Burqa tolerance points to a leadership vacuum

By Dan Delmar on February 11, 2010

The lack of political courage across all levels of government and most political parties is nothing short of shameful. The burqa (or niqab) is possibly the most offensive garment on the face of the earth: A head-to-toe covering worn by women who practice an extremist and some say perverted form of Islam. It is a symbol of repression, misogyny and, as French president Nicholas Sarkozy said last year, “debasement.” It should not be tolerated in any civilized society.
In France, a parliamentary committee has recently recommended that women be barred from wearing the burqa in public institutions. Any possibility of debating the issue in Canada was shot down by both the Prime Minister’s Office and that of the Leader of the Opposition. The fact that Liberals and Conservatives alike are so comfortable with the idea of the burqa on Canadian streets in 2010 demonstrates that this country is in the midst of a crisis in leadership and in the early stages of a more profound identity crisis.
We have somehow become a nation of nations, and as such, it is difficult to find common ground, shared values. Only a small minority of Muslim women in this country may be forced by their husbands to drape themselves in these sheets; some are coerced by family; some, at the very least, have been raised with a warped sense of obligation to a tyrannical subculture. But are we being true to ourselves as Canadians if we accept this type of  behavior? Do we see these tragic figures and look the other way out of indifference or a misplaced commitment to multiculturalism?
Islamist apologists would have you believe the wearing of the burqa is a gesture of modesty, faith and devotion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite popular belief, it can scarcely be considered religious dress. Its origins lie in the more extreme (and among Muslims, disputed) forms of Wahabi Islam that took root in Saudi Arabia. Its use was not a founding principle of Islam.
As leaders at the Muslim Canadian Congress have pointed out in recent days, there is no mention in the Qur’an of a need for a face-covering of any sort. Furthermore, Sharia law – as misogynistic as regulations get – also contains no reference to the burqa (the Qur’an, naturally, speaks of modest dress, but many argue this is in reference to the Prophet Mohammed’s wives, and not all Muslim women). This begs the question, if women who wear burqas, or men who cowardly watch their wives, sisters and daughters wear them as they strut around in jeans and a t-shirt, are not following the word of the “Prophet,” are they nothing more than fundamentalists with a sad misunderstanding of the texts they blindly worship?
Islam is not, of course, the only religion to include misogynistic principles in its teachings. From Hasidic Jewish women compelled to shave their heads at marriage to fundamentalist Christian women being robbed of their sexuality and independence, there is no shortage of gross inequality in mainstream monotheism. But the burqa pushes certain segments of Islam into the realm of the absurd and is completely intolerable.
The burqa is not harmless. The consequences of its existence go far beyond the individual who chooses to put it on every morning. On a societal level, it creates serious human rights problems. If we accept women wearing dark, stuffy sheets from head-to-toe in the summer heat, veils over their faces that cut them off from basic human contact and intimidate ordinary citizens, what other indignities will go unchallenged? If a ball-and-chain becomes the new accessory of choice for female disciples of Religion ‘X,’ would that be tolerated as well?
Based on the rhetoric heard among the political class in Canada, there doesn’t seem to be a desire to draw a line in the sand. Faith in God is the reasoning behind behaviour that would otherwise have someone committed, but in a perverse reversal of reason too many now find that very commitment  admirable. At least in public; we only feel comfortable mocking the antics of religious radicals in private. We are cowards in the face of religious lobbies with political muscle, retrograde customs that are permitted to survive under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the increasingly wide umbrella of multiculturalism-turned-multitribalism. Our leaders not only tolerate subversive elements in society but make excuses for them under the guise of “freedom of religion.”
Montreal Liberal Marlene Jennings was one of the first MPs to rebuff calls for a burqa ban, saying that it would not survive a constitutional challenge though she herself – as a feminist – finds it offensive.. Her leader, Michael Ignatieff, was also quick to abandon the idea of new legislation, as was Conservative Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.
A medieval and, in certain cases, abusive practice adopted by a small minority of Muslims without reason should not be shielded from scrutiny by the religious freedom defense. What is needed are leaders, apart from Quebec sovereignists, who have the courage to test the elasticity of the Charter and, in so doing, uphold Canadian values and plainly decent behaviour.


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