Why the Charter…?

Why the Charter & Where Will It Take Us?

Dagmar Gontard-Zelinkova

Charter opponents keep repeating that there’s no need for the Charter, that nothing serious is happening, so why legislate? What they find especially disturbing is the possibility that the government could “dictate” what people can or cannot wear. Hence their heartfelt cry: Where could it lead? To a dictatorship?

Since its very conception, the Quebec Charter has triggered a lot of interest. Indeed, some 270 associations and individuals, each wanting their voice to be heard on this issue, sent their briefs to the parliamentary commission whose mandate is to study the Charter proposed by Bill 60. Hearings opened on January 14th and the tone was set that very first day. Indeed, among the interveners that day was a Mr. Tinawi, a Canadian of Egyptian origin, who categorically declared that there was no room for religious symbols in the workplace. Another intervener, a Ms. Laouni, a Canadian of Moroccan origin, categorically refused to remove her veil which, she insisted, was part of her faith and her identity. “Being forced to choose between the expression of one’s identity and one’s job is an odious choice,” she said.

The Islamic veil seemed to steal the show. Indeed, during the following days, other Muslim women, whether proponents or opponents of the veil, to testified before the Commission. Opponents of the veil argued that that garment was not a religious requirement but rather a tool of oppression, used by archaic patriarchal societies to control women. In their refusal of the veil they were as categorical as was Ms. Laouni in her declaration in favour of that garment.

Let us take a look at the veil controversy, not only in Quebec but worldwide. Its appearance is rather recent, some twenty to thirty years ago. It is an expression of Islamism, a political ideology, spurred by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeiny. Cairo University provides a good example of its propagation: in 1978, it was veil-free, but by 1995 some 70 % of its female students were veiled and some ten years later the veil was worn by all. While in countries such as Egypt we may speak of veil’s “reappearance,” in Western countries, the veil in all its forms is a totally new phenomenon. And a bone of contention. It is not only the garment itself which causes problems but the collateral requirements that come with it: special accommodations for prayer spaces, for the time accorded to prayers during working hours, for special diet restrictions, for gender segregation and many other such things.

These requirements, coming from Islamist ideology, are not without effect on other religions. Inspired by Islamist zeal, they too are waking up, with the result that… well, in Canada, Madame Fatima Houda-Pépin, the only Muslim MNA at the Quebec National Assembly, is sounding the alarm on growing religious extremism. In Belgium, it is Madame Fatoumata Sidibé, another member of parliament of Muslim background, who opposes it. In 2009, she initiated a debate on the ban of religious symbols in civic spaces. In her interview on Radio Canada on January 12, she insisted on our duty to preserve our memory lest we forget what we have achieved as an enlightened society: gender equality, right to divorce, contraception, abortion, marriage for all, medically assisted dying. All these are now being threatened and, she warns, we must therefore be vigilant and not regress. German Muslim member of parliament, Elkin Deligöz, urges her sisters: “Wake up to today’s Germany. This is where you live, so take off your veils.” The Swedish Minister of Integration and Equality, Nyamko Sabuni, of Muslim background, initiated a ban on the veil, on forced marriages, on female circumcision and on funding for religious schools.

The courage of these women must be respected. Indeed, pressure from Muslim communities is tremendous on those who dare to stand up and speak out. Houda-Pepin is accused by her coreligionists of betrayal, Fatoumatou Sidibé is considered by them to be non-Muslim, Elkin Deligöz has received death threats and Nyamko Sabuni’s proposals triggered petitions from Muslim groups demanding that she be sacked. Clearly, there is no consensus within Muslim communities, but then it could be argued that these women are politicians and thus not authorities on religious matters. The appropriate place to look could be Cairo, the cradle of Islamic teaching. Surprisingly, Islamic scholars do not seem to reach consensus either. The late Sheikh Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi, a grand mufti of Egypt and a grand imam of al-Azhar mosque, offended traditionalists and hard-line Muslims when he spoke against the niqab and, more recently, al-Azhar University Sheikh Mustafa Mohamed Rashed defended a thesis that sparked another heated debate: he concluded that the veil is not an Islamic duty.

