Kenney’s Niqab Policy is a Victory for Secularism
Jackson Doughart & David Rand
This installment of the AFT blog is a response to an editorial, published in the Ottawa Citizen in December 2011, in which Andrew Potter criticizes the recent decision to ban the wearing of the niqab by participants of citizenship ceremonies. In this blog, we argue that the decision to ban face-covering in this context constitutes an important victory for secularism.
Citizenship and Immigration minister Jason Kenney has issued a directive requiring all persons to show their faces when taking the Canadian citizenship oath. This will force Muslim women who wear a niqab to remove their face coverings. In defence of this decision, Kenney has spoken of the shared Canadian values of openness and equality, and against the “segregation of one group of Canadians.”
“[To] allow them to hide their faces [and] their identity from us precisely when they are joining our community is contrary to Canada’s proud commitment to openness and to social cohesion,” remarked Kenney on December 12. “Canadian citizenship . . . defines who we are as Canadians including our mutual responsibilities to one another and a shared commitment to values that are rooted in our history.”
We agree with Minister Kenney’s decision. Both the niqab and the burqa, the full-length garment worn in public by some Muslim women, are pitiless symbols of female oppression, whose presence at any official ceremony is an affront to our cultural fundamental of gender equality. Moreover, how can one justify hiding oneself when making a solemn declaration of such great importance?
But Andrew Potter, the managing editor of the Ottawa Citizen, opposes the new directive. His December 22 column “Canada has never had shared values” explains that as a liberal democracy that respects “non-negotiable disagreements” over the way people live their lives, Canada’s political institutions “don’t assume that citizens have shared values.” He goes on to opine that the notion of a shared culture and shared set of values “exists only in the minds of xenophobes and politicians on the stump.”
According to Potter, our political institutions “work by providing a framework that is neutral with respect to controversial questions of value. This neutrality is what underwrites our freedoms of expression, of religion, and of association.” Potter adds that this “is also what motivated a young Pierre Trudeau to declare that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, and which inevitably led to homosexuals winning the right to marry.”
Potter’s stance may appear to exemplify liberal tolerance for immigrants of different cultural backgrounds, but the political multiculturalism which he defends is actually quite illiberal and is especially anti-secular. Once one understands the implications of this attitude, it becomes immediately clear that instead of providing a vehicle for tolerance and social progress, multiculturalism can be used to justify very backward and archaic practices that have no place in Canada.
Far from being relativistic, Canada’s political culture and institutions are based on an evolving set of democratic values which we share with several other countries. We often call them Western values because they are rooted in the Age of Enlightenment and in the history of Western countries, but they are really universal democratic values whose adoption would improve the fortunes of any society. Our conception of individual liberty has developed in close connection with the realization of these Enlightenment ideas and is responsible for many social advancements in our culture. This conception also serves as a guiding principle for our public discourse, without which we would quite understandably be lost.
One of the Enlightenment values which Potter completely misunderstands, or deliberately ignores, is secularism — the principle that the government should be free from the influence of religious institutions and traditions. The practice of secularism in Canadian culture is influenced by both the American separation of religion and government and the much more precise French tradition of laïcité, which sets very explicit boundaries between religious and governmental institutions.
Unfortunately, the Canadian constitution does not formally separate church from state in the manner of the First Amendment to the United States constitution. However, secularism is nevertheless a fundamental principle of modern liberal democracy because it protects both freedom of religion, an identified constitutional liberty, and freedom from religion, its necessary corollary. Our understanding of an appropriate distance between state and religion may be a foreign concept for many immigrants, especially those from countries where political and religious authority are greatly intertwined. On the other hand, some immigrants chose Canada because they prefer to live in a more secular society and would welcome measures which consolidate secularism.
The case of the niqab provides an excellent illustration of how secularism can be subverted by the accommodating efforts of multiculturalism. The expectation that new citizens will show their faces while taking the oath is a reasonable one. Even though many people may wish to cover their face for a variety of prerogatives, this requirement is applied equally to everyone, regardless of creed. Multiculturalists do not seek to do away with such a general expectation, but rather want to have an exception made for certain people based on their chosen beliefs. This strategy simultaneously rejects equal treatment while obstructing the objectives of secularism.
Freedom of religion does not include the privilege of infringing on the freedom of others by obliging them to adapt to one’s particular religious beliefs. Forcing public institutions to accommodate parochial religious practices is unfair to everyone who does not subscribe thereto. Thus, so-called “reasonable” accommodation, which is invariably a euphemism for religious accommodation, is never acceptable. Most importantly, this limitation does not threaten anyone’s freedom to practice their religion either in their private lives or in public spaces which are not state institutions.
But Andrew Potter is so besotted with multiculturalism that he writes approvingly, or at least uncritically, of allowing Muslim women to wear face-coverings during the citizenship oath, of creating a religious exception for Sikhs in the RCMP, and of permitting Muslim parents to deprive their children of music in kindergarten.
All three are egregious violations of secularism, but the third also undermines the public stake in the education of children. Just because a girl is unlucky enough to have parents whose religion forbids music should not force her to be excluded from music in kindergarten. If freedom of conscience is to mean anything, then it must include the freedom of the child not to be identified by the religion of her parents, but to be considered a child like any other until she is sufficiently mature to decide for herself. Expressions such as “Muslim child” and “Christian child” should be banished from our vocabulary.
Furthermore, Potter’s example involving same-sex marriage does nothing to prove that Canadians have no shared values. If gay marriage has been principally accepted in Canada due to a vacuum of values, as he suggests, it must follow that any public respect for gay rights is extremely shallow and vulnerable. Putting gay rights on a par with enabling religious bigots to deliberately handicap their children demeans the worth of those rights. The reason for which so many gay people and their allies fought for the right to marry was not that marriage is meaningless but, quite contrarily, that they understood the shared value of marriage in our society and wanted to be a part of it.
In conclusion, a difference-blind attitude by the state toward the religious beliefs of all citizens is not xenophobic. Xenophobia is a prejudice against people because they come from other countries, not because their cultural traditions are deemed offensive. We are not prejudging; we are judging. There are simply some practices which are incompatible with our liberal democratic values, the most important of which is a separation between religion and government. Whether he realizes it or not, Minister Kenney has advanced the cause of secularism in Canada by adopting this respectable policy.
About the Authors
Jackson Doughart is a student of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island and a policy writer for the Canadian Secular Alliance. His website is
David Rand is President of Atheist Freethinkers in Montreal (
www.atheology.ca) and a board member of the International Association of Free Thought (IAFT) recently founded in Oslo (
- “No visible face, no citizenship”,
Tobi Cohen, Ottawa Citizen, December 13, 2011.
- “Canada has never had shared values”,
Andrew Potter, Ottawa Citizen, December 22, 2011.
- “Muslim kindergartener permitted to block out music”,
CTV, December 19, 2011.