In his most recent column, Provencher MP Ted Falk applauds Prime Minister Stephen Harper for “taking a strong stance” on the issue of whether or not a Muslim woman who wears a niqab should be required to reveal her face during a citizenship ceremony. The title of his column is “No place for the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.”
I met Mr. Falk recently, and he struck me as being a nice man with good intentions and a genuine concern for his constituents, including a concern for religious freedom. As Ted and I are both Christians, we were able to discuss our faith and how it relates to our desire to serve the people of Provencher. Also, Falk is a Mennonite surname, so Ted should be more familiar than most Canadians about the experience of religious immigrants (I’ll talk more about that below). So I trust that Ted is simply unaware of the incredible hypocrisy of his column.
If you live in this area and haven’t yet visited the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Steinbach, I highly recommend it. I visited there on Canada Day last year (and I saw Ted there, so I know he’s been there too), and learned a lot about how Mennonites had been persecuted in Europe for the past four hundred years because of their religion. Anabaptists (the larger group of which Mennonites are a part, including Amish and Hutterites) believe in a separation from the world and staunch pacifism, which historically led them to refuse military service, oath taking, and any outside interference in their lifestyle. Whenever their communities were pressed into military service or other disruptions, rather than fighting back they would move on in order to maintain their pacifism. So while they were originally largely from Germany and mostly still speak low German, there are different strands of the Mennonite heritage from Ukraine and Russia. They moved to Canada when the Russian government went back on their word to respect the separation of Mennonites from their society, including the refusal of military service. When they moved to Canada, they made prior arrangements with the Canadian government to ensure that their religious requirements would be respected: they were exempt from military service, public schools, and taking oaths (they were allowed to give an affirmation rather than take an oath).
I taught a theology class of undergrads about the Anabaptists a few weeks ago, and I asked them how many were from Mennonite heritage; more than half of the class raised their hands. Of those, about half are currently attending Mennonite churches; most attend evangelical churches. Of the entire class, only two were pacifists, and both of them were from Paraguay (where Mennonites settled after Canada began to require that their children attend public schools in English). So I get that Mennonites in this area are often very far from their heritage. I even had a friend of Mennonite heritage tell me, regarding this issue of the niqab, that he found it frustrating when immigrants come to Canada and try to demand special treatment, saying “the Mennonites didn’t do that.” I had to gently remind him that, yes, Mennonites more than any immigrant group in Canada’s national history have received special privileges which were guaranteed to them before they became Canadian citizens. My friend immediately and a bit sheepishly withdrew his statement, realizing his mistake. It appears that many Mennonites now identify so strongly with Canadian evangelicalism that they’ve forgotten their religious immigrant roots. I don’t in any way mean that as a judgment on them, it’s just an observation of an unconscious psychological phenomenon called in-group bias. But that doesn’t change the fact that they, and perhaps especially Ted Falk (because he’s an MP), should know better.
Pacifism and refusal to take oaths are often referred to as matters of conscience, and our law generally respects matters of conscience unless they endanger others. For many Muslim women, wearing a niqab is a religious duty, and therefore a matter of conscience; to reveal their face to a man, much less in public, would be shameful and degrading, comparable to stripping someone else naked in front of others but with more profound religious implications. So when Ted Falk says “We believe that everyone, out of respect for their new home country, must show their face during a public citizenship ceremony,” he’s revealing either a complete ignorance of what a niqab is