Emphasis Matters: Islamophobia should be Included in Parliament’s Anti-Racism Motion

February 15th saw debate on a motion put forward by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid to condemn Islamophobia and other forms of religious discrimination and to request the Standing Committee on Canadian heritage study the matter (the full wording is here). This motion, supported by Liberals and New Democrats, has attracted criticism from some Conservative MPs. Several Conservatives, including leadership candidates Kellie Leitch and Andrew Scheer, have argued that the motion is a threat to freedom of speech and singles out one religion. Highlighting their objection to the use of the term “Islamophobia,” Conservative MP David Anderson has introduced his own motion that is essentially the same as the original one, but removes the word Islamophobia. In the wake of the attack in Quebec, and the increasing Islamophobic rhetoric associated with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, it makes sense to include a reference to Islamophobia. Doing so does not threaten Canadians’ freedom of speech nor does it preference one religion over others. Rather, it ensures the motion responds to troubling events that have occurred in Canada and around the world.

It is first worth grappling with the argument that this limits freedom of speech. Several Conservatives have argued that the term Islamophobia could be extended to include not just hatred and discrimination against Islam, but legitimate criticism that occurs as part of religious debate. This argument relies on a tenuous understanding of the definition of Islamophobia. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (scroll down the link for their definition), the Berkley Centre for Race and Gender, and Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative all draw clear distinctions between Islamophobia as prejudice and the criticism or questioning of particular tenets of Islam that occurs as part of debate around religion. Reading the term Islamophobia to include all criticism of Islam involves going beyond the definition of the term used by anti-discrimination organizations.

It is further worth noting that Canadian lawmakers and the courts have generally been good at ensuring that anti-racism measures limit freedom of speech as little as possible. Canadian anti-hate speech legislation has been carefully crafted to include only the “wilful” promotion of hatred and carves out an exception “if the statements were relevant to any subject of public interest, the discussion of which was for the public benefit, and if on reasonable grounds he believed them to be true.” The narrow construction of anti-hate speech laws played a central role in ensuring the Supreme Court did not strike them down as violations of freedom of expression in R. v. Keegstra. If Canadian law-makers and courts had a history of interpreting anti-discrimination provisions in an over-broad manner, there would be reason to be concerned that a motion opposing Islamophobia could develop into restrictions on religious debate. The opposite is true, however. Canadian law-makers and courts have generally interpreted anti-discrimination measures in a way that infringes upon freedom of expression as little as possible. There is no evidence in Canada to suggest that condemnation of hate speech and discrimination leads to slippery slope in which freedom of expression becomes unduly restricted.

On this point, it is finally worth noting that this is a motion and not a bill. A motion expresses an opinion of parliament and does not change law. As a result, this motion does nothing to change any of the existing rules regarding hate speech, discrimination, and freedom of expression in Canada. It does call for study of this issue by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, which could produce further legislation on the issue. Given the history of Canadian anti-discrimination law discussed above, it seems unlikely that such a committee would develop legislation with over-broad definitions of Islamophobia or discriminatory speech. If such legislation was developed, there would be additional opportunities to vote against it, and it is highly likely the Courts would strike it down as violating the Charter of Rights’ freedom of expression provisions. Concerns that the use of Islamophobia will lead to a condemnation of any criticism of Islam should be allayed by the way that Islamophobia is narrowly defined by anti-discrimination organizations and by the protections of freedom of expression that already exist in Canadian law.

It is also worth tackling many Conservatives’ second claim, that it is inappropriate to single out Islamophobia, in addition to religious discrimination in general, for criticism. The point that critics make here is that highlighting Islamophobia for particular condemnation and study diminishes efforts to condemn discrimination against other religious groups. This argument misses the importance of context to condemnation of discrimination. Condemnation of discrimination is important as a reaction to discrimination that has happened. While broad statements of principle certainly have value, it is important that anti-discrimination measures demonstrate an understanding and a response to particular discriminations that Canadians face. When a group is facing discrimination it is important that the government respond specifically to the discrimination they are facing. This does not preference one group over another, but rather demonstrates an understanding that at different points in time different groups of people will face different levels of discrimination.

