Making room

  • November 24, 2006

A recent poll suggests that Canadians still embrace multiculturalism and religious diversity. At the same time, the survey shows that at some point newcomers must find ways to accommodate themselves to this country's deepest principles.

This should not be a surprise. Canada is a country of immigrants, right from its aboriginal denizens who came from Asia and dispersed across the North American continent thousands of years ago. But neither should it be taken for granted, especially as all Western nations strain to accommodate within their societies immigrants from Muslim nations who arrive with radically different notions about such matters as the role of women and religion in public life.

Former British foreign minister Jack Straw brought the tension into the open in England recently when he admitted that he was uncomfortable talking to female Islamic constituents who wear the burka (a garment that covers the entire body, including the face). He said he often asks them to remove the facial screen so he can talk with them eye-to-eye. The response in Great Britain ranged from angry outrage that he would challenge someone's religious freedom, on one hand, to those who think burkas and other Islamic clothing should be banned because they are demeaning to women. Indeed, the Netherlands is now considering just such a legal ban.

The Environics poll, commissioned by the Montreal-based Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, surveyed more than 2,000 Canadians on their attitudes toward multiculturalism. Three-quarters believe Muslim immigrants make a positive contribution to Canada. More than two-thirds (68 per cent) believe law-abiding Muslim Canadians should not be held personally responsible for violent crimes carried out by others in the name of Islam. In fact, 78 per cent think the foreign policy of Western countries is either a minor or major cause of Islamic terrorism.

So Canadians, by and large, are welcoming of Muslim immigrants — to a point. A full 81 per cent agreed immigrants should adapt to mainstream beliefs on women's issues. But does this mean no burkas, chadors or hijabs (head coverings that provide varying levels of coverage of a women's head and body)? Does it mean Islamic women must embrace our sex-obsessed culture, where female sexuality is sold as a commodity through marketing, advertising and popular entertainment? Or does it mean something else?

Roman Catholics talk about their own faith as a counter-cultural proposal to our materialistic society. Our own tradition offers examples of radically different forms of dress (nuns' habits, clerical garb) along with modest, cloistered and ascetic lifestyles. Society has long accommodated these differences, so it should be open to some of the customs Islam has to offer which challenge the less-savoury aspects of our own culture.

Obviously, though, there have to be principles upon which we all agree. Our common rights offer the litmus test for where the line should be drawn. We don't think clothing falls beyond it.

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