A 1:2 Fleurdelisé flying in Downtown Montreal Photo/Wikimedia Commons

Fear and suspicion

  • March 5, 2015

A harsh ruling by a Quebec judge against a hijab-wearing Muslim woman offers a cautionary tale about what can happen when a peaceable society falls sway to fear and suspicion.

Appearing before Judge Elianna Marengo on a routine matter, Rania El-Alloul was told sternly that her headscarf, an expression of faith, made her “not suitably dressed” for court.

“Decorum is important,” the judge scolded. “Hats and sunglasses, for example, are not allowed, and I don’t see why scarves on the head would be. The same rules need to be applied to everyone.”

This was the first reported time in Canada a hijab was deemed inappropriate for court. Quite rightly, Canada’s political leaders immediately assailed the ruling, a seemingly clear violation of religious freedom. As one critic noted, Canada’s courts are secular but the people who appear in them are not. Similarly, the Supreme Court has ruled that witnesses can not be unreasonably required to “park their religion at the courtroom door.”

Yet the Quebec judge issued a not-in-my-courtroom decree and sent the single mother home in tears. A sign of the times? Apparently, yes. And not just because religious rights in general are increasingly discounted across Canada. But also, one senses, because of a deepening anxiety related to Islam, and society’s struggle to find a way to embrace a vast peaceful Muslim majority while abhorring the acts of a small radicalized minority.

Following many years of jihadist terrorist events, including the October attack on Parliament Hill, the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris and the slaughter of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya, society’s anxiety is understandable. It also explains the overwhelming support for Ottawa’s proposed anti-terrorism Bill C-51 that will grant intelligence agencies and police forces increased powers of investigation and arrest.

The anti-terrorism bill is stunningly popular. Far from raising alarms that the new law criminalizes certain aspects of free speech related to terrorism and allows police to detain suspects seven days without charge, Bill C-51 has an 82-per-cent approval rating, according to an Angus Reid survey. Indeed, 36 per cent of Canadians believe the bill should go even further.

Those numbers mean that a sweeping bill that should be facing careful scrutiny to clarify some serious ambiguities and to install checks and balances to avoid abuses will instead be rushed into law. That is unfortunate. Confronting terrorism is a necessary reality of our times but it must be done in a balanced, careful manner that respects civil liberties, including religious freedom. This bill sadly lacks such assurances.

Those guarantees are particularly important in anxious times. Fear and suspicion can do strange things to society. Just ask Rania El-Alloul.

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