In the wake of the shooting at a Mosque in Quebec and the rise in Islamophobia that has coincided with the Donald Trump’s election as President it is important to condem Islamophobia specifically. Muslims are becoming an increasing target of discrimination and so it makes sense that the government would take measures to try to protect them. Far from detracting from the protection of other groups, this kind of action strengthens it. It demonstrates to all minority groups that the government will take action to protect them when they become targets of hate groups. It shows every minority group that governments will respond to increases in discrimination against them, not with a general condemnation of discrimination, but with measures that acknowledge the particularly vulnerability of the group. Condemning Islamophobia today is not only important as a broad statement of principle, it is important as a reaction to events that are currently taking place in Canada and around the world. Motions that ignore the particular discriminations that individuals are facing not only provide little assurance to the group being discriminated against, but should also leave other groups concerned that governments will fail to adequately respond to attacks against them should they happen in the future.

In the aftermath of the Quebec attack it is essential that the Canadian government take a strong stand against Islamophobia particularly. Removing Islamophobia from the motion does harm because it suggests that the government is ignorant of the increasing discrimination that Muslims face. With little reason to fear that the motion will serve as a slippery slope to excessive limitations of freedom of expression, Conservative MPs are wrong to argue for the elimination of Islamophobia from the motion.

Advertisements
Standard

Will the Conservatives Learn From History? Conservatives Need To Reach Out To A Diverse Electorate to Win

The Conservative leadership race has seen the emergence of Kellie Leitch as a candidate who appears to be trying to capitalize on the growing anti-immigrant sentiment across the industrialized world. Leitch’s support of a Canadian-values test for immigrants has raised concerns that the far-right populism that has emerged in European and in the recent American Presidential campaign will influence the Canadian Conservative party. The Conservatives should be careful of Leitch’s candidacy. Throughout Canada’s history, courting immigrants and ethnic minorities has been an important part of the Conservatives’ success. Conservative Prime Ministers John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney, and Stephen Harper all made significant efforts to win the support of ethnic minority voters. This is something that Conservatives should keep in mind when they choose their next leader.

Conservative efforts to broaden their appeal to a diverse group of voters date back to the Diefenbaker era. When Diefenbaker took over as leader of the then named Progressive Conservatives, the party’s base of support largely came from Anglophone Protestant voters. Diefenbaker made efforts to extend the party’s appeal to include ethnic minorities such as German-Canadians and Ukrainian-Canadians. He appointed Ukrainian-Canadian Paul Yuzyk to Senate, who would use his first speech in the Senate to advocate for the adoption of multiculturalism. He also appointed the first Ukrainian-Canadian cabinet minister, Michael Starr. Diefenbaker’s own German-Canadian heritage (his father was of German heritage and his mother Scottish) coupled with his efforts to include minorities in his government helped Diefenbaker to increase Progressive Conservative support amongst Eastern European immigrant communities.

The work that Diefenbaker did to appeal to Eastern European minorities paid off for the PCs electorally. Prior to Diefenbaker’s leadership the PCs were weak in Western Canada (which had a large Eastern European population). Between 1908 and 1957 the party only won more than 50% of the seats on the prairies in 1917, the year that Borden was able to campaign as part of a Unionist government in support of conscription. While Diefenbaker won just under 30% of prairie seats in 1957, he would dominate the prairies in subsequent elections. Between 1958 and 1965 the Diefenbaker led PCs never won fewer than 85% of prairie seats. This was not only due to Diefenbaker’s support for minority’s interests, as a Westerner from Saskatchewan Diefenbaker was able to appeal to prairie voters of many ethnic backgrounds. At the same time, the ability to win ethnic minority votes certainly played a role in Diefenbaker’s success.

Brian Mulroney also made a significant effort to appeal to ethnic minorities. In 1988, prior to the election that year, Mulroney increased funding to multiculturalism and passed the Multiculturalism Act. He brought Jewish-Canadian Gerry Weiner into cabinet as Secretary of State of Canada (the multiculturalism portfolio was subsumed within the Secretary of State’s Department). In 1991 Weiner would become the Minister of Multiculturalism and Citizenship as Mulroney created an independent department to oversee the federal government’s multiculturalism program. There was a clear electoral motivation behind Mulroney’s efforts to advance multiculturalism. The party sought to increase the PC’s appeal in the increasingly diverse ridings in urban areas such as Toronto that the party felt would become essential to its electoral success. Weiner said as much at the 1989 PC convention when he made note of the success that the Liberals had in in diverse Toronto ridings and the need of the party to emphasize the party’s commitment to multiculturalism in order to compete in such ridings.*

