Before answering the question is it important to make three observations. The first is that the attack on liberalism in Canada appears to be following the lead of demagogues in the United States. Ann Coulter, David Horowitz and a slew of pundits argue that every “wild” and “demonic” trend in American society has its roots in a liberal “mob,” “church,” or “media.” The underlying message is that liberals are a dangerous bunch that must be stopped in their tracks.
When media commentators rightfully characterized Anders Behring Breivik, Norway’s accused mass murderer, as a Christian extremist, conservative commentators accused them of smearing Conservatives by attacking Christians. They then went on the offensive claiming that Breivik was not a Christian at all ignoring his well publicized 1500 page manifesto that declared his commitment to the Christian faith.
The second observation is that a hardcore conservative clique are accusing the ‘liberal horde’ of having a love affair with radical Islam. The title of Andrew McCarthy’s book is The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America. Howoritz’s title is equally alarming: Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left.
The third observation is that conservatives believe that Islam and Muslims are determined to subvert western societies from within, either through violence or other means. Even so-called ‘mainstream’ Muslims, they assert, can’t be trusted because they’ll use legal means to “Shari’afy” western societies.
Defending liberal values is the devil’s work
Liberals and Radical Muslims are in cahoots
Liberals attack Christians and desire a godless society while Muslims are plotting a Shari’a coup d’état.
This just happens to be the disfigured landscape the young students at Valley Park stepped onto when they asked to use their school’s cafeteria to offer Friday prayers.
John Rawls, the brilliant Harvard scholar and a philosopher many describe as the most important political thinker of the 20th century, considered cultural accommodation an important facet of developed liberal secular societies. That’s because the goal of western liberal democracies is to achieve what he called a “Just Society.” In his 1971 work A Theory of Justice, Rawls defined a “Just Society” as one in which each citizen “receives an equal guarantee under law to as many different liberties and as much of them as can be guaranteed to every other citizen at the same time.”
The birth of Canada’s multiculturalism followed a vigorous debate over whether newly arriving cultural and ethnic communities would be allowed the same liberties as Christians and people of the Jewish faith. Canada’s policy of multiculturalism meant that all faith communities would have equal guarantee under law to religious and cultural accommodation. It is a principle enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedom.
For decades, Ottawa, the provinces and municipalities, gleefully facilitated and funded any and every request for cultural accommodation so long as it was cosmetic. I’ve described it in my essay as “cheap accommodation.”
But as new ethnic communities matured and began climbing the social ladder their requests for further accommodations started to become “expensive.” The state found itself in the uncomfortable position of trying to balance demands for cultural accommodation against existing laws and policies. As cases piled up in courts, the inherent cracks in Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism reached a critical point. This was most obvious in Quebec where the Taylor-Bouchard commission was struck to find solutions.
While religious accommodation was to remain the norm given the freedoms established by the Charter, the Taylor-Bouchard commission found that in some cases, demands for accommodation should meet the standard of ‘reasonableness.’ This does not mean they had to be rational or logical, but rather the reasons for wanting them should be publicly accessible. This opens a can of worms and it’s not clear who decides what is or is not reasonable. That responsibility is falling increasingly on the shoulders of Canadian judges.
Let’s consider one case that illustrates some of the problems this approach entails. Sikh students in Canada are allowed to attend classes with their kirpan, a ceremonial dagger. Sikhs say it is a cardinal pillar of their faith and that it is harmless because they’re forbidden to unsheathe it. Non-Sikh parents have argued that it could endanger the lives of their children. They cite evidence that adult Sikhs have unsheathed their kirpans during bouts of violence even at temples. Sikhs are not allowed to board a plane with their kirpans. Why doesn’t the school board’s regulation prohibiting all forms of weapons extend to Sikh students as well? What is the reason for the exemption beyond the fact that it is an article of Sikh faith?
After four years of legal wrangling, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2006 that a 12-year-old Sikh student in Quebec be allowed to carry his kirpan to school. The Supreme Court determined that the rights guaranteed by the Charter trumped arguments of public safety advanced by the Board of Education. Rulings like this have infuriated many across Canada who believe they’ve become hostages to all forms of unreasonable demands on grounds of religious freedom.
According to Rawls, the sultan of liberalism both feared and loathed by conservatives, ‘reasonable’ must be what is “good, i.e. what is just and fair for all citizens.” But how is allowing Sikh students to carry the kirpan “just and fair to others?”
An Ontario court recently ruled against a Sikh man who argued that by wearing a helmet, the legal requirement of a motorcyclist, he would have to remove his religiously mandated turban. The judge said that by not wearing the helmet the man’s action could result in an “unreasonable public cost” to Ontario’s health-care system. In other words, his demand for accommodation was neither just or fair to others.
This brings us back to the controversy over Friday prayers at Valley Park Middle School. There is absolutely no evidence that by restricting the use of the cafeteria to Muslim students for approximately an hour on Fridays results in harm, physical or otherwise, to others. Students are not denied a meal as a result unless there is a compelling reason they have to eat in the cafeteria at that exact time.
The prayer is conducted the way it is at any other school or mosque in the city of Toronto and both male and female students come and go as they please. Is the TDSB in violation of its own regulation by accommodating its Muslim students? Some say it is and they plan to challenge the TDSB in a court of law. But what would be the grounds for this challenge? That the school has compromised its secular principle to accommodate a religious minority? Or is it because that particular faith minority happens to be Muslims? Use of the cafeteria once a week for a limited time does not magically transform it into a mosque even if one were to take loads of pictures and splash them on the front pages of every newspaper in the city.
Canadian secularism is liberal in the sense that it has never sought to curtail private religious practices from entering civic space. According to the founding father of liberalism – John Rawls – that would mean denying a basic freedom to people of faith. And his ideal of a “Just Society” would be severely compromised.
France, on the other hand, has a different exegesis of “secularism” and has ruled in favour of banning Muslim women from wearing the niqab in public spaces. In other words, protecting the secular character of the French state is a higher ideal than the freedom to practice one’s religion, however warped that practice might be in the eyes of the majority.
It appears that those who object to the prayers would prefer to have the TDSB decide where female students perform the prayer in respect to the male students. Or perhaps, the TDSB should screen the prayer leader and the content of his or her sermon. While these might be legitimate issues they’re not matters for the TDSB to adjudicate. Perhaps a committee of concerned parents might be better able to intervene should these concerns arise.
What the TDSB must have considered in making its decision is the large number of students asking for extended lunch hour to offer Friday prayers at a nearby mosque. This trend disrupted normal class hours and school officials would have also weighed the safety of so many students leaving the premises all at the same time. Almost 90 percent of the 1300 or so students at Valley Park are Muslims. Less than a third attend the Friday prayer.
The ferocity of the assault on liberal values threatens some very basic freedoms. This should concern everyone. And if it means liberals and Muslims have to unite to defend these freedoms then that’s an alliance I am prepared to endorse. This does not mean Muslims and Conservatives are enemies. In fact, many Muslims find common cause with fiscal conservatism particularly now with the debate over debt raging in the United States.
Friday prayer at Valley Park or any other public school in Canada is not a hideous plot to destroy the legal principles of Canadian society, but rather an attempt to reinforce the ideals that brought many of us to this country in the first place.