spiritually, in order to promote freedom and equality, is flawed. Holding the niqab up as a symbol of oppression and inequality is a short-sighted action which promotes intolerance.
With regards to intolerance, it is important to discuss the societal effect of these secular government policies. This is especially relevant to Quebec, which has a long history of trying to balance secularism with the diversity of religions and cultures present within the province. Perhaps the most notable example was in 2013, when the Parti Québécois proposed a Quebec charter of values, which would restrict public employees from donning religious articles, such as niqabs. What followed was a storm of public racist attacks on Muslim women in the province. It seems to be a trend that the government’s implementation of secularism is often taken by radicals as a green light to spew their blatantly racist, bigoted ideals. Coincidentally, it is often this kind of intolerance and sense of superiority against other cultures that serves as both the foundation and fuel for religious extremism. Therefore, a policy banning religious symbols inevitably does nothing but reinforce the self-righteous anger on both sides of the argument.
Canada should learn from the failures of Quebec and tread carefully. Harper’s strategy for fighting religious extremism is paving a dangerous future for Canada and threatening its identity as a progressive and multicultural nation.