BEING “REASONABLE” WENT OUT THE WINDOW WHEN MUSLIM WOMEN WHO WEAR THESE SLAVE BAGS INSISTED THEY WON’T REMOVE THEIR VEILS WHEN CALLED FOR…
George Jonas: Accomodation isn’t reasonable unless it goes both ways
George Jonas Apr 12, 2011 – 3:46 PM ET | Last Updated: Apr 12, 2011 3:49 PM ET
Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters
“Ugh,” said an acquaintance, looking at two shrouded figures scurry by in downtown Toronto. “Is there anything you dislike more than the niqab?”
“Yes: Banning it,” I replied.
Freedom is a funny thing. Everybody is for it, until some start doing things others don’t like — such as covering their faces with pieces of cloth. The moment that happens, the number of freedom-loving people is drastically reduced.
This week, police started arresting people in France, not yet for covering their faces in public, only for protesting without authorization a new law that forbids them to do so. Some Canadians responded to the news by emails, saying: “Good! Are you watching, Mr. Harper?” The terse messages didn’t make it clear whether the correspondents wanted Prime Minister Stephen Harper to take a leaf a out of France’s new chapter on liberty and ban wearing facial scarves in public, or go for two leaves and also ban unauthorized protests.
“Why not?,” some might ask. What’s the big deal? We’re talking about President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Élysée Palace, not some tin-pot dictator in a banana republic. The ban comes from France, the country that wrote the book on liberty — and equality and fraternity, too — during the Glorious Revolution of 1789.
That’s why the French should know better, others reply — but still others aren’t so sure. That book on liberty was penned 222 years ago, they say. Maybe it’s time for a new edition.
Personally, I think the old edition works just fine. The problem is that some of us have never bothered reading it. Others have forgotten how to read (assuming they ever knew) or don’t read French or any of the languages into which the book of Liberté, égalité, fraternité has been translated. Then, there are those who don’t believe in books, or believe only in one Holy Book, whichever it may be. This adds up to enough conflicting beliefs to keep legislators, demonstrators and the gendarmerie busy for a lifetime.
Is there a lesson in this for Canada? Only one, I guess: Free individuals are entitled to cut off the limb on which they’re sitting. Freedom encompasses its own voluntary curtailment. It’s no guarantee of anything, not even self-perpetuation.
In free countries, people are free to dress as they please, and equally free to make dress codes. That’s what’s so tricky about freedom. Free people are free to enslave themselves. They’re at liberty to congregate in gated communities of agreed-upon standards and, should it be their parochial preference to make their entire country a gated community, they’re at liberty to do so. They can turn their nations into Boy Scout jamborees of cheerleading conformity, as Americans did during the MacCarthy era in the 1950s, to avoid being infiltrated by the Red Menace.
Well, the Red Menace is gone (we hope) but it has been replaced by the threat of militant, theocratic Islam. The danger may be just as acute, except — and this is the point — our culture isn’t jeopardized by our shariah-observing neighbour’s freedom to indulge in his sartorial tastes. On the contrary, his freedom of choice is part of our culture. Ours, not his. His culture is covering his wife’s face; ours is letting him do it — within limits.
We’ve come to believe that unless we ban the wrapped-sausage look in Muslim female fashion altogether, we must allow Muslim female witnesses to testify with their faces under a veil, as the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled recently. But that’s nonsense. It’s not an either-or proposition. We can let people wear whatever they like after hours, and insist on Canada’s own cultural norms during the business day.
Diversity is a given; multiculturalism is just a policy. No country needs to create a multicultural society to retain its standing as free and democratic. Many free and democratic nations are unicultural. What’s wrong with those wishing to participate in the mainstream culture, doing it on the mainstream culture’s terms?
Suppressing diversity or denying individual choices is fatal to democracy, but insisting on regulation hats for police officers isn’t. Wear your turbans when you go for ice cream. In our culture, we want to see the faces of our witnesses, but we don’t need to stop spectators from wearing burqas in court. Observe in a burqa, if you like; testify without. It should be as simple as that.
Reasonable accommodation is all very well, but to be reasonable, accommodation has to go both ways. In a free country, no one needs to swear an oath to the Queen if it offends them, but neither is society required to accommodate people who find such an oath offensive, as we accommodated Toronto Police Board appointee Susan Eng 20-odd years ago. It’s the kind of mistake that has come back to haunt us.
Societies reluctant to lift a finger to preserve their cultural integrity will end up jumping overboard trying to rescue it. Courts that start by letting women testify in a burqa end up by not letting them go for a walk in the park. That’s the lesson of France.