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Accommodationalism

Posted by Don McLenaghen on February 20, 2011

I have been tracking a number of stories in Canada this week relating to accommodation…religious – or if you wish to use a less loaded term cultural – accommodation. At first, I saw these stories as short segments we could use as examples of how dogma, both religious and secular, could take small incidences and blow them out of proportion. However, as I did more research I saw a growing connection between them and that there was a bigger issue being played out.

My first thought, and the one that is raised most often in these debates, is the concept of multiculturalism. I think that is valid issue for discussion and something we will be focusing our skeptic eye on in the near future. However, there was another greater thread being woven by these issues that is the concept of ‘accommodationalism’.

As a Dawkian atheist, I think religion is innately bad for society; however,this can itself be a dogma that has lead others to support people or actions that are harmful to the cause (notable the xenophobic Pat Condell). So, I could not just rule out accommodationalism’ because I think there is a place for it in an open well-functioning socialist society and thus an issue worthy of a greater examination. The stories that inspired this segment were the Sikh kirpan (ceremonial dagger) and the Islamic hijab (head cover) or nijab (face veil). I would have included Mormon Polygamy for more ethnic diversity but we covered this rather extensively in a previous episode although I think it worthy of a re-listen to.

On Feb 9th of this year, the Quebec parliament officially banned the Kirpan from the provincial legislature. This was the culmination of several weeks of controversy over the claimed right of Sikhs to wear the religiously required ceremonial dagger while addressing the legislature. Here is that story.

A group of four Sikhs, representatives of the World Sikh Organization, were scheduled to make a presentation at Quebec’s national assembly on Bill 94. This bill is itself controversial and was being reviewed in an effort to find a reasonable accommodation of the religious and cultural practices of minorities in the Quebec civil society. This delegation of Sikhs were denied entry to the legislature because they refused to remove their kirpans.

According to security services, “This decision was taken by the security services, solely for security reasons”. The guards offered them the option to put the kirpan in a safe place, but the offer was refused and they were denied entry.

Balpreet Singh, a member of the delegation, said “We weren’t allowed to enter because we wear the kirpan, which is a bit ironic because we were here to speak upon the issue of accommodation and we weren’t accommodated”

The Bloc Québécois wasted no time taking up the issue. “It was a well-founded decision [in Quebec] and it is perhaps time that Parliament adopt similar rules”. Conservative MP Navdeep Bains accused the Bloc of seeking to make cheap political gains from the controversy. He said, “I’ve been wearing a kirpan since 2004 and they have never raised this as a cause of concern.”

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2006 that a total ban of the kirpan in a Quebec school violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it infringed on religious freedoms. However, the court allowed school boards to impose some restrictions in the name of public safety.

Okay, I have been using the term Kirpan a lot but many…maybe most…don’t know what one is. The kirpan is both a defensive weapon and a symbol. Physically it is an instrument of “ahimsa” or non-violence. The principle of ahimsa is to actively prevent violence, not to simply stand by idly whilst violence is being done. To that end, the kirpan is a tool to be used to prevent violence from being done to a defenseless person when all other means to do so have failed.

Symbolically, the kirpan represents the power of truth to cut through untruth. The Reht Maryada, a Sikh religious text, does not specify the length of the Kirpan or the construction of the various parts of the Kirpan or how and where it is to be worn by the devotee.

So, one of the issues raised by Bill 94 was the push by the Parti Quebecois to regulate Kirpans, which as I mentioned they seem to be accomplishing. Some may see this as a strictly civil rights issue while others a security issue. I think one line made by MNA Louise Beaudoin encapsulated THIS issue. They said “It may be a religious choice, but maybe it’s not a choice that everybody should accept everywhere” and therein lies the rub.

One of the reasons people adopt these religious customs is to show their commitment and SACRIFICE for their beliefs and that is their right; however at what point do their choices begin to infringe on my life. First, being around a dangerous weapon may be a decision they are willing to live with but I fail to understand why it is one that I must also accept? There are limitations placed upon me as to where and how I may carry a gun; why should the specter of religion suddenly allow me special privileges.

