By Lauren Lam
For most of us in the western world, we are fortunate enough to enjoy freedom of religion. Nonetheless, even in western countries where the ability to practice one’s religion is supposedly a fundamental “freedom”, individuals’ experiences in these countries suggest otherwise. In Canada, a country with a history of respecting religious freedom, as stated in the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, one can still find contemporary examples of individuals facing religious discrimination. Last November alone saw the end of a lengthy court battle between Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani immigrant living in Ontario, and the Canadian federal government over her right to wear a niqab while taking the Canadian citizenship oath. Meanwhile, in France, where there is an official state policy of complete state secularism, or laïcité, different religious groups still tend to have different experiences when it comes to practising their religion. Under laïcité, all religious education is banned in public schools, and following the Charlie Hebdo killings, the French government issued a decree restating this ban. However, many argue that this decree disproportionately targets schools in Muslim-dominated suburbs.
Both of these examples involve injustices towards Muslim individuals. These injustices occur in the context of a series of recent radical Islamic terrorist attacks, such as those orchestrated by the Islamic State in Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino, leading towards a greater trend of Islamophobia. A key question hence becomes: are these injustices a direct result of Islamophobia, or do they reflect a genuine and legitimate fear of compromising security for the sake of freedom of religion? Even further, if freedom of religion inherently conflicts with state security, how can these two ideals be effectively balanced?
Canada’s national identity largely rests on its multiculturalism and the idea of a cultural mosaic, as opposed to the American cultural “melting pot.” In 2011, Canada had a foreign-born population of approximately 6,775,800 people, or 20.6% of the total population, which is the highest proportion of foreign-born of all the G-8 countries. Additionally, 19.1% of the total Canadian population identified as a visible minority according to the 2011 census. With such a high proportion of the population born in foreign countries and/or representing minority groups, it would seem natural that the Canadian government and Canadian citizens would have a great deal of respect for different cultures, languages, ethnicities, and religions.
So how can the Canadian government’s 2011 ban on wearing niqabs in citizenship ceremonies be explained? Such headscarves are worn by Muslim women around the world as a display of modesty and a representation of their faith. The individual involved in the court case against the federal government, Ms. Ishaq, willingly unveiled in front of the official administering the citizenship test she wrote and passed back in 2013. She took issue however when she was told she needed to unveil publicly for the ceremony. When Ishaq brought a lawsuit against the former Conservative federal government, she not only won in Federal Court, but again in the Federal Court of Appeal, before the government brought the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in an attempt to reinstate the ban. According to Attorney Colin R. Singer, the ban on niqabs was unnecessary and only came about “simply because the niqab did not please the [former Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney]”.
It is understandable that headscarves such as niqabs, which cover all of the face except the eyes, come with related security concerns. It may be difficult to verify the identity of individuals wearing them. However, this would be more of a concern for places such as airports, and even then there are alternative solutions. Many have proposed that women wearing niqabs and other headscarves could unveil in a private room with a female officer rather than in public as to best respect their religious beliefs. This alternative would also be possible for citizenship. Nonetheless, the Conservative government insisted that niqabs inhibited judges from recognising people taking the citizenship oath and still refused to consider holding separate ceremonies with female judges for women wearing niqabs. A common sentiment among Muslim women is that it is acceptable and reasonable to ask women to unveil to verify their identity, but it should not be expected in ceremonies because there is no inherent risk. When Zunera Ishaq was finally able to take the citizenship oath on Oct. 9, 2015, she unveiled for an official prior to the ceremony to confirm her identity.
Headscarves that cover individuals’ faces do pose unique security challenges. However, accommodations can be made which mitigate these security challenges, and the security threat is often overstated by those who are less open to different religions and cultures. The previous Conservative administration under Stephen Harper was much stricter in regards to religious freedom, while the new Liberal Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould withdrew the government’s appeal shortly after coming into office. Hopefully this marks a new period of better balancing state security with religious freedom in Canada.
France is another country with a long history of religious equality. However, official and unofficial policy regarding religion in France is very different from that in Canada and cannot truly be called “religious freedom”. Whereas the Canadian government tends to favour openness to all religions, the French government tries to treat all religions equally by placing quite serious restrictions on the practice of all religions. This concept of laïcité has a long history dating as far back as the French Revolution and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. According to laïcité there is a complete separation of church and state, which means that French citizens cannot be educated about religion or wear “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools.
In 2004 a French bill was passed which banned conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. However, it has been clarified that this does not prevent individuals from wearing headscarves and other religious symbols in public places, universities, and private schools. The argument behind this bill is that France is a neutral society where people of many different religions must coexist, making integration a key issue. This becomes even more difficult considering France has the largest Muslim minority in Europe in addition to the world’s second largest Jewish minority. Eliminating such religious symbols is intended to aid individuals who are members of minority groups in assimilating into French society.
Two key concerns arise from this. First and foremost, is a policy of complete neutrality desirable if it inhibits the freedom of individuals to practice their religion? Secondly, is this law applied evenly for all religions?
According to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, laïcité is about allowing individuals to have whatever beliefs, or lack of beliefs, they want, and public institutions should be completely neutral to them as a result. However, it is difficult to comprehend how this policy leads to religious openness when there are cases such as June 2014, when a top appeals court ruled that a private nursery was reasonable in firing an employee who refused to remove her Muslim headscarf in the workplace.
A second problem with this policy is its uneven application. Even if such a policy were to be beneficial for French society in theory, it is not beneficial when it disproportionately affects various religious groups. For example, Ascension, a Catholic holiday, still remains public despite the official separation of church and state. There have also been several reported instances where mothers of schoolchildren are prevented from participating in school trips because they choose to wear a hijab, yet other mothers wearing visible crosses are allowed to participate in the same outings. Furthermore, in April 2011, another law was passed which prohibited headscarves which cover the face in public. It appears that while the French government maintains an official policy of state neutrality, it unfairly targets Muslim women wearing headscarves.
The French policy of laïcité is well-intentioned; integration and security are important. Nonetheless, the policy has been manipulated by people in all aspects of French society to unfairly target Muslims. Like in Canada, the French government should revisit its stance on religious symbols and garments such as the niqab and hijab. After all, freedom of religion is one of the most fundamental human rights and must be protected for everyone, not just a select few.
Photo by tamara_cox1