It is racism

I’ve been somewhat torn over the French (both France and Quebec) laws that are being moved in to ban Niqabs and Burqas in public settings.

On the one hand I think it’s a symbol of a repressive society and that no one should have to wear such clothing. But on the other hand, I support a free society where no one has the right to tell you what you can’t wear.

The Humanist Association of Ottawa comes down on the side that as an issue of secularism – “separation of church and state made clear and simple” – the Niqab ought to be banned from being worn on government property.

Now I have to part ways with the HAO author Ricky here, as a secular issue you can argue that no religious symbols ought to be promoted by the government, it is wrong to argue that (1) no religious symbols can be displayed, and (2) that private citizens who are at government buildings ought to be suppressed from displaying their symbols. And here’s why

  1. My argument is that a secular state should not promote any one religion. This is best phrased in the First Amendment to the US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While Canadian law is not directly equivalent, I believe most Canadian legal scholars would agree that we have, for all intents and purposes, a secular state. To argue that the government cannot display religious symbols would be to suggest that state sponsored museums, art galleries or zoos can’t deal with religion in any form. Imagine a museum exhibit on the middle ages that was prevented from displaying a cross – it’s absurd.
  2. As a private citizen in a free country, I ought to be allowed to wear a cross, star-and-crescent, Star of David, or a scarlet A into a government building and still receive services.

So in the end, I have to side with the Muslim women. Many have chosen (whether coerced or not is another discussion) to wear a veil in public, despite public ridicule and discrimination, and no laws ought to control that clothing. As for government employees, I use similar reasoning goes to Christians pharmacists who want the right to refuse prescribing contraceptives in that you leave your faith at home or find a line of work that fits your worldview. Pacifists don’t sign up for the army and complain they have to carry guns.

I’ll add one note about the Sikh Kirpan ceremonial daggers – if we are going to exempt one segment of the population the right to carry weapons in public, we have no reason not to let everyone. My personal preference is for everyone to leave their knives at home, regardless of their value to you. Similar logic applies to most religious accommodations to our laws – our laws either apply to everyone equally or they are useful.

It seems to me that most of the arguments for selectively banning Muslim garments stem purely from the newest forms of racism and xenophobia.

3 thoughts on “It is racism”

  1. I agree. Banning the Niqab is dumb..and doesn’t solve anything. While the practice of coercing women to wear the Niqab turns my stomach, you can’t force a woman to be “free” either. We should make sure that Muslim women in Canada have access to the education, services , and support that it takes for them to free themselves. And that means instead of further marginalizing them, we should accept them in our schools and public services like we do all other women of various religious and cultural backgrounds.

    The Dutch reformists I grew up near make the woman wear their hair long, and wear long skirts that cover their legs. I’ve never heard of anyone forcing them to wear shorter hair or skirts.

  2. I hold a somewhat different opinion from you, although I generally do agree with most of what you say.

    I am the president of the Humanist Association of Manitoba and we are currently in the throws of developing a position paper on the issue of “separation of church and state in a parliamentary democracy”.

    I am sure you are well versed in Canada’s history and the fact that we have an official state church and that our government heavily funds religious schooling in Canada. I do agree with you that it is possible to attain secular government in Canada. The question is, what does “secular government” look like in a parliamentary democracy that has a state sanctioned “official” church? (That’s not an easy question to answer as it becomes an issue of values rather than one of simple adherence to the US constitution.) Also it becomes necessary to balance the CDN charter of rights and freedoms for citizens against state needs and other legal requirements. Our charter of rights and freedoms goes a very long way in determining what secular government actually means by making us all equal under the law.

    In the case of the niqab, burka etc, it is my position that it is a cultural object and not a religious one. Muslim Women are not all required to wear a niqab or burka, nor is it stated in the qu’ran that they should. I am sure you have heard this line of reasoning before.

    There is a big difference in the way society handles cases that are cultural rather than religious. The balancing act I refer to if between cultural v.s legal requirements as opposed to religious vs legal requirements.

    Here is one example of an issue we are struggling with as we prepare to write our paper: It is quite easy for an employer to tell the kid who wears his ball cap sideways at work to remove it and wear a safety hard hat in it’s place or face dismissal. (I assume a hard hat is genuinely needed due to safety factors) There is no question in my mind that the employer must make the kid must remove his baseball cap and wear his hard hat and that the government would back the employer. It is in the Kid’s best interests, the employer’s best interests and in societies best interest’s to make this kid choose between a good job with a hardhat or no job.

    Now imagine a devout Sikh in the same workplace where the turban he wears is considered a religious symbol. This issue is once again in the courts and is unresolved in Ontario and Manitoba as a result. Right now it appears that the religious freedoms portion of the charter backs the Sikh to a degree but not the ball cap wearing kid. (Alberta seems to be different in its interpretation right now, but it is not as “cut and dried” as many would like) A concept called “reasonable accommodation” exists and this principle is not easily applied until a strong precedent has been set, often through the courts. (See for an “Alberta” explanation of this problem)

    What is a secular and pluralistic government to do? The concept of “reasonable accommodation” should be a part of a pluralistic and secular society. Even still it is not reasonable to allow a niqab or a turban in every circumstance.

    If the niqab truly is a cultural object and not religious a religious one it will be dealt with differently by the courts. Frankly I don’t know what the results will be, but there is a difference. Will the niqab be seen by the courts as a Ball cap or a Turban?

    So while I agree with you in most of your reasoning I still am not sure that is how things will actually work out in Canada in the long run. There certainly are cases where the niqab needs to be removed and others cases where it is plain silly to make such a request. One thing is certain; it is not always easy to figure out the difference between these cases.

    Frankly, I don’t care to make anyone wear (or not wear) anything. However, freedom does have it’s limits in a society that values personal safety, security, freedom an end to racism etc.

    I wish is was as simple as you make it out to be,when you assert that forcing that woman to remove her face covering is racism. It just isn’t as simple as that when we balance the charter of rights and freedoms with each of those other issues.

  3. Hi!

    I am, as you are, a bit torn over the question of banning the burqa and niqab. There are arguments both for and against, as I think you indeed point out.

    However, I would appreciate if you shared with me your thoughts on the fact that, even the most liberal democracies in the world do already apply some constraints on what one is allowed to wear (or not wear) in the public space. The easiest example I think is public nudity, which is, I am sure, to many people in Western democracies far less offensive, repugnant and in need of prohibition than is the practice of burqa and niqab.

    Basically, what I think I am tring to say is that all democratic states do actually prohibit certain forms of public clothing. They do so because certain kinds of clothing entail offense to great many people. Could not this same principle be used upon burqa and niqab, and does it not refute the argument that “democratic states should not care about what people wear”? Or do you hold the opinion that all forms of clothing SHOULD actually be allowed (and if you do, would that include wearing racist symbols and so on)?

    Would be very grateful if you could provide me with your thoughts on these simple reflections I have on the matter.

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