The 1990s saw the Progressive Conservatives retreat from their support from multiculturalism, in part in response to the rise of the Reform/Canadian Alliance party. After the creation of the Conservatives through the merger of the PCs and the Canadian Alliance, the Conservatives returned to their considerable efforts to reach out to a diverse electorate. In his role as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney made immense efforts to build relationships between the Conservative party and minority cultural communities. His efforts involved a schedule on some weekends that had Kenney attending 20-25 different events in different communities. As part of the effort to increase their support within ethnic minority communities the Conservatives issued an apology for the 1880-1920 head tax on Chinese immigration and pledged to reduce immigrant’s landing fees and increase foreign degree and credential recognition.

The Conservative efforts to win the support of ethnic minorities paid off in 2011. The party won a majority government in part because it was able to win diverse ridings in the Toronto and Vancouver regions such as Bramlea-Gore-Malton, Brampton Springdale, and Vancouver South. Without these ridings the Conservatives would have had difficulty winning a majority. It is notable that the Conservatives ran into trouble in ethnically diverse ridings in 2015 when they campaigned on policies such as a niqab ban in citizenship ceremonies and a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline. The party ended up losing many of the ridings that they had needed to win their majority in 2011.

There is a lesson in this for Conservatives aspiring to return to government. Since WWII the Conservative Party’s success has depended on its ability to reach out to ethnic minorities that have previously not been part of its electoral coalition. Doing so means taking the issues that are important to different minority and immigrant communities, such as multiculturalism and immigration policy, seriously and developing policies that reflect minorities’ interests. For Diefenbaker this meant including representatives from Eastern European cultural minorities in his government. For Mulroney and Harper this has meant supporting multiculturalism and easing the immigration processes. When the Conservatives have retreated from these positions, as the Harper government did after 2011, they have hurt their ability to win the ethnically diverse ridings they need in order to win government. As the Conservatives consider the proposals of leadership candidates such as Kellie Leitch they would do well to remember that they need the votes of immigrants and ethnic minorities if they are going to have any chance at winning an election.

* Hunter, Iain. (August 26, 1989). “Tories Urged to Cash in on Multicultural Policies.” The Ottawa Citizen. A3.

 

Standard

Could It Happen Here? What it Would Take for a Trump-Like Candidate to Win in Canada

The election of Donald Trump in the United States has raised important question for Canadians about whether such a candidate could be successful here. Neither Trump’s policy positions, nor his rhetoric, are unique to the United States, far-right parties now exist and are relatively successful in most European democracies. The Conservative leadership race has also seen the emergence of two anti-multicultural candidates in Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney. In light of the rise of far-right parties across Europe and North American, it is important to ask to what extent Canada is different from these countries and what the warning signs might be for a rise in a Canadian far-right party. Canada’s political institutions and demographics make the success of far-right candidate or party less likely, but not impossible.

A Party or A Candidate?

One of the notable things about Trump’s success in the United States is that, unlike most of the European far-right movements, Trump did not form his own party. Rather, he co-opted the existing Republican party. This raises questions as to whether a Canadian far-right challenge would likely to manifest itself in the form of a new party or an attempt to take over an existing one. Canada certainly has seen the emergence new parties, particularly of protest parties. In the 1990s the Reform Party and Bloc Quebecois gave voice to concerns that the interests of the West and of Quebec were being ignored by existing political parties. Similar sentiment regarding the exclusion of Western interests served as the basis for the emergence of the Progressive Party in the 1920s and 1930s. It is certainly possible for new parties to emerge in Canadian politics.

