Sunday October 11, 2015
By Adam Gopnik
Zunera Ishaq challenged the Conservative government’s decision to ban women from wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.
Facts, the professors like to tell us, cannot make norms—but, in truth, scientific consensus really does foreclose some debates. On a few issues—gun violence is one—no rational debate is actually possible. If we want gun violence and gun massacres to end, we have to legislate to reduce the number of guns in private hands. Climate change is another: it’s happening, we’re causing it, and we need to do what we can to stop it. (What we can do is, of course, a reasonable subject for debate.) But on other issues, real debates are not only possible but ongoing and spiralling outward, challenging us to reconcile our beliefs with our sympathies, our partisan allegiances with our principles—to make our philosophies one with our politics. One such debate is roiling my home country of Canada right now.
Canada, as you probably don’t know, is in the midst of an election campaign, which will conclude on October 18th. The peculiarity of Canadian politics is that two center-left parties compete with each other, as well as with the governing Conservatives. The social-democratic N.D.P. seemed potent early on, but the polls right now predict a confrontation between the Conservative incumbent, Stephen Harper—a charmless but effective politician—and the Liberal’s Justin Trudeau, the son of the one former Prime Minister who remains famous even in America. Trudeau, Sr., was much maligned by many Canadians when he left office, in 1984, but his steadfast (and successful) efforts to keep Canada together through the high-water mark of Quebec nationalism now look heroic to many more. Trudeau fils has little of his father’s commanding intelligence or impatient, suffer-no-fools gravitas—but he is appealing, youthful, and what was once called “charismatic.” (For what it’s worth, a person I trust and know well has spent extended amounts of time with him—on a camping trip in the far north, out of reach of civilization, as it happens—and came away with a very high opinion of his character, at least in the cold.)
The current campaign controversy arose from the Conservative government’s decision to ban women from wearing the niqab—an Islamic veil that covers the face, but is not the full-body burka—at citizenship ceremonies. Harper has said that the practice of wearing the niqab is “offensive” and “not how we do things here.” A Pakistani-born woman named Zunera Ishaq challenged the ban in 2014, and the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeals have now both ruled in her favor. Harper’s government has said that it intends to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. The case has become a major campaign issue. Canada, in some ways even more visibly than the United States, is of course a nation of immigrants, whose numbers are swelling all the time. Somewhat to the surprise of what, in the north, is also called the “media élite,” a majority of Canadians seem to side with the Prime Minister: one survey has as much as eighty per cent of the population agreeing with Harper. He has capitalized on the advantage by saying, last week, that “a reëlected Tory government also will examine whether public servants should be forbidden from wearing the niqab.”
The case for the right to wear the niqab, at a public ceremony or as a public servant, is powerful. Canada’s Charter of Rights And Freedoms would seem empty if Muslim women do not have as much right to wear the regalia of their religion as Orthodox Jewish and Catholic women and men have to wear theirs. To insist that Muslim women be subject to special restrictions directed at their faith alone seems—well, claims of Islamophobia may be the first refuge of a cultural relativist, but they are not a fantasy. Muslims should have exactly the same rights as all other religious communities, and if their regalia or practices are subject to special censure then a basic human right will have been violated. Whether the majority of Canadians do or do not “like” the practice has nothing to do with whether the practice is protected. As one columnist wrote, “The decision of a grown woman, like Zunera Ishaq, to cover her face at a public ceremony is, well, the decision of a grown woman.” This is the Liberal Justin Trudeau’s position: his father, who introduced the Charter of Rights And Freedoms to Canada, in the nineteen-eighties, “would relish the opportunity to talk about how Canada is a country built on respect for rights and freedoms,” he has been quoted as saying. “My father understood that one of the great strengths of this country is the fact that we do protect minority rights, we protect individual rights,” Trudeau continued. “And it’s unfortunate that we have right now a Prime Minister who’s choosing to attack vulnerable women as a way of gaining votes and setting public opinion against them.”
I come from the kind of Montreal Liberal family for whom Trudeau the Elder remains a sainted figure, and the Conservatives, in their present post-progressive state, the embodiment of a dubious Americanization of Canada. This is part of the reason why, when the logic of a position of Harper’s makes me side even partially with him, I am inclined to think that the logic probably has something compelling in it. Harper’s newfound interest in women’s emancipation may be cynical. But his statement that the niqab is “not how we do things here” is not wholly fatuous. Liberal societies are not neutral arrangements of civic services supplied to all. They aren’t just public-service condominiums that pick up trash and direct traffic. They have values. Indeed, their ability to supply those services—their prosperity, the reason everyone wants to come to liberal societies and not to theocracies—is because of those values.
Chief among those values is tolerance, which we want to stretch to its maximum extent. But that extent is not infinite. A principle of tolerance does not mean that we tolerate the right of the powerful in one community to mutilate or bully or oppress the less powerful. We don’t, on the whole, let children go unvaccinated, or allow members of a sect to abuse their kids in the name of faith, and we won’t, if we can, allow female genital mutilation—even though it may belong to the cultural “wholeness” of another grou
Liberal societies have rules. Those rules, and the values they embody, have been a long and torturous time evolving. One of those values is the value of the agency and autonomy of the individual and, with it, the value—incredibly hard won, over a very long time—of woman’s emancipation, and so with it the belief that you cannot, either literally or symbolically, mask individuals. Women’s right to full autonomy is not optional in our society, and those who regard it as optional are not those who can expect to participate in it as citizens. If you wish to join our group, which will give you maximum freedom for every kind of self-expression and religious practice, you have to respect that the open engagement of one citizen with another—and, in turn, one face with another—is a core value that lets all the other values you enjoy flourish. The face may only be a symbol of our confidence in openness, but our symbols are the things to which we confide our values. As Barbara Kay, a distinguished Canadian journalist with whom I agree on few other issues, writes eloquently, “The only societies that mandate the niqab as a social norm are those in which women are considered sexual chattel with virtually no rights. Willed indifference to the niqab is more than tolerance; it is an endorsement of gender-rights relativism in our national home—equality for our women, inferior status for theirs.”
The counterargument is real, and serious: the women who wear the veil are choosing to wear it, and to censor their choice in favor of what are merely our own fashion preferences is itself a form of oppression. And even if the niqab is a social norm achieved by cultural coercion—well, do we not enforce equal cultural coercion on women to, so to speak, unveil?
In turn, we can recognize the ambiguities of the rhetoric of “choice” in questions of cultural coercion while still being able to tell the difference, for human rights, between a veil and a pair of leggings. And then, we honor norms as well as laws. We expect a Western woman to honor the courtesies of other societies she might visit—not to wear a kimono inappropriately in Japan, or to cover her head if that is what is expected in a Muslim land—and we can expect the same in reverse, not less because liberal societies allow for the maximum possible expression of difference of any societies that have ever been known to history. The courtesy is a courtesy to our desire to honor differences, without sacrificing all our other values to that honor. We cherish difference, but we don’t accept secession.
As I say, this is a true debate, on which there is much of consequence to be said on both sides. Exactly how this debate resolves—and whether it indeed affects the outcome of the Canadian election—will be worth following, and not just for those of us in exile from what has always seemed to be the world’s model liberal country.