Oh, America. So brash in your patriotism and clumsy in your racism. A smart kid named Ahmed Mohamed makes a clock and takes it to school to impress his teachers and instead of getting instantly catapulted to the honour roll, he receives a do-not-pass-Go ticket to the principal's office, a police interrogation, a suspension from school and a trip in handcuffs to a detention centre – where he is fingerprinted and further humiliated. (In case you missed it, the clock was mistaken for a homemade bomb.) Never mind all the Second Amendment-spouting lunatics prowling U.S. malls and movie theatres – and, yes, schools – with their firearms. This brainy science geek in the NASA T-shirt – there's your real threat, America.
A Dallas newspaper reporter broke the story and social media erupted to save the day – attracting kudos and invitations for the 14-year-old, who is Muslim, from the likes of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and, yes, even U.S. President Barack Obama ("Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House?"). Hillary Clinton weighed in, too: "Stay curious and keep building," she tweeted. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak called the ninth-grader "a modern-day hero."
It was a happy ending (at least in this case; you have to wonder about the other Ahmeds out there whose plights have not spawned their own hashtags). But the sting and absurdity of the racial profiling (officials said his religion was not a factor; okay, then) that led to this circus in the land of the free and the home of the brave – what an only-in-America kind of story, eh?
Ah, but before we get all smug and superior here in the Great White North, consider the case of Zunera Ishaq. Ms. Ishaq, an immigrant from Pakistan, wants to become a Canadian citizen. Canada has said welcome. She passed her citizenship test and was scheduled to take her oath at a ceremony in Scarborough, Ont., on Jan. 14, 2014.
And then the welcome mat was pulled from under her. Ms. Ishaq, a devout Muslim, elected not to participate in the ceremony because she feared that she would be required to remove her niqab – a veil that covers most of her face – in public, in accordance with changes brought in by the Conservative government in 2011.
Ms. Ishaq challenged the ban in the Federal Court last February, saying she feels that the policy is "a personal attack on me, my identity as a Muslim woman and my religious beliefs," according to court documents.
She won. The court ruled that the policy was unlawful. But the government appealed.
This week, the government appeal was dismissed by the Federal Court of Appeal. The panel said it wanted to proceed quickly "so as to hopefully leave open the possibility for [Ms. Ishaq] to obtain citizenship in time to vote in the upcoming federal election."
Outside the court, Ms. Ishaq told reporters that she would "definitely" be voting. "It is very important to me."
Alas, the federal Conservatives announced that they would take their fight to the Supreme Court, and vowed to reintroduce the ban if re-elected.
"Most Canadians find it offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family," reads a statement on the Conservative Party website, attributing the sentiment to Stephen Harper. That statement, with an invitation for voters to sign if they agree, is titled, "Not the way we do things here."
Actually, it is exactly the way we do things here. We are inclusive. A mosaic. We embrace freedom of religion. We reject intolerance.
If this is the Conservatives playing to their base during a tight election campaign, "base" seems to be just the right word. Or perhaps a better term would be "baseless".
Jason Kenney, who was immigration minister when the ban was brought in, told reporters this week that "we think it's entirely reasonable to say at that one very public moment of a public declaration of one's loyalty to one's fellow citizens and country, one should do so openly, proudly and publicly without one's face hidden."
Sorry, but it is not for Mr. Kenney to decide what is "entirely reasonable" when it comes to the religious practices of a Muslim woman. Her identity is not in doubt. By covering her face for modesty, a practice she chooses to follow, she is hurting no one.
And if she is offending anyone, perhaps the offended party should take a good hard look at his own face in the mirror.
In fact, I would suggest there is no better place to wear a niqab than a citizenship ceremony – while pledging an oath to a country that protects one's rights, such as freedom of religion.
I may not personally agree with the practice of women covering their faces when men do not have to live by the same standard. But if this is how Ms. Ishaq – or any Muslim woman – wishes to present herself, then she has the right here in Canada to do so. This is an essential part of the fabric of this country.
Post-9/11 United States has succeeded in arousing outlandish suspicions – as Ahmed Mohamed well knows. In Canada, we're not so far down that road that we can't turn back.
Ms. Ishaq has not received any notable invitations on Twitter, as far as I know ("cool niqab, Zunera"). Nor has she earned a trip to a detention centre or principal's office for her stance. But she has been tripped up on the way to a citizenship ceremony – and the ballot box. Her lawyers have written to the citizenship office asking it to schedule the oath-taking ceremony, but as of early Friday they had not yet heard back. There's an election coming up. And the clock is ticking.