Issues Facing Muslim Immigrants in Canada

Raza and Fatah . Reasonably accommodated
It should be a simple matter for Muslim immigrants to settle in to Canadian society: You accommodate, and we adapt
Raheel Raza and Tarek Fatah, Citizen Special; the Ottawa Citizen, October 29, 2007

Quebec needs to be thanked for initiating the debate on "reasonable accommodation." It has made it safe for members of the public to honestly express their concerns. Many Canadians find their country being turned into a large transit lounge, where people arrive, never get to know each other, simply wait to leave for different destinations in opposite directions, with little care for the transit lounge itself.

An open, honest debate about too much or too little accommodation is urgently needed in the rest of Canada. We have had enough of political correctness.

However, the Quebec Council on the Status of Women's proposal to bar public employees from wearing religious symbols while at work reflects fear and ignorance, not good judgment. The good women of Quebec have confused religion with culture. Let's face it -- much of the current ire is rooted in misgivings about ultra-conservative Muslim practices and increasingly emboldened Islamists. But whether it is Iran or Canada, the state should not be in the business of deciding what women should wear.

Face covering, female genital mutilation and honour killings should not be considered Islamic simply because some Muslims embrace them. These are tribal practices, which have unfortunately been imported into Canada. Excess cultural baggage, steeped in tradition, has no place in Canada. But why ban the hijab or the Sikh turban? There's much work to be done within the Muslim community (with full support of the mainstream) to eradicate medievalism through education, dialogue and a vigorous, no-holds-barred debate. Banning the hijab will only make this exercise more difficult.

"Reasonable accommodation" is a separate issue. Most immigrants find Canadians to be accepting and accommodating to newcomers. Our first years are difficult and scary, but ask our children and their successes speak for themselves. Of course, the cancer of racism has not been completely defeated and occasionally raises its ugly head, but by and large, new immigrants and racial minorities do better in Canada than in any other place on earth.

Contrary to this, in most Muslim countries, non-Muslims are denied equal citizenship, don't have the same freedoms we enjoy in Canada and there's little or no accommodation for their religious and cultural needs. They have to follow the law of the land, no matter how oppressive.

Muslims discover that the Canadian Charter of Rights gives them infinitely more freedoms than the lands where Islamic law is the norm. Any Muslim who has faced the wrath of religious police in Saudi Arabia, the vigilantes in Iran and rude officials in Pakistan should think twice before damning the proceedings of the Taylor-Bouchard Commission.

So why do Muslims complain when we're asked to adapt ourselves to our new home where most of us have come by choice? After all, accommodation is a two-way street -- you accommodate, we adapt.

Accommodation also places a huge responsibility on us not to make a nuisance of ourselves. Being Muslim is not only about finding a space to pray. The first words of the Koran were to "read and write" not "pray and preach." Islam is more about respect for those around us and the adoption of an impeccable integrity in our personal character rather than the parading of our costumes and the flaunting of our rituals. If my religious freedom becomes a nuisance for others, it's no longer a freedom but a burden.

So what constitutes the fine line between reasonable accommodation and unreasonable demands?

Reasonable accommodation is the multi-faith chapel at Toronto's airport, where the largest section is for Muslims. Nuisance value is the employee who insists on a separate room allocated only for her. The onus to find time and space to pray is on us, not on our teachers, employers or colleagues.

Reasonable accommodation means including Muslim books in the library. Unreasonable accommodation is the demand to ban The Three Little Pigs from schools.

Reasonable accommodation means making vegetarian or halal food available in the university cafeteria; asking for a separate restaurant is unreasonable.

Reasonable accommodation is having the freedom to wear the hijab; unreasonable accommodation is to insist on wearing face masks in public by falsely invoking Islam.

At a critical time when liberal, progressive Muslim Canadians are trying to make a dent in the dogma, it's important to let mainstream Canada know that we don't require extra accommodation; we need better accommodation for all Canadians.

For Muslims this means that instead of spending an inordinate amount of time on inane debates about the halal-ness of maple syrup, we should be engaged in a dialogue about the future of our youth, public policies, elections and the security of Canada.

Muslims are an essential part of Canadian society, whose values of secular democracy and individual freedoms are under attack by Islamists. Muslims should realize that citizenship in Canada is not based on inherited race or religion, but on a set of common laws created by men and women whom we elect and send to Parliament. Those who wish to introduce laws based on divine texts should try living in Saudi Arabia and Iran before they force the rest of us to embrace their prescription.

Raheel Raza is the author of Their Jihad ... Not My Jihad and Tarek Fatah is the author of the forthcoming book Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, to be published by John Wiley & Sons in March. They both serve on the board of the Muslim Canadian Congress.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007

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