Watching Canada's niqab debate from my current perch in London, I find myself alarmed at the way such an issue can hijack an election and divide a country. Alarmed – but not surprised.
I live in the borough of Brent, North West London, a fast-gentrifying but still-scruffy district of the British capital. It's the same neighbourhood in which Zadie Smith set both White Teeth and NW, her two acclaimed novels about the fault lines of British multiculturalism.
To say my neighbourhood is diverse would be an understatement. The mix around here is primarily people of North African, South Asian, Middle Eastern and West Indian descent. At my son's state nursery school, the few kids from white European backgrounds are a blend of Australian, Canadian, American, Greek, Spanish and Italian. The white British are in a distinct minority – in large part because many of the middle-class ones around here send their kids to private school.
The Muslim population of Britain has roughly doubled in the past 10 years, a demographic shift that has brought the rise of the niqab and its face-revealing sister, the hijab. My borough has a large, practising Muslim population of nearly 20 per cent, with Arabic being the dominant second language spoken after English.
My son's school reflects this. Roughly a third of the women (and we are almost all women) doing drop-offs and pick-ups every day are wearing headscarves. The vibe at the school gates is friendly but segregated, with the veiled and the unveiled chatting and laughing together in our separate social clumps. Apart from the odd nod and shy smile, there is minimal contact. There is no hostility in it. That's just how it is.
The veiled mothers at my son's school have different beliefs than the unveiled. I know this from listening to their concerns at parents' meetings (primarily to do with religious holidays and religious dietary concerns) and from talking to a couple of them myself.
One practising Muslim neighbour, whose son used to play regularly with my stepson, told me the story of how her family fled Sudan for Dubai during the civil war over tea at my kitchen table. She stopped returning my invitations for playdates after my then-five-year-old stepson repeatedly whipped down his pants and mooned her children as a joke.
The issue wasn't so much that he'd done it but my reaction when she marched him back to our house. "Oh sorry," I said with a chuckle. "We're a bit of a naked house." Now we wave across the street and leave it at that.
The veiled and the unveiled might have different values but we all want the best for our kids, which is why we find ourselves colliding at the same public-school gates. Sharing that value alone – the importance of education – is something I find heartening across the cultural divide.
At the junior school down the road there is an angry debate raging after an active member of the PTA circulated a petition questioning a recent decision to make halal meat the default menu option for school lunches, which are free for all students. Her objection is not the slaughtering practice (in the past, some halal butchers bled live animals as part of the killing process, but now for the most part it is humanely done) but the fact that the policy caters to a religious minority.
A non-Muslim mother at the school told me she is troubled. On the one hand she doesn't mind her daughter eating any sort of food as long as it's ethical and healthy. On the other, she is concerned about Muslim religious ideology taking over a secular school. "What if my daughter came home one day and said she wanted to convert to Islam?" she said, eyes wide with panic. I assured her it was very unlikely, which of course it is. (Her daughter is 4 and more interested in reciting the scripture of Frozen than the Koran.)
The issue at stake is a real one: In a secular, multicultural society, how much should the majority be expected to cater to minority religious requirements? The answer is: up until the point those religious freedoms begin to trample other dearly held freedoms. Say, equal rights for girls and women. Or the rights of children to receive an honest and healthy sex education.
By whipping up this public debate in Canada over the niqab, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is engaging in the sort of anti-immigration, dog-whistle politics that have been employed by the right in Britain for years now. (Hardly surprising, given that Prime Minister David Cameron's former strategist, Lynton Crosby, has been employed to salvage Harper's campaign.)
These culture-war fights aren't worth the social divisions they stoke. When nearly a third of a school has religious dietary restrictions the rest could easily fall in with, it just makes practical economic sense for everyone to eat halal. Similarly, allowing Muslim women who want the right to wear a niqab while taking citizenship vows is a religious freedom that harms no one.