I had previously written an article on just this issue, and in it, I was adamant that Rosie Dimanno was wrong to say that wearing the niqab-burka hurt Muslim women. I held that it was a personal choice that affects only the person wearing it. Though I agreed that many women are forced to wear it, I did not believe that banning it was the solution for ridding the world of oppressive religio-patriarchal abuse. I had thought that the facts speak for themselves: there has not been a significant increase in women in burkas being dangerous to others, nor has there been a large increase in tragic Aqsa Pervez-type cases. I had thought that it was plain to see that this situation harmed Canadian values in no evident way.
My debate with an intelligent blogger by the name of “Lawyer” (who, by the way, is not really a lawyer) revealed to me that it’s not so simple. It may seem obvious to me that the niqab/burka is not dangerous but Lawyer stated – point blank – that it was his/her opinion that it was. And nothing I said could convince him/her otherwise. And likewise: nothing she/he said could convince me to change my opinions.
It made me realize that “Canadian values” are not something that can be easily discerned. I thought freedom of choice and respecting minority multiculturalism were strong Canadian values. Lawyer held that being able to look at someone in the face and eye is a crucial Canadian value that is undermined by niqabis in voting booths and courtrooms (though no one has yet explained to me why you can vote by mail if that is really the case).
I realize that my opinion is only obvious to me because I define Canadian values in a different way than other people might. Damn this diverse country for having so many values to choose from! It is often said that Canada has no identity; the only thing we all share in common is that we know we’re not Americans. Though it’s a bit extreme, it is true in many ways. Canadian identity is something slightly more malleable and debatable than American identity. In the States, even if you’re not sure what American values are, you’re hella sure that you should NOT be arguing about them lest you be seen as unpatriotic, treacherous and, frankly, French.
My debate with Lawyer also highlighted something else very important. Democracy is a tricky little creature and perceptions matter a great deal. Democratic institutions encourage equality, and this empowers traditionally marginalized social groups. But it also stresses majority rule.
Lawyer demanded to know how I would feel about my precious democracy if the majority of Canadians voted for a niqab/burka ban. I guess I would feel exactly the same way about democratic institutions as I do: wary but optimistic. I still reserve the right to lobby my elected officials for what I feel is a bad decision. Not only that, I feel that the legitimacy of democracy depends wholly on the ability of minority groups to exercise such rights.
So it seemed then that Lawyer was concerned about tyranny of the minority and I was concerned about tyranny of the majority.
Majority rule is crucial and necessary for democratic institutions to work. But with any democratic institution, you have powerful minority groups that are able to sway political decisions. This may be a good thing and it may be a bad thing.
In Florida, the Cuban-American voting bloc is so strong that they are by the far the most important consideration the American government has in discussions about lifting the sanctions against Havana. When I went to Washington last spring and spoke with academics and politicians they were all unanimously clear on one thing, and one thing only: Cuba stopped being a foreign policy issue immediately after the Soviet Union dissolved. As well, the sanctions clearly aren’t working because Fidel is still kickin it. In fact, there are so many loopholes in the sanctions that you will find that more American investment gets into Cuba than almost any other country. But the government simply could not discuss removing the official sanction in the last twenty years because the Cuban American diaspora just would not have it. This is, however, changing with the new regime and a new generation of Cuban-Americans.
This is an instance where a minority group holds weight on an issue in a kind of negative way. However, in Samantha Powers’ book America and the Age of Genocide, she talks about how Jewish-American lobby groups tried to pressure government to give a damn about genocides occurring in Bosnia and Kosovo, among other places in the world. This is an instance where a lobby group acted according to its morals despite the decision made by “the majority.”
I realized at the end of the debate that Lawyer and I would never be able to convince each other. It is what it is. I still hold that we keep our political systems responsive and adaptive when we push them and force them to listen to us when we feel they are acting immorally. But again, who defines what it is immoral and what is not? At the end of the day, it might just be the guy who shouts the loudest, and certainly Muslims – members of the largest growing religion in the world – have that kind of clout. And for us to wield our power is great for us. But we have to expect and respect that many Canadians will see it as a selfish act on our part – an attempt to exercise the dreaded act of tyranny by the minority.