Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Secularism, Religion and Society

In France over recent weeks the whole country has been debating the role of religion and the state. France has, of course, a long history of struggling with this relationship. The current reason for the discussion has to do with concerns about Islam and, as it has manifested itself, the wearing of head coverings by girls from Muslim families.
The scars of both the wars of religion and the attacks upon religion following the French Revolution are visible in many a French town and village.

Crucifixes at the edge of many villages suggest that there is some religious presence that is publicly tolerated. It is an uneasy relationship. The current questions about religious head coverings in public school have shown just how close to the surface are the deeper questions.

Here the separation of church and state, the spirit of what the French call “laicism” is very much alive. One cannot say “alive and well” however because one sees that all is not well with laicism. In the French debates, “laicism” means not only “not religious” but, in many ways, “anti-religious.” History has been viewed as a “contest” between religion and the state and it is commonly thought that the state won. Such an understanding, however, is under threat from various fronts.

Like many European countries France has a looming crisis of under population. One of the communities that are continuing to grow, and the French are very aware of this, is the Muslim community. The visibility of that community is an ever-present sign of the coming de-population crisis and the ongoing crisis of religion - - in this case the religion of Islam, in relation to the French official anti-religion.

The recent debate has centred on whether French schoolgirls should be allowed to wear their hajabs, or veils, in public schools. A Commission headed by a Monsieur Stasi, reported to the government that all religious and political symbols should be banned from schools. This concept, bizarre to Canadian ears, seems quite normal to the French.

The other day in Le Figaro, one of the major French daily papers, there was an article on whether veils should be tolerated or banned because they are religious or because they represent oppression of women. A photograph of a classroom taken from the back in which a girl wearing a veil is prominently displayed accompanied the article. In the front row, blazoned across the back of a student’s sweatshirt, was the word “Reebok” in capital letters. No one is discussing the implications of corporate advertising on the bodies of students in public schools or the fact that when overtly religious beliefs are excluded from public schools, other beliefs must necessarily be welcomed in.

If the Stasi Commission recommendations are followed, Jewish yarmulkes, Muslim veils, Christian religious symbols (visible crosses or medallions) would all be banned as would “political” symbols of whatever sort. Not banned, however, would be the even more crass and ubiquitous symbols of mass marketing. There is a blindness and conceptual confusion to this kind of distinction.

Nike, you will recall, was a Greek goddess of victory before she became known as a kind of winning running shoe. Let us think about the French recommendations for a minute.

Let us assume that one were to re-establish a cult worshipping the goddess Nike and as part of the reverence for her began wearing clothing emblazoned with her name. This would, on the reasoning of the recent Commission be forbidden. However, if in the next seat was a person wearing the same sweatshirt or item of clothing, sporting the same logo out of mere fashion sense - - this would be allowed. Pride in fashion is more important, it would seem, than pride (or humility) in religion. Nike, as a matter of fact, is all around us as is her brother god Reebok, but nobody seems to understand the significance.

Or, to consider another example, say that in that spirit of youthful humour all the non-Muslim girls began wearing Muslim headscarves, it could not be argued that they were wearing them for religious reasons but merely for fashion ones. Perhaps it could be said that their wearing of them was “political” and so they could be banned for that reason. But if it could be proven that the girls wearing them were too dull or disengaged in contemporary issues to be either political or religious, then, well, then they could be worn.

The French rules show a few things. First, that the French, like many Canadians in fact, do not understand the role of beliefs very well and have chosen, as the examples above show, to restrict religious beliefs along rather arbitrary lines but leave in place beliefs dedicated to perhaps even more base motivations than humility. If ones’ beliefs are restricted to merely fashion and being “cool” then, fine. But if it is more than that, then lookout, you have offended “laicism.”

For the wearing of a hajab by a Muslim girl is both a sign of her community membership and her humility before God. The French, it would appear, have fallen out of the habit of understanding habits.

The Chief Rabbi of France has recently said that he finds the banning of yarmulkes “anti-Semitic” and part of a French attitude that is anti-religious and he is correct. The banning of crosses and religious medallions, like the banning of Muslim veils is what happens when anti-religion goes mad. Like the forced wearing of religious signs, the forced removal of them ought to be a matter of grave international concern.

Forcing people to wear, say, the Star of David was, after all, the beginning of one of the most terrible attacks on a religion ever witnessed. Early Christians had to wear the fish as a symbol for their beliefs as the wearing of the cross became too dangerous.

The forced suppression of religious symbols is an equally terrible harbinger of anti-religion masquerading behind two veils: a veil of ignorance and a false veil of neutrality.

Iain T. Benson©

Parliament’s Janus Face

In 1999, Canadian Members of Parliament voted across party lines in a House of Commons motion affirming a traditional definition of marriage by 216 votes to 55. The 1999 Motion stated: “That, in the opinion of this House, it is necessary, in light of public debate around recent court decisions, to state that marriage is and should remain the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others, and that Parliament will take all necessary steps within the jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada to preserve this definition of marriage in Canada.” (Hansard, June 8, 1999)

However, in 2003, the same motion in the House of Commons was defeated by 137 votes to 132, with many of the same MPs who had supported it in 1999 changing sides – including many past and present Cabinet Ministers. The 2003 motion stated: “That, in the opinion of this House, it is necessary, in light of public debate around recent court decisions, to reaffirm that marriage is and should remain the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others, and that Parliament take all necessary steps within the jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada to preserve this definition of marriage in Canada.” (Hansard, September 16, 2003)

A long-serving politician’s reflections on religious faith and politics

Benno Friesen was the Progressive Conservative M.P. for Whiterock-Surrey-Delta, BC from 1974 to 1993. The following letter was sent to a senior member of the Liberal government who professes to be a practicing Roman Catholic, and whose identity is protected for reasons of privacy.