Thus, whom to believe? Who has it right? Who is wrong?

Of course, dissent related to various religious duties is not unique to the Muslim world. Interestingly, in August 2011, a conference “Faith against FGM” held in London (UK) brought together religious leaders from Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. They challenged the belief that female genital mutilation is rooted in religious doctrine. It was noted that although FGM predates Christianity, Judaism and Islam, many practicing religious communities continue to excise their daughters, claiming that it is a religious duty.

What conclusion can be drawn? Beliefs die hard and individual interpretations of so-called sacred scriptures are limitless. Should requests for religious accommodation based on various interpretations of sacred texts be granted? Where would it lead? Where would it end? Let us consider one definition of religion:

A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices, generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.

There are thousands of sects and many more thousands of persons interpreting sacred texts. Could all these individual interpretations be accommodated? Should they be? Where would it end?

Now, let us return that first day of public hearings in Quebec City and letus concentrate on Ms. Laouni’s presentation. She said something interesting, she said that the veil must be accommodated, yet some other requests, which she considered absurd, should be refused. As an “absurd” request, she cited a case of Muslim parents who required that their 5-year old daughter have her ears plugged when her classmates engage in singing or playing music. They argue that music and song are incompatible with their Muslim faith. Let us accept that the girl’s parents genuinely believe that music and singing are sins. From their point of view, their request for accommodation is not an “absurd” one. On the other hand, from the point of view of Muslim women who oppose the veil, accommodating the veil may be considered “absurd.”

At the beginning of 2014, two interesting cases of religious accommodation triggered passionate debates, in Canada first, but the news went viral worldwide. First, a male student at a Toronto universitiy asked for alternative arrangements to be made so he would not have to attend study groups with women. Then, in Nova Scotia, another young man wanted to learn the martial art of Aikido without having to touch women in the class. In both cases, Human Rights Commission supported these accommodation requests, which led to flurries of protests.

A question comes to mind: should any person’s request for accommodation of any belief, provided that that belief is genuine, be granted? Where would it lead?

Let us talk about the Charter. The “Quiet Revolution” of the sixties liberated Quebec from the grip of Catholicism. But then the militant Islamism, extending its tentacles over the world, has not spared La Belle Province. One religion was chased out, but another was snuck in. Accommodation requests were growing. The tipping point was reached and it led to questioning the functioning of society. And to the proposal of the Charter of values. The hearings before the parliamentary commission provided an opportunity to both supporters and opponents of the Charter to express their opinions freely. The Charter evolved – from the “Charter of Quebec Values” the project redefined itself and the new name indicates its dimension: “Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and equality between women and men and providing the framework for accommodation requests.”

It is an ambitious project, but the fight for secularism is long and tortuous. That fight is not new and nobody can say if it will ever end. The tension between knowledge and belief, between the empirical and the spiritual approaches to the world goes back to Antiquity. That tension was manifest in the Hellenistic world, then in the Roman Empire, when Christianity tried to take hold by suppressing paganism. Those were times of fights for supremacy led by Christian clergy and also internecine conflicts within Christianity.

One man appeared, a visionary. He understood that those fights were harming the State. As soon as he took power, he declared freedom of religion and rejected Christianity as state religion. In a way the Emperor Julian – that was his – was the precursor of the Charter. The clergy hated him, but that will come as no surprise; indeed, he decided to eliminate the salary the State paid the clergy and to eliminate monies for the construction of churches. He decreed that teachers in state-funded schools must be certified by local urban councils.

We will never know how the world would have evolved if Emperor Julian had continued his reforms. His reign was unfortunately all too short, a couple of years, from 361 to 363 CE. His death was followed by long dark ages.

Some half a century ago, some people were predicting the disappearance of religions. In this 21st century nothing seems to indicate that humanity is heading in that direction. On the contrary, religions are on the rise. So, what about the Charter? And Bill 60? Where will they lead us? They are simply a part of the history of humanity, of that never-ending effort to find balance in the tension between knowledge and belief, between the empirical and spiritual approaches to the world.

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