Andrew Coyne (The National Post):
Whatever else the election of 2015 will be remembered for, it will be remembered as the election in which thousands of votes — the fate of parties, perhaps — turned on the question of whether a handful of religiously observant women should be required to uncover their faces to take the oath of citizenship.
Or rather, since they have always been obliged to uncover their faces to take the oath — in a private room, just before the ceremony — and since no one objects to this requirement, the question before this great nation is whether it is sufficient to uncover their faces before the oath, or whether they should also be required to uncover while reciting it.
That, in a nutshell, is the niqab issue. It was a ridiculous issue when the numbers of women involved were thought to be in the dozens. It is a more ridiculous issue now that it has been confirmed the actual number of women to have been refused citizenship for failing to uncover since 2011 when the policy was introduced is … two.
Of course, in one sense the issue is deadly serious. It is obviously serious to the women in question, for whom it is a matter of the most profound importance that they keep their face covered in public — an obligation that goes far beyond mere modesty. By contrast, to yield on this point is, for the rest of us, an infinitesimal concession.
No one else’s life is made the poorer because, somewhere in Canada, a woman is swearing allegiance to this country with her face covered. If the federal Conservatives hadn’t made an issue of it, none of those now raising blue hell at this insult to their tender sensibilities would even have been aware of it.
That so many, especially in Quebec, have somehow been persuaded to believe their lives are materially affected by it — worse, that so many politicians have been willing to pander to this sentiment — is also what makes this ridiculous issue terribly serious. They are marking out a small and easily identified minority, already made to feel vulnerable by the presence of a few violent extremists in its midst, for shame and suspicion. They are trafficking in their humiliation.
It should not need restating, but perhaps it does: in a liberal society, it is not sufficient to restrict another’s rights that their behaviour or dress or custom is off-putting to you, or that you find their beliefs abhorrent, or that they and their kind make you feel ill at ease. You are free to think those things, and to say them; but unless they have violated your rights you are not free to limit theirs. Absent some identifiable harm — and the critics have yet to identify any specific harm to themselves or anyone arising from the swearing of an oath under a veil — there is no basis in Canadian law to ban the niqab, at citizenship ceremonies or elsewhere.
The issue is clouded by association with the legitimate threat posed by Islamist terrorism, and clouded further by the unwillingness of some to concede it is a threat, or a threat of a particular severity, or a threat whose roots lie in extremist Islam. People who wish to ban the niqab often see the issue as being of a piece with the issue of terrorism, and see the unwillingness of others to ban the niqab as being born of a more general blindness to the threat of Islamist terrorism.
As a fully paid-up subscriber to the war on terrorism, then, perhaps I am credentialed to say that, in fact, no connection, none whatever, has been established to link the two. The women in question, it is true, represent an extreme minority within Islam, but it is simply false to equate extreme or fanatical religious views with a willingness to commit mass murder. Again, this should not need saying — but apparently it does.
Is accepting the right of others to adhere to a religious doctrine and style of dress that others find distressing or demeaning to women an example of the dreaded cultural relativism? No, it is an example of pluralism. What’s the difference? Relativism holds that truth does not exist; pluralism, that there is such a thing as truth, but that none of us is in automatic or absolute possession of it.
A liberal society is pluralist, not relativist. It allows each of us to pursue our vision of the good life, to hold and espouse our ideals of what is just, without prejudice to the notion that goodness and justice exist: indeed, precisely so that we may more nearly approach them as a society. Neither is a liberal society incompatible with the idea of cultural norms: beliefs that are commonly shared, practices that are commonly observed. It draws the line only at enforcing these norms upon the unwilling.
It would be one thing if the women who insist on their right to wear the niqab at the citizenship ceremony, to the point of going to court to defend it, were in fact being forced to wear it. But there is no evidence of this: quite the contrary. Far from meek and submissive, they give every sign of being quite obstreperously independent, rock-ribbed individualists, willing to assert their rights even in the face of a hostile majority.
We talk a lot about Canadian values in this debate. I am inclined to think that, in their own way, it is the niqabistes who best embody those values. In their ornery unwillingness to bend to others’ sensitivities, in their insistence on going their own way on a matter of principle, those women are in the finest Canadian tradition of hellraising. I think we ought to let them be.