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Clifford Orwin

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Stephen Harper is not just smart; he can be highly insightful. In 2011, for example, he established the Office of Religious Freedom in the Department of Foreign Affairs. He thus showed himself ahead of the curve on an issue whose importance has continued to grow. In that same year, unfortunately, his then minister of immigration, Jason Kenney, announced a domestic rule tending to religious suppression. Last week that ruling returned to haunt Mr. Harper.

The plaintiff in the case that aroused his ire was Zunera Ishaq of Mississauga, an immigrant of Sunni Muslim faith who has qualified for citizenship. She wishes to take her oath of allegiance without removing her Islamic niqab or face covering. This was the practice Mr. Kenney's rule had banned. Now, however, Justice Keith Boswell, a federal judge, has struck down that ban. He declared that it violated the government's own regulations, which required citizenship judges to "allow the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization" of the oath. As for Ms. Ishaq, she expressed delight that she would finally be able to take the oath.

Ms. Ishaq had failed to reckon, however, on the Grinch who stole Swearing-In Day. Mr. Harper, campaigning in dogmatically secularist Quebec, announced that his government would appeal the ruling. "It is not how we do things here," he thundered. "I believe, and I think most Canadians believe, that it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family." He went on to invoke standards of "openness" and "transparency" against Ms. Ishaq and her small knot of pious Muslim sisters. (Justice Boswell estimated that there are perhaps 100 other women in her situation.)

Actually, Mr. Harper, this is how we do things here, because here we guarantee religious freedom. As for your call for "transparency," you've gone all New Agey on us. As a conservative you should know better than to peddle a "let's all get naked" vision of Canadian citizenship. Liberal democracy isn't about compulsory baring of ourselves (or our faces) to others. Nor is it about consorting as one big "family." It's about reconciling majority rule with the right of each of us to lead a life of our own, in religious matters as elsewhere. Ms. Ishaq seeks to combine her duties as a Muslim with those of Canadian citizenship. That's what religious citizens are supposed to do.

To hear Mr. Harper tell it, you'd think that Ms. Ishaq was trying to put something over on us. In fact she's not planning "to hide [her] identity" at all. She'll say, "I, Zunera Ishaq, solemnly swear …" She just wants to be able to keep her face covered as she says it. She has stated her willingness to be (privately) unveiled where genuine considerations of security require it. There are other cases (such as testimony in a court of law) where wearing the niqab may pose a problem. The citizenship ceremony isn't one of them.

You may ask whether Islam truly requires that a woman wear the niqab. This is none of a liberal state's business; it is for Muslims to decide for themselves. But they won't agree, and even if most did, liberal democracy rejects the imposition of religious authority. So this is nobody's call but Ms. Ishaq's. Like every citizen, she must be free to practise her religion not as we see fit, but as she does. This isn't a question of "accommodation" or "diversity" or any such currently fashionable lingo: It's a requirement of religious freedom, one of the first and most basic of liberal democratic principles.

The worst thing about Mr. Harper's position is its implication that Ms. Ishaq can't be a good Canadian unless she discards a practice she regards as incumbent on her as a Muslim and which is entirely harmless to others. I'm not about to claim that the biggest problem facing Canadian society is Islamophobia. (In fact, it has shown itself remarkably free of such attitudes.) The threat of Islamist terror poses a much bigger problem to Canada, as to other liberal democracies. But aggravating the lesser problem in no way helps to solve this greater problem. We shouldn't hand devout Muslims legitimate (and wholly gratuitous) grievances. Nor (it should go without saying) should we practise demagoguery at their expense.

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