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March 11, 2015

Freedom of religion versus respect for others

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is battling a Muslim woman who at a citizenship ceremony refused to remove her niqab (a veil commonly worn by Muslim women in public that covers the whole face apart from the eyes). She said that she would not violate her religious beliefs. But the losers in the long run are likely to be Canadian Muslims, whom Islamophobes accuse of trying to impose their customs on Canadians. The Federal Court of Canada has ruled that it's "unlawful" to force immigrants to remove the veil while taking the oath of citizenship because Canada's immigration law empowers citizenship judges to accommodate religious needs.

The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star have criticized the prime minister. However, the episode signals the message that some Canadian Muslims do not share Canadian values and came to this country purely for convenience. Some Muslims have indulged in terrorism in Canada. Most Canadians view Islam negatively.

Zunera Ishaq came to Canada in 2008 and passed her citizenship test in 2013 becoming eligible for citizenship. She refused to remove her niqab for the ceremony.

Prime Minister Harper said he will appeal against the court’s decision: “Most Canadians will find it offensive for a person to hide their identity at the very time when they are joining the Canadian family,” he stated. The prime minister is wrong - Ishaq was not hiding her identity. She was simply refusing to unveil in public.

Said the Globe and Mail in part in an editorial: “Freedom of religion and conscience are at the core of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because they are at the heart of what it means to be Canadian… .

“If you find the niqab objectionable or discriminatory – and many people, including many Muslims, feel that way – then you have the absolute right to hold to that belief. You also have the right to express your belief, and to speak out against the niqab or any other religious practice. Freedom of speech is a fundamental constitutional value. But no matter how much someone else’s religion bothers you, you don’t get to stop them from practicing it. Not even the Prime Minister.”

The Toronto Star said in part: “Women must already remove their veil for identification purposes for drivers’ licenses, passports or other documents, or to clear security and immigration… .

“Zunera Ishaq, who launched the court challenge, did not object to taking her niqab off to do her citizenship test. Further, she will take it off for identification in front of a female officer before taking the oath. What she did not want to do was be ‘seen’ taking the citizenship oath in a room full of others... .

“This is not a matter of approving of the veil. And it is certainly not enough to find it ‘offensive,’ as the prime minister called it. Whether some or even most Canadians disapprove of women wearing the veil does not mean their right to do so should be taken away.”

But nobody was forcing Ishaq to violate her beliefs. Immigration officers offered to seat her in the front row or the back next to women to ensure that no men would see her face. She refused saying that the citizenship judge could still be a male. She could have requested a female citizenship judge and the barring of photographers.

She showed no flexibility. She came to this country of her own will. Canada accepted her in good faith. Canada accords full freedom to every visitor, immigrant and citizen. It offers safety to Muslims facing persecution in Muslim countries. As Ottawa Imam Sikander Hashmi told a gathering recently, Muslims in Canada enjoy a level of freedom that they do not enjoy in some Muslim countries. He recalled that he, along with some other Muslims, went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near Parliament Hill soon after the killing of an unarmed Canadian soldier by a terrorist. But he encountered no rudeness or harassment from security officials or passersby.

The niqab is worn in Canada by only a few Muslims. Most Muslims believe that Islam teaches modesty in dress but does not insist that women cover their faces at all times. Still, If Ishaq believed that her religion requires her to wear the niqab, no one is objecting. However, immigration officials offered to provide her a seat in the front or back where no males would see her face. She rejected the offer.

One letter writer said in the National Post: “When I visited the Vatican and other Roman Catholic houses of worship throughout Europe, I wore modest clothing out of respect for Catholic sensibilities and the institution.

 When I visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I dressed conservatively and covered my head so as not to offend the beliefs of orthodox Jews. When I visited the Islamic Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, I washed my feet and removed my shoes in deference to Muslim rules. The fact I don’t share their religions does not absolve me of the obligation to respect them — as long as I am shown the same consideration.”

She suggested that Ishaq take the next plane to wherever she came from.

I think she spoke for many Canadians, including Muslims.

— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.

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