Secondly, as mentioned, the construction and placement of the kirpan are not strictly speaking ‘written in stone’, so it is possible that the kirpan be, for example a harmless 3 cm in size or encased in resin…maintaining its symbolic meaning while removing it as a physical threat. Lastly, one aspect of these religious practices is the idea of sacrifice. They have chosen this path and accepted the sacrifices that are to be made…so accept the limitations imposed by your decision and don’t try and change the world so there no longer is any sacrifice in the choice…removing the ‘sacrifice’ part…that somehow defeats the purpose doesn’t. In this case I don’t see that any accommodation should be made.

This leads me into a related story, also focused on Bill 94. The heart of this bill would deny government services to those covering their faces. About a year ago, Naïma Atef Amed filed a complaint with the province’s human rights commission because of her experience at a government-funded language class for new immigrants in Montreal. The school insists that to learn French, the instructor must be able to see the face of the student. When Amed refused to take off her veil, she was kicked out of class.

Now, this is another example of someone who should be willing, at least on the surface, to accept the sacrifices her beliefs have imposed upon her; however in this case I am willing to say that an accommodation is appropriate. This case differs in two key ways; first whether or not she wears a nijab will have no effect on my life. The nijab, at least the ones I have seen, are not sharp weapons; so my previous complaint about safety does not seem to apply. Further, there still is the sacrifice aspect in her compliance because it will (assuming the school was not being vindictive) hamper her ability to learn French if the instructor is unable to ‘see her face’. The teacher will do as good a job as they can but there is no necessity, that I can find, for Amed to be forced to remove her nijab. Also, I do not think that wearing a piece of clothing, a catholic habit, the hijab or even a hockey mask, should preclude one from accessing normal civil services. Bill 94 states that any civil service can be denied to anyone who refused to remove their veil; this is secularist (or maybe just xenophobic) dogma. In this case, I think Bill 94 is wrong and that accommodation is appropriate.

That said, there are limits even in this class of complaint. I have only told you part of Amed’s story. She was not actually expelled JUST because she refused to show her face…the school could live with that. However, she insisted that she sit at the back of the room so as to avoid the possible ‘gaze’ of 3 men also in the class. She did at one point agree to lift her veil in private with a female instructor but backed out on this compromise when no assurance could be made that a female instructor would be available for future lessons. She refused to partake in ‘round table’ exercises because she could not tolerate any of the men in her class see her eyes. This attempt to accommodate Amed continued for three months until the disruption in the class to the other students forced the instructor to remove Amed. I think at this point, Amed has failed to understand that accommodation is a two way street.

Having the complete story perhaps we can understand why the decision to expel the niqab-wearing woman was widely supported in Quebec. This includes a few noteworthy people.

Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, who defended the right of inmates to smoke in prison and the right of Sikh students to wear ceremonial daggers in class said “Accommodation should not lead to separation”.

Yolande Geadah, an Egyptian-born writer, said: “There is no possible compromise with people with such inflexible attitudes.”

Raheel Raza, a Pakistani-born Muslim women’s rights activist, said: “When we come to Canada, we’re not coming to the Islamic Republic of Canada.”

So, to wrap up this thought. We (as most Canadians and most atheist) do not believe cultural groups should be discriminated against but what if the cultural trait that is the cause/object of the discrimination is a religious one? As secularist, we do not think religion should be protected…that i should be treated like any other social “harm” (that is if we regulate guns, we should not treat ‘religious guns’ differently).

Further, as a Dawkian Atheist, I think every effort should be made to cure society of religion…but what happens when those efforts are co-opted by racist (such as Draw Mohamed day?). I think I remain rationally committed to my form of anti-spiritualism while denying support for hate groups provided I use the scientific method guard against that new form of secular dogma. I will discuss this more in an upcoming blog about a new bill being debated requiring visual confirmation of voters.

What are your thoughts?

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