Dear ___________,

You indicated that your decision on the House of Commons Motion on Same Sex Marriage had involved a deep struggle; press reports in the last while have indicated that you are a practicing Roman Catholic and take your faith seriously. Your demeanor would seem to confirm this. In the end, however, you opted to vote against the motion because of your deep commitment to the Charter.

This decision, however, raises some very serious questions. The fact that it was a difficult struggle implies (to me at least) that it probably was a struggle between the demands of your faith and your political obligations as you see them. The immediate question, then, is: What is it about the Charter that makes it so powerful that it can trump your faith? Surely you didn't decide that the Charter can better protect Canadians than your faith can. I am not a Roman Catholic, but I don't believe that. Does this mean that you believe that religious truth cannot do what the Charter claims to do?

To answer this it is not enough to invoke the statement about the separation of church and state. Even 2 minutes of serious reflection will show that legal codes in every society are built on the assumption of a moral code which is founded on a belief system.

In one of his books C.S.Lewis has succinctly pointed out the obvious: If man is only material, the state is more important than the individual, since the state outlives material man. However, if man most importantly is a spirit, the individual is more important than the state, since the individual outlives the state, since he (she) lives on forever.

Could I mention just one more thing: It is always the intended goal of faith to guide us through our struggles, not to be over-ruled by them at the most strategically vulnerable times. The great enemies of democracy are not political differences or religious faith, but the temptation to make the State the supreme consideration in all decision-making processes. My hope for you in your leadership of our country is that your faith will guide you in your politics rather than have politics trump your faith. (September 24, 2003)

Warmest regards,

Benno Friesen


Thursday, December 18, 2003

Turbans and Anti-religious Dress

Subway is a store that produces submarine sandwiches. They also seem to be marketing anti-religion. According to the Globe and Mail newspaper, a Sikh owner of several Alberta Subway sandwich shops said recently that he has been discriminated against by the franchise after representatives told him he couldn't wear his turban while serving customers.

Hardip Singh Brah, 56, told a news conference in Edmonton that a local Subway representative called his religious head covering "a diaper on his head" and forbade him from wearing it.

"It was a very, very poor comment he had," Mr. Brah said. "Very bad language has been used on my turban. He said I cannot wear a diaper on my head . . . That is very bad."

Mr. Brah, who has run Subway franchises since 1991, filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. Last month investigators upheld it, calling Subway's policy discriminatory and suggesting that he be awarded $6,500 in damages.

Whatever the eventual ruling, it is clear that this is simply another example of anti-religion in the public square. Subway should know better than to hide such an anti-religious attitude behind a dress-code policy.

Canada has developed beyond this kind of "in your face" anti-religion, but Subway's head office in Connecticut appears to think that an "on your head" challenge is acceptable. It isn't. We allow Sikhs to wear their turbans in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and that is as it should be.

Part of being in a tolerant and diverse society is to recognize that religion and religious garb --as long as it does not pose a genuine health hazard to others, must be tolerated.

Iain T. Benson©

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Sharia Law Arbitration in Canada

All those who think religion matters should applaud the initiative of the Islamic community in establishing its own Sharia law tribunals in Canada. Such "religious rule administration" is well established in Canada and allowing arbitration to bind those who agree to such rules is a good thing.

We have marriage tribunals in Catholicism, various kosher decision-making authorities in Judaism and assorted rule-making authorities for Protestant denominations. Isn't this an extension of that aspect to Islam? Any religion or social group is able to agree to this "religious rule arbitration" and that is a good thing.

Believers, religious or non, ought to be able to do so amongst themselves outside of judicial review (except for narrow circumstances discussed below) or what is diversity and tolerance about?

Given the growing skepticism many have about developments in law and politics in Canada (and the West generally) in relation to religion and the anti-religious direction of many Western States, ought we not to welcome the recognition of "internal rules" and the governance capacity of religions?

I would much rather have Christian things decided by Christians than some judge who is likely both ignorant about them and powerful. In Ontario recently a judge's decision to completely ignore the internal rule-making authority of a Catholic Bishop (in the Durham Catholic School Board "gay prom partner" case - - which is on appeal) is worrying. The attempt there is to extend the law and therefore the State to what ought to be an "internal" matter for the authority of the separate school Board (protected by the Constitution as that right is). A very bad thing.

One can see this kind of developed "secularism" almost daily in France where the principle of "laicité" is used to restrict religions from proper access to the public. In France it is in the open and generally said to be the result of the "contest" between Church and State. In Canada, such a dominance of religion, is largely hidden, not expressed as a victory of this kind but just as present a threat to religions. Secularism, an anti-religious ideology started formally in England in the 19th Century, goes hand in hand with the whittling down of religious powers. So here I welcome the extension of recognition to Islamic arbitration.

The sole exceptions to having a complete exclusion of the courts from decisions of such religious tribunals would be regarding rules of exit from and fair application within religious community tribunal proceedings. There must be freedom of belief such that one can exit a community without fear of reprisal, confiscation of property etc. and confidence that, with respect to procedures before such tribunals, rules of natural justice etc. are followed in relation to all internal proceedings. This would have to be reviewable by appeals to the courts.

Beyond those two areas I think courts should mind their own business.

Iain T. Benson©