Religious tolerance or cultural tolerance?

Canada is a unique place. The full explanation of this seemingly banal statement will come perhaps in another, longer post. I just want to highlight and juxtapose a couple of recent news items. Suffice it to say that because Canada lacks a national identity (or at least a strong one) and relies on immigration to stay viable, we face unique challenges. Unlike our neighbours to the south, we can’t compel newcomers to adapt to “our culture”, because it’s not that strongly defined. Because the nation was built by wave after wave of immigrants, and our aboriginal peoples do not wield enough power to establish themselves as “the real Canadians”, our country seems to be destined to remain in a state of cultural flux – our very identity defined by the fact that we are a polyglot, multichromatic, practically diverse society. Please don’t interpret these words as condemnation – as a child of an immigrant I see the immense value of having a wealth of cultural experience easily within reach at any given moment (at least in the major urban centres).

However, this multiculturalism comes with distinct challenges, as the Toronto police have discovered:

The Toronto police service has started an internal review on how officers conduct searches and arrests when dealing with people from various religions. The review was sparked by a human rights complaint in July 2008 after a police officer removed a Muslim woman’s hijab, or head scarf.

The police force is considering implementing training for cadets on the proper ways to deal with potentially dicey situations involving people from a variety of religious faiths. For those of you who don’t know, some Islamic scholars maintain that all Muslims, particularly women, should dress modestly and cover the skin. This is purportedly to forebear any sexual temptation from distracting the thoughts away from holy contemplation. This practice is by no means unique to Islam – many Christian and Jewish sects preach the same doctrine of concealing the flesh to keep the thoughts pure (in fact, the more I learn about Islam the more I suspect there’s almost nothing unique in that teaching at all). However, under the stricter interpretation of sharia law, many Muslims consider it necessary to cover nearly all of a woman’s flesh, and most certainly the hair and parts of the face, when in the public view of men outside the family. This practice varies from sect to sect, with some Muslim women wearing no covering, some wearing a simply head scarf and others covering their bodies completely in the now almost universally-reviled symbol of fundamentalist Islamic oppression, the burqa.

Some who are more generous and liberal than I point out that freedom of religious expression is enshrined in the law, and is paramount to a free society. “Besides,” they might say, “where is the harm in the simple outward expression of religious conviction?”

Enter the Sikh kirpan.

Brampton’s Sukhwant Singh, in his early 50s, has been charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault, Peel police say. Singh’s next court appearance is on Thursday. Any weapon could have been used in the attack, but the fact that it was a kirpan alarms Sikh leaders who fear the incident will rouse objections once again over one’s right to wear the religious symbol in public.

A prominent Brampton lawyer, Majit Mangat was stabbed during an altercation outside a Sikh temple in Brampton. Ordinarily this would have been an isolated tragic incident with no far-reaching significance, except for the fact that the weapon used in the assault was a kirpan, a ceremonial dagger worn by Sikh men. In almost all cases, the dagger is merely a decoration; an accessory that is never drawn, even in anger. Having lived for several years in Brampton myself, with a very large Sikh population (Canada is second only to India in terms of the number of Sikhs – this is the absolute number, not a per-capita calculation), I never heard of a kirpan being used as a weapon against another person. However, this incident raises the important question that will define race relations in Canada for generations to come: how much should we allow common sense to be trumped by religious practice?

In my mind, allowing anyone to carry a weapon of any kind is not a good idea. I don’t care how symbolic or ceremonial it it supposed to be. If my religious convictions require me to carry a rifle in my hands because Jesus could arrive at any moment and I have to help him fight off Satan’s zombie hordes, common sense (and the law) would dictate that the danger I pose to society in general outweighs my religious autonomy. Such is the case here.

I offer the following solution to this conundrum: stop allowing exceptions for religious practice. Whereas cultures are constantly adapting to the times in which they find themselves, religious edicts are absolute. If my culture tells me it’s okay to smoke marijuana in public, but I live in Canada (except in Vancouver – I love this city) then I have to adapt to the laws of the land in which I find myself. However, if I do so for religious reasons, I am forbidden by the will of Jah to restrain my pot-smokery. By allowing these cultural practices to continue under the banner of “religious freedom” makes the entire argument more convoluted than it has to be. If the law, for example, allowed cultural practice to continue provided it posed no danger to public safety or the execution of lawful policing, but refused to make exception religious practice, then the carrying of the kirpan would be a moot point. As some of the temple elders suggest in the article, the kirpan can be substituted with a smaller blade (of the kind that all people in Canada are permitted to carry religion notwithstanding) or one that cannot be removed from its sheath. This allows the cultural practice to continue unabated in such a way as it does not trump public safety.

Neither of these cases are particular causes for concern. However, a number of years ago, debate broke out in the Ontario legislature as to whether or not Muslims should be self-policing under sharia law rather than the provincial civil court. To any rational person, allowing religious law to trump civil law is a ludicrous position to take; especially since sharia law is subject to wide interpretation depending on the imam, and is nearly always gender biased against women, sometimes with violent results. For some reason, this debate wasn’t immediately laughed out of the courts. That reason, of course, was that this was a religious issue and we have to be so careful about protecting the rights of people to practice their religion.

I call bullshit.

The second your religious freedoms interfere with my secular freedoms, I’m kicking your religious freedom to the curb. I am motivated in this conviction not only by the fact that I regard all religion as superstition and nonsensical illogic, but because from a practical purpose it makes more sense. Secular rights are developed with ethical and social principles in mind. Religious “rights” are developed from some person/group’s interpretation of a mistranslated book that is centuries old and is expressly forbidden to be applied contextually. Forcing modern reality to adapt to an ancient set of prescripts that cannot be universally agreed upon, even among its purported adherents, is the height of arrogance and folly.

The right to cultural expression is a good one – we live in a multicultural society. At some point, cultures are at least partially defined by shared religious practice. While I think that’s a shame, it has been the way humanity has operated for centuries and will, at least for the time being, continue to be so. However, knowing how poorly religion fares when attempting to govern a just and enlightened society, we must stop bending over backwards to protect freedom of religious expression when it blatantly contravenes secular civil rights and public safety. Teaching police officers specific methods to be sensitive to the cultural practices of different peoples is a wonderful idea. So is adjusting the laws that govern how the kirpan can be worn. But allowing religion to contravene good sense? I can’t get behind that.

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