SUBSTANCE, NOT A SIDESHOW IS WHAT’S NEEDED IN CANADA’S NIQAB DEBATE

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has now thrown Canada right in the midst of the confrontation between two ostensibly incompatible worlds: Canadian values and Muslim immigrants.

Canada isn’t the first to be having this conversation and it certainly won’t be the last. But some perspective is needed here.

From 2009–2011, I decided to live and study in Europe to understand why many of its countries were having so many challenges with the integration of its Muslim citizens. As the sole Canadian in my program, I took pride in reminding my international colleagues that the “idea” of the Canadian mosaic was working — all of us living peacefully — and that they should be looking to countries like ours for guidance and insight.

Now, hearing and reading the content coming out of our politicians’ mouths, I can’t help but feel utter embarrassment at what is happening in our country. Below is a sample of what I wrote back in 2011 — all of it written with an eye to Europe.

It’d be prudent to take my own advice now and direct it toward my fellow Canadians:

I consider the initiatives being undertaken by Liberal democratic countries as a method to render Muslims, and Islam itself, invisible. In fact, the choices that are being made are not leading us to a safer world; rather, they are contributing to an increasingly toxic atmosphere everywhere. We are witnessing an increase in alienated Muslim communities, fractured international relations, the fueling of the religiously radical Islamic cause, and contributing to the creation of this generation’s new poor.

The ripple effects of Islamophobia currently being experienced in many Western countries is concerning. It is becoming popular to endorse constructs of nationhood, defend exaggerated claims of national and international security, and have governments promote a false sincerity when it comes to defending Muslim women’s rights. All of the reasons above are being used to defend policies aimed at taming the “Islamic problem.”

I argue that in an effort to manage the coexistence of different cultures, languages and religions, democracies around the world have set sail on a journey that is counter to the very foundations of their pluralistic identities. Put simply, defending the current policies in the West intended to cope with the integration of Muslims is a mistake and we need to change course. The practice of academics and politicians dividing each other into “the apologist left” or “the racist right” needs to end.

This dichotomy is a sideshow to the actual issues that exist. There is a dire need for us to pause, reflect, and reconsider the decisions taken and being advanced by various countries and political parties around the world. The lessons learned from the injustices of the past need to guide us today and into the future. The treatment of Muslims today is an affront to the principles of equality and pluralism. How have we, in the West, managed to distort the honourable democratic message while asserting a willingness to defend it?

If integration of Muslims is the objective, countries that make up the West need to have an honest moment of reassessment and admit that we are on the wrong track. Successful anti-terrorism strategies and the prolongation of diverse and nonviolent pluralistic societies will depend on going beyond veil bans, harmonious speeches, and the limiting of religion in public spaces. In fact, continuing to be silent and refusing to contest the policies of countries who are advocating this course of action, will lead us all in the opposite direction.

Collectively, we need to demand a more profound analysis of ourselves and those we deem to be different. A worthy starting point would be an attempt to get to know who our Muslim neighbours are, what Islam really is and to ask ourselves what it is that we’re afraid of?

Paulo Senra is a former Senior Policy Advisor for Ontario’s Minister of Community and Social Services. He now works in communications for the Canadian Olympic Team. In 2011, he graduated with an M.A. in International Relations with the Muslim and Arab World, after two years of living and studying in Europe.

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