To be successful, however, a new party has to have a strong base of regionally concentrated voters. Canada’s first past the post electoral system severely punishes parties that have a small number of geographically dispersed voters. This has been a problem for emerging parties, such as the Green party, that do not have a strong regional base. Notably, lack of geographic concentration has been a problem for far-right parties in both Australia (which uses an alternative vote system) and the United Kingdom (which uses a first past the post system). Australia’s One Nation Party managed to win 8% of the vote in 1998, but did not win a single seat and subsequently saw their share of the vote decline substantially. The UK Independence Party was has also been hurt by that country’s electoral system. The first time it won a seat in a general election was in 2015, and in that election over 10% of the vote got the party just one seat. Provided Canada continues to use a first past the post (or even if it changes to an alternative vote) system, a far-right party would likely face similar difficulties in Canada. Unless it could find a strong regional base, and a comparison to Australia and the UK suggests that is unlikely, a far-right party would have great difficulty converting votes into seats.

The other option for a far-right movement would be to take over an existing party’s leadership and try to use that party’s resources and brand to win office. In my last post I wrote about how this contributed to Trump’s victory in the United States. It is possible that this could happen, but such a movement would face greater difficulty in Canada than in the US. The most likely target of a far-right take-over would be the Conservatives. Unlike the Republicans, however, the Conservative party uses a ranked ballot to decide its leader. This poses a problem for a far-right candidate. It means that a candidate such as Leitch or Blaney would have to win an absolute majority of leadership votes. This is a higher threshold than Trump needed to win the leadership. It is important to note, that with 45% of the vote (even counting votes that were cast after many candidates dropped out), it is not clear that Trump would have been able to win the nomination under such a system. A ranked ballot allows any coalition of anti-far-right voters to keep a far-right candidate from the leadership provided they make up a majority of the voters in the leadership contest and all rank the far-right candidates lower than any other candidates. Unlike in the Republican party, anti-far-right Conservatives do not need to agree on an anti-far-right candidate, they just need to agree not to rank the far-right candidate highly. It is not impossible for a far-right candidate to win a majority of votes (or to pick up a majority of second choice votes) but it is harder than winning the plurality needed for the Republican nomination.

Ridings and the Election

Even if a far-right candidate won control of the Conservative party, they would still need to win a general election. This would be more difficult than in the United States because the way that electoral institutions combine with demographics to give immigrants a great deal of voting power. Canada has a large immigrant population with a foreign born population of around 20%. Further, immigrants in Canada tend to be geographically concentrated in electoral districts, largely in urban and suburban areas. Many of the seats with large immigrant populations, particularly those in suburban Toronto and Vancouver, are swing seats that the Conservatives need to win in order to win government. One of the reasons that the Liberal party was able to hold on to majority governments through the 1990s was their ability to win large numbers of immigrant votes in these battleground ridings. Under Harper, the Conservatives realized this and made a concerted effort to win over ethnic minority and immigrant voters. It is not an accident that the Conservative majority in 2011 coincided with them reducing the gap between themselves and the Liberals amongst ethnic minorities voters. A Conservative party led by a far-right candidate would have difficulty winning key swing ridings, and therefore would have difficulty winning elections.

It is difficult to see how a far-right led Conservative party would off-set these losses. There are less diverse ridings in rural Atlantic Canada and Quebec outside of Montreal. However, these are not ridings where the Conservatives have been traditionally strong. It is not clear that campaigning against multiculturalism would change Conservative fortunes in these regions either. Notably the Parti Quebecois attempted to mobilize voters along multiculturalism and identity issues when they introduced the Charter of Values (which would limit the ability of public servants to wear religious symbols such as hijabs or kipahs) in 2014. The PQ lost that election with their vote share falling by 6.5 percentage points and their seat share falling by 24 seats. There is some evidence to suggest that the Charter of Values did the Parti Quebecois more harm than good. One could imagine that under the right circumstances it might be possible for a far-right led Conservative party to pick up enough non-diverse seats to off-set losses in more diverse areas of the country. It is not clear, though, that taking positions against multiculturalism would help them do so. A far-right led Conservative party would have a very difficult path to victory.

In Parliament

The Canadian parliamentary system would present two hurdles to a far-right led Conservative party. First, the party would have to win a majority government. While coalition governments are rare in Canada, a far-right led Conservative campaign may be enough to force the Liberals and New Democrats to work together to keep such a party for governing in a minority situation. In Ontario the Liberals and NDP cooperated after the 1985 election to replace a Progressive Conservative party that had won a minority government. Coalitions have their perils, as was demonstrated during the 2008 federal government coalition crisis, but it is hard to believe that the Liberals and NDP would not cooperate to keep a far-right led Conservative party espousing Trump-like or European far-right views from power.

