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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Two solitudes and the niqab Add to ...

The case of Naema Ahmed, the niqab-wearing woman who was expelled from a French-language class in Montreal, has turned into a cause célèbre across the country. It is a fascinating story about reasonable accommodation, competing rights and where we ought to draw the line on tolerance in a democratic society.

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Actually, it's two stories. There's a French version and an English version, and they're completely different.

In French, the problem is clearly Ms. Ahmed - a stubborn hard-liner whose unreasonable demands people bent over backward to accommodate. In English, the problem is clearly the authorities, who hounded her and unreasonably denied her rights. The subtext is that Quebec society has an attitude problem. It is intolerant of immigrants and minorities, and the politicians are pandering to the base.

"It's another illustration of the two solitudes," says Patrick Lagacé, a columnist with La Presse. He says the English version of this story "doesn't reflect the reality I live in."

Naema Ahmed, a 29-year-old pharmacist from Egypt, joined a language class for immigrants last August. She insisted on wearing a face veil and she sat at the back of the class so that the men wouldn't be able to see her. (There were three men in the class of 20). For private instruction, she would retreat to a corner with the female instructor.

Tensions reportedly mounted in the class, which was also designed to help integrate the students into Quebec society. The next part of the course required the students to sit around a U-shaped table and converse. She didn't want to do it because of the men. The school couldn't guarantee her another female instructor. It also decided she couldn't be taught properly unless the instructor could see her mouth. So it asked her to leave. "We tried certain arrangements, but the demands just became too great," said the school's head, Paul-Émile Bourque.

Some time after that, Ms. Ahmed filed a complaint with Quebec's human-rights commission. She also joined another language class. This week, she was called out of class again and invited to either remove her veil or leave. She left.

"There is no ambiguity about this question," said Quebec's immigration minister, Yolande James. "If you want to [attend]our classes, if you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values. We want to see your face."

Most Quebeckers think the accommodation of immigrants has gone too far. Premier Jean Charest has been facing a daily barrage of questions over his government's commitment to protect French values. People want the government to provide clear guidelines that would give local officials the power to resolve cases such as Ms. Ahmed's without having to appeal to cabinet ministers.

These opinions aren't confined to the radio phone-in shows. In this case, even moderate Quebeckers think Ms. Ahmed went too far. "Accommodation should not lead to separation," said Julius Grey, a constitutional lawyer who has defended the right of Sikh students to wear ceremonial daggers in class. Yolande Geadah, an Egyptian-born writer, said, "There is no possible compromise with people with such inflexible attitudes." Many people pointed out the irony that in Egypt, Ms. Ahmed's homeland, the government has tried banning niqabs in universities.

Meantime, in the other solitude, Quebec authorities were widely being compared to the Taliban.

"[T]rowing women out of school … sounds like something that happens in the wilder reaches of Kandahar," opined the Montreal Gazette.

"What part of the word 'freedom' does Quebec not understand?" wondered Naomi Lakritz in the Calgary Herald. Quebec, she said, "is fast becoming the most hostile province in Canada for anyone of a minority culture or religion." The Winnipeg Free Press observed that "the Canadianization of Naema Ahmed has been sadly set back." (Others might maintain that her decision to lodge a human-rights complaint shows she's coming along quite nicely). And The Globe and Mail said, "It may be practised in some Arab and west Asian countries, such as the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but empowering state agents to enforce dress codes and bar the education of women is hitherto unknown in Canada."

What explains such starkly opposite reactions?

Mr. Lagacé explains it in cultural terms. English Canada embraces a multiculturalist ideal: Come to Canada, and bring your differences with you. In French Canada, you can have your differences, "but please do become a Quebecker."

Quebec's francophone majority identifies itself as a fragile minority that must be ever vigilant against cultural erosion. In that context, collective rights often outweigh individual ones, especially when it comes to language or schooling. Quebec, like France, is also fiercely devoted to secularism. "We've had a long and painful struggle with the place of religion in this society, and a lot of people feel strongly about the separation of church and state," says Mr. Lagacé.

The Quebec-English differences over immigration and integration echo those between France and Britain. France is contemplating a ban on the burka and niqab. In Britain, any politician who'd dare suggest such a thing would be denounced as a fascist.

In English Canada, provincial government officials are only too eager to distance themselves from intolerant Quebec. "We are an open Ontario," said a spokeswoman for that province's immigration minister. "In Nova Scotia, people have a right to express themselves any way they wish around their faith," its immigration minister said.

In other words, these disputes are being resolved behind the scenes, for now, and so we can pretend they don't exist.

My own opinion is that the broad majority of people who live in English Canada - including plenty of immigrants - are more in tune with Quebeckers' attitudes than with their own elites. Of course we must respect people's rights, they say. But newcomers should also respect our values.

"I am all for keeping with your culture and traditions, but if you are going to choose another country, get with the program and try to really integrate," says one blogger. He speaks for multitudes. Is his view intolerant and closed-minded? I don't think so.

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