Following last month's call by the Muslim Canadian Congress to ban the face-covering niqab, or burka, about 30 Muslim groups across Canada denounced the proposal. Their basis: The state has no business dictating what a woman should wear, nor infringing on individual freedoms.
It is a compelling argument, echoing the message of U.S. President Barack Obama in his 2009 Cairo speech. And as France contemplates a burka ban, pragmatists there point out the difficulty of enforcing such a prohibition. Others warn of a backlash: More women will adopt the burka in defiance of the government. Also, fewer than 2,000 women wear the niqab/burka in France, or about 0.004 per cent of the population. These WMDs (women in Muslim dress) are perceived as the new WMDs - like a biological weapon, an infinitesimal concentration has the potential to destroy the very fabric of la République laïque. Who knew?
Yet, laïcité is a long-standing French tradition, dating back to the Third Republic of 1905, when the church was officially extracted from the education system, and from much of public life. According to John Bowen, author of Why the French Don't Like Headscarves, laïcité defines the character of public space as essentially "neutral." Any threat to neutrality can be interpreted as a threat to the state. Especially, it seems, in the face of high unemployment and March regional elections. The New York Times is more blunt, calling Nicolas Sarkozy's approach "hate-mongering" that fans "anti-Muslim prejudices" by using burka-clad women as a "cheap electoral target" to deflect the electorate's anger.
The French concept of laïcité is distinct from the Anglo-Saxon view of secularism, due in part to the different philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. For Rousseau, the individual had to abstract oneself from particular traditions and accept the transfer of certain rights to Republican Law - a move from pluralism to unity. The individual gains freedom through the state, which has the right to regulate the public, organized face of religion. On the other hand, Locke believed freedom of conscience to be the foundation for individual rights, which guarantee freedom from the state. These views have permeated societies that have evolved from former French and British rule.
Not surprisingly, the Canadian Charter is more akin to Lockean principles. Individual rights, such as freedom of religion, carry heavy weight.
Some burka-banners argue that such a prohibition is not a violation of religious freedom, there is no religious basis for the garb. They quote the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, who recently said that the face-veil had nothing to do with Islam. A minority of clerics disagree. Yet, Canada's Supreme Court has ruled that the state is not an "arbiter of religious dogma" - what matters is the sincerity of the individual's beliefs. If a woman honestly believes it is part of her faith to cover her face in public, the state cannot counter that a different religious opinion carries greater religious legitimacy.
Legalities aside, many Canadians feel uncomfortable seeing the face-veil here. It represents a physical barrier, which has no precedent in our culture. It has also become a misogynous icon, due to the Taliban, and Saudi "religious" police. Security is an added concern. Finally, many assume veiled women are coerced into wearing "that thing."
Yet, the intentions of these women are diverse. For some, it is an act of faith to get closer to God. Some incur the disapproval of family, friends and community for taking this step; others are forced to do so by family members. Youthful defiance may play a role. As for security, veiled women readily comply with identification protocols when required.
Let's not forget our politicians have shamelessly used veiled women as cheap electoral targets. In the 2007 Quebec election, complaints forced the chief electoral officer to ban the face veil at the voting booth (even though veiled women never asked for an exemption). In a 2008 by-election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper seized on Quebec discontent with the face-veil by adding his disapproval. The political stigmatization and ensuing "mob mentality" created a climate of fear for a minority who wished to exercise their democratic right to vote.
Will an imported French-style ban settle these tensions? Are we ready to deny access to health care, education and public transportation based on a person's belief or dress? This is the French solution.
Or shall we fashion a made-in-Canada paradigm, guided by the principles enshrined in our Charter?