Even in a majority situation, a far-right led Conservative party would have to keep control of its caucus. Unlike the American President, Prime Ministers can only remain in power if they have the support of the legislature, and in a majority situation that means having the support of their parties’ MPs. While backbench revolts in Canada are extremely rare, they are serious problems for party leadership when they happen. The emergence of the Democratic Representative Caucus as a break-away group from the Canadian Alliance in 2001 ended up playing a significant role in forcing Stockwell Day to resign as party leader. A far-right leader would have to ensure that their MPs, even the moderate ones highly skeptical of anti-multicultural ideas, fell in line with the party. If the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams of the Canadian Conservatives would be willing to forgo the cabinet and committee positions a leaders uses to keep her party in line, they could cause significant problems for a far-right Conservative leader trying to hold on to the leadership of the party.

Could it Happen Here?

The path to a far-right Prime Minister in Canada is a very difficult one. The far-right candidate would first have to win control of the Conservative party on a ranked ballot- requiring the candidate to win at least 50% of the leadership vote. The candidate would then have to find a way to win in Canada’s diverse electorate and in an electoral system that strengthens the voting power of immigrant and minorities. Such a candidate would have to find some way to off-set her inability to win in diverse suburban ridings around Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. This candidate would also have to win a majority government and would have to maintain control of their party, finding some way to stave off caucus revolts from moderate backbenchers unwilling to accept anti-multicultural or anti-immigrant rhetoric. It is not a impossible that a far-right candidate could win power in Canada. The outcomes of the Brexit referendum and the American election certainly suggest that it is a mistake to underestimate far-right anti-immigrant and anti-globalization movements. At the same time, the institutions and demography of Canada would make far-right success here very unlikely.

Standard

Education and the Refugee Crisis: Preparing People to Think in About Complex Political Issues

In Enlightenment 2.0 Joseph Heath explores the way that cognitive biases affect political debate. One of the points that he makes is that individuals’ attention span is often limited and that, as a result, flawed but simple arguments often convince more people than more well reasoned but harder to explain complex arguments. Heath uses the examples of free trade and evolution to illustrate this point. It can take up to an hour to properly explain David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage and international trade or to fully explain the theory and evidence behind evolution. Outside of a university or high school or university classroom it is rare that one has an audience captive enough to fully explain these ideas (Heath, 2014, 309-313). This is a problem for the debate occurring in many Western developed countries over whether and how many refugees to accept. Many of the arguments against accepting refugees are simple while many of the responses to those arguments are complicated and fairly difficult to explain. Individuals cannot be forced to sit through university seminars on the crisis, but education systems can play a role in making people more receptive to arguments in favour of accepting refugees. Teaching about the complexity of international conflict and Canada and the United States’ troubled history when it comes to accepting refugees is important to increasing the likelihood that individuals will be receptive to arguments for opening borders towards refugees in future crises.

One of the key problems with the debate surrounding the refugee crisis is that the arguments against accepting refugees tend to be simplistic while the responses to them tend to be complicated. Opponents of accepting refugees assert that refugees are a security risk (domestic criminals and terrorists are a far greater threat to individuals than foreign terrorists and rejecting refugees is likely to increase the strength of groups like ISIS that are a threat to international security). They argue that refugees will cost Canadians jobs (Planet Money drew comparisons to the influx of refugees into Florida from Cuba which had no negative impact on the economy). They also argue that many refugees do not share Canadian values (wrongly assuming that most refugees think the same way as the repressive regimes that they are fleeing). Each of these arguments against accepting refugees is easy to articulate in a couple of sentences for a thirty second sound bite but is difficult to respond to without a fair bit of detailed argumentation and well researched evidence. This is the challenge for proponents of accepting refugees across the developed world. Proponents of accepting refugees have to find ways of making complicated and detailed arguments in a media environment dominated by the 30 second sound bite and 140 character tweet.

