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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.

Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.

Doug Saunders

When public prejudice can serve the greater good Add to ...

We should all thank Mohammad Nouman Dasu for helping make Canada a more sensible, more equal place.

Mr. Dasu is a Toronto father whose children attend one of the few high schools that still provide music classes for all students – much to his alarm, as he holds the opinion that performing, studying or listening to music are sinful acts forbidden by his interpretation of scriptural law.

As my colleagues Colin Freeze and Mahnoor Yawar discovered, Mr. Dasu led a three-year campaign to convince the school that it should allow his children, and others whose parents hold similar opinions, to be exempted from mandatory music classes on religious grounds.

The school sensibly rejected his bid. Mr. Dasu says he will take his kids home from school when music classes take place. In doing so, Mr. Dasu has helped us all see our situation more clearly. His attempt to win an official exemption from a common activity has forced Canadians to pay attention to a perennial problem: the incursion of private religious practices into public life.

Special exemptions and accommodations for religious believers, allowing them to do and teach things that are otherwise considered absurd and even harmful, have been a growing reality in Canadian life for a long time. Most such privileges have quietly existed beneath our field of vision.

The belief that music (or music by non-believers) is sinful, treif or haram exists on the distant ascetic fringes of all three Abrahamic religions. It is one of many objections to human behaviour raised by small groups of fundamentalist Protestant Christian, Roman Catholic, ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Salafi Muslim sects.

Many religious concessions are uncontroversial. Few Canadians object to cafeterias offering non-pork options for observant Jews and Muslims. After a period of debate, most people have come to accept public officials wearing Christian crosses, Jewish yarmulkes, Islamic headcoverings or Sikh turbans while on duty. These things may offend logic and aesthetics, but they do no harm and don’t interfere with anyone else’s life.

But some concessions to the religious aren’t benign or harmless. When spirituality infringes on the working of the legal, educational or medical systems, we have a problem – even if we don’t notice at first.

Most shockingly, Canadian provinces allow religious exemptions to the requirement that children be vaccinated in order to attend school.

These exemptions, generally granted to people who claim to be members of ascetic Christian or Jewish denominations, are far, far more dangerous than a pass from music class.

Mr. Dasu is harming only the minds of his children (and mortifying most Canadians of Muslim faith). But if even 10 per cent of a community’s children escape vaccination, they endanger the lives of every child in their city, including those who are vaccinated. This is not a reasonable accommodation.

Groups of Christians and Muslims in Ontario have spent the past year trying to withdraw or exempt their kids from public schools because they’ve come to believe that the province’s rather anodyne reproductive-health curriculum is contradictory to their faith. As harmful as this is to their kids, the province can do little to complain because in the 1980s it granted Canada’s most extensive religious concession by allowing Roman Catholics to withdraw their children from public school entirely and self-segregate with a fully taxpayer-funded religious school system.

It’s unfortunate that people only began to notice these incursions when Salafi Muslims began requesting them. But it’s one instance where public prejudice can serve the greater good.

We saw a great example of this in Ontario’s 2005 decision on quasi-judicial tribunals. These tribunals, known as “faith-based arbitration,” had been created in the early 1990s to reduce the cost and workload of courts by letting churches and synagogues rule on family-law and property disputes. Their rulings, and rules, were often contradictory to Canadian values and laws. But people only began to notice in 2003, when mosques wanted in on the action: Suddenly, those tribunals, applying nearly identical religious laws became known as “sharia courts.”

Ontario responded wisely, by stripping all faith-based tribunals of legal authority. It was a rare moment when the ugly voices of Islamophobia helped secure a neutral, secular public sphere in which people of all faiths and backgrounds can live together. If we’re lucky, Mr. Dasu’s musical tastes will give us another.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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