Heath makes the point in his book that students in a classroom are unlike most individuals who consume media in an important way, they are a captive audience. Unlike most consumers of media who can change the channel when a story gets overly complicated or boring, students are generally required to attend classes and listen to the full explanation of ideas. They have strong incentives to learn complicated material, at the very least because they want to do well in their classes. Universities and secondary schools thus have a unique opportunity to teach complex ideas to those that attend them. A university or a high school can present material in a way that most mass media cannot, and therefore convey ideas that are often lost in most media reporting. Education systems of course, cannot prepare individuals for each individual crisis. Individuals cannot be made to go back to school every time a major conflict breaks out and schools cannot teach about every potential conflict that may occur during a persons’ life. Education systems can highlight two broad ideas that provide important frames that can make it more likely that individuals will grasp the complexity of crises.

The first thing that education systems can do is highlight the complexity of international conflict. There is a real danger when crises break out that people will assume that the group or groups that get the most media coverage are representative of entire populations. When most of the media coverage of Middle East deals with ISIS and other terrorist groups or authoritarian regimes, the likelihood that people will believe people from the Middle East do not share our values increases. There is a tendency for people to frame news stories as in “us vs. them” terms and to characterize the “them” as whatever shows up most often if the first couple stories run by CBC or CNN or shows up most often in their Twitter feed. In a world where media is increasingly 30 second soundbites and 140 character tweets, it is difficult to give individuals an understanding of the diversity of beliefs in another country or the complexity of a conflict taking place half way around the world.

Education systems can respond to this by priming individuals to think of conflicts as complex. If students in high school and university learn history and current events as a series of complex and difficult to understand conflicts and relationships, they will be more likely to look for complexity in the current events that they witness after they leave school. The history and current events being taught in class rooms is not just teaching students about the specific events, it is teaching them about the way that international relations and politics within countries work generally. When students learn about the Cold War as a simple clash between the West and the Soviet Union with countries fitting neatly into democratic and communist blocs they are likely to look for the same clean lines in other conflicts. If, by contrast, students learn about the complex ways in which the clash between the West and the Soviet Union interacted with other political movements and ideas across the world they will be more likely to look for those kinds of complex relationships in the events they see after leaving the education system. Teaching about non-aligned countries, about the way that nationalism shaped the Cuban revolution and the Vietnam war, and about the uprisings against communism in Hungary and Czechoslovakia is important because of what it tells students about the way that politics works. It shows students that there are often more than two ideologies at play in conflicts, that there are often diverse political viewpoints within countries, and that the views of a government in power (especially an authoritarian one) cannot always be equated with those of the population of a country.

Understanding this complexity has important implications for the way that people respond to an event like the Syrian refugee crisis. Objections to taking refugees that are based on perceptions that refugees might be terrorists or that refugees lack the liberal democratic values of many in the West can result from the way that Western media focuses on terror groups such as ISIS or authoritarian regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria. Teaching about the complexity of conflict is important because it makes individuals more likely to understand that the views of governments and terrorist organizations covered in the media are almost always very different from the refugees fleeing these governments and terrorists. The work of dispelling a lot of myths about refugees done by refugee advocacy groups can be made easier if individuals are already primed to look for a more complex story than the one that is often presented in the media.

The second way in which education can change the way the public is to teach about some of the way that refugees have been treated in the past. Australia, Canada, and the United States accepted large numbers of refugees from Vietnam in the late 1970s and the United States has taken in significant numbers of refugees from Cuba since Fidel Castro took power there. The intake of refugees from Vietnam and from Cuba has often been at a rate much larger than many of the proposed American and Canadian intakes of refugees from Syria. As the Planet Money episode linked to in the second paragraph points out, the intake of a large number of refugees had very limited economic impacts on the communities that took them in. The increased competition for jobs by refugees was offset by the increased demand for goods and services by refugees. Teaching these examples is important because it provides a quick and easy response to many of the concerns raised about the ability of countries to take large number of refugees. Individuals can appeal to point to these cases in response to concerns that countries will be overwhelmed by refugees. The point that “we have done this before and it has worked out fine” is a powerful one. This is not to say that ever situation is the same, every refugee crisis has its own unique characteristics and the Syrian refugee crisis is no different. Teaching individuals that accepting large numbers of refugees has worked out well in the past shifts the burden of proof for those arguing against accepting refugees. Instead of just pointing to the potential problems, opponents of refugees have to explain why this particular case is different than past cases.

Teaching the history of refugee politics in Canada and the United States offers cases where the response of Canada and the United States to refugees has been shameful and where the consequences of restrictive policies have been disastrous. In 1939 over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Germany on the St. Louis were denied entry both to Canada and the United States and sent back to Germany. Advocates in favour of accepting refugees are drawing parallels between the Syrian refugee crisis and the failure of Canada and the United States to accept Jewish refugees in 1939. These appeals increase in their power the more people know the story of Canada and the United States failures to accept refugees in the past. Failure to react to crises with compassion in the past has had disastrous consequences in the past. Learning about these past failures is essential because it makes it less likely that individuals will repeat these failings. Teaching about the failings of Canada and the United States makes it less likely that those failings will be repeated in the future.

One of the challenges in the debate of accepting refugees is that arguments against accepting refugees are often easier to explain than those in favour. This presents a serious challenge for advocates of more compassionate asylum policies across the Western world. Education systems can prepare individuals to think about these debates in a critical manner. Teaching about the complexity of global politics and Canada and the United States’ history regarding refugee politics are important because they help to give individuals the tools to be receptive to and think through some of the more complex arguments in favour of accepting large numbers of refugees. This is not a panacea that will make everyone more likely to support the admittance of large numbers of refugees, nor should it be. The purpose of education is not to make individuals more likely to side with any one side of a debate. It is important, however, that education gives individuals the tools to think through the more complex arguments and the past events which are part of any political debate. High schools and universities have a uniquely captive audience that has to listen and learn the complex ideas they are presented with. It is essential that education systems make use of this captive audience to provide individuals with background needed to understanding complicated arguments about global politics and the history of American and Canadian refugee policy.

* For more on cognitive biases, reason, and politics see Heath, Joseph. (2014). Enlightenment 2.0 Restoring Sanity to our Politics, our Economy, and our Lives. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers.

Standard

Being Reasonable- Religious Accommodation in Multicultural Countries

There is a scene in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War where Congressman Charlie Wilson meets a businessman from his district in Nacogdoches, Texas who is lobbying him to intervene in a case involving a creche on a firehouse lawn. In the movie Wilson ends the meeting by telling the businessman that “there are 38 churches that the creche could be moved to and everybody lives.” The point that Wilson makes is that there are often practical, reasonable, solutions to conflicts over culture that allow both sides to maintain the practices and values that are most important to them. In Canada the Harper government is appealing a court decision allowing devout Muslim women to wear a niqab during citizenship ceremonies. The courts struck down a Harper government policy forbidding niqabs at ceremonies, finding that it comes into conflict with the existing law that requires that ceremonies allow for the greatest amount of freedom of religion possible. The Harper government’s decision to ban the niqab at citizenship ceremonies was a mistake. There are reasonable accommodations that allow the government to accomplish its goals while allowing those Muslim women that feel wearing a niqab is important to their religious practice to such beliefs and practices.

Religious freedom is worth protecting because of the central role that religion plays in the way that individuals define their identities. Religious beliefs go beyond simple preference and affect the deep convictions that people have about the way life should be lived. They deserve protection in much the same way that political beliefs deserve protection. Just as it is difficult to have a free society in which people are limited in the political viewpoints they can express, it is difficult to have a free society in which individuals are limited in the way they can exercise their beliefs about central religious questions regarding what beliefs and practices are moral. This is especially true given that the government cannot claim to have a unique insight into which religious and moral beliefs are correct. The government has no reason to believe that one set of religious beliefs is normatively better than another, and so it ought to stay neutral on matters of religion. This should not be taken as an argument against any law restricting religious practices. A right to freedom of religion should not be used to defend practices that harm others, that restrict the rights of members of the religious community, or that prevent a government from pursuing a clear and compelling state interest. As within any law restricting individual liberty, however, it should be the burden of government to justify why a restriction of freedom of religion can be justified under such criteria.

Many government and social practices have roots in religion, even if they have become divorced from there original religious meaning. A great deal of social customs and even government rules have been developed in societies that were (or even still are) predominantly Christian. In Canada, the rules that governments have made have developed to fit a Christian society, even if governments for the last half century have maintained a strong commitment to neutrality on religion. These rules and practices do not always fit with the practices of non-Christian religions. For example, a police uniform developed in a majority Christian society may include headwear that does not comply with the religious requirements of Jews, Muslims or Sikhs. A government in a majority Jewish, Muslim, or Sikh state, even a secular government, would most likely design different uniforms in order to respect the practices of the many within their country. A society that treats individuals from different religious backgrounds equally has to recognize that many of its practices and laws are not religiously neutral. Such societies ought to make adjustments to their rules in order to accommodate the practices of individuals with different religious beliefs, provided those accommodations do little to affect the goals of the law or practices.

Central to the case for these exemptions is that there is often no strong normative argument for the existing practice being debated. There is no inherent value to keeping one’s head uncovered, it is simply a cultural practice that has developed in majority Christian societies. One cultural group may see keeping one’s head uncovered as an important sign of respect while another may see it as a sign of disrespect. The same argument can be made for face coverings. The case that there is some inherent value to keeping one’s face uncovered is a tenuous one. Individuals who keep their faces covered are demanding a greater degree of privacy public than many in Canada are used to, but this amount of privacy is not unreasonable. Individuals, with the exception of security and other personal tasked with identifying people, do not have a right to identify every person that they come into contact with, and there is little value in doing so. It is not the way that many in Canada are used to doing things, but “it is the way we do things here” is a particularly poor argument for requiring others to fall in line with one’s cultural, religious, or social practices. There are situations in which society should limit religious practices, but it is the burden of the government banning the practice to justify the limitation.

There are two normative arguments made in favour of banning face coverings at citizenship ceremonies, one of which can be dealt with by accommodation and one of which can be responded to. The first argument against the presence of niqabs or other facial coverings at citizenship ceremonies is a practical one. Individuals receiving citizenship need to have their identity verified in order that government officials can be sure that they are who they say they are. The simple accommodation that can be made to deal with this problem is to allow the applicant to reveal their face to an official in private. This allows the government to be satisfied that they are granting the correct person citizenship while the applicant is allowed to maintain their own religious practices. Put another way, “everybody lives.”

The second argument is one that the Harper government has been making in defence of their policy. The Conservatives have argued that the niqab is somehow inherently anti-women, and that as a result it should be a practice discouraged in Canada. This is a weak claim to make in the face of a challenge to the law that is coming from a Muslim woman, Zuna Ishaq, seeking the right to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony. The government should certainly intervene in cases where communities seek to limit the rights of individuals within them, but it is far from clear that this the case in this situation and it should be the burden of government to prove that the community is exerting some kind of pressure on the individual. It is certainly possible that a Muslim woman wearing a niqab is bowing to pressure from her religious community. But, it is equally possible that she feels deeply committed to an interpretation of Islam that requires women to wear a niqab and has freely chosen to maintain the practice. Individuals follow all kinds of highly regimented and restrictive religious practices out of a deep religious conviction. Certain denominations of Christian priests make a commitment to celibacy, and ultra-orthodox Jews follow highly regimented rules governing everything from what they wear to who they are allowed to interact with and when (there are gender segregation rules practiced by ultra-orthodox Jews). Individuals freely choose to maintain many of these practices. While upbringing certainly influences these individuals’ decisions the fact that many leave these communities and that some convert to them suggests that individuals have the agency to decide whether they want to engage in these religious practices. It is not unreasonable to expect that a woman committed to a particular interpretation of Islam would freely choose to follow a requirement to wear a niqab. Absent evidence to the contrary, government’s should assume religious practices, even ones that are highly restrictive, are free choices. The government has a role to play in ensuring that individuals from all communities are exposed to different ideas and ways of life, but it should not deny the right of individuals to follow religious practices just because such practices are foreign to the vast majority of individuals with Canadian society.

On religious questions governments have to, to some degree, take individuals at their word when it comes to the sincerity of their beliefs. When a woman claims that wearing a niqab is important to her religious values she should be taken at her world. In the absence of any other evidence, the government should not claim that this somehow reflects a misunderstanding of her interests or an anti-women culture. A government committed to allowing a diversity of religious practice must further recognize that allowing for the equal practice of religions requires adjusting rules and norms that were developed in a society that is less religiously diverse than Canada is today. When these accommodations have limited costs and do not infringe on the rights of others they should be granted. The fact that most people do things differently is not in and of itself an argument to require others to fall in line within Canadian cultural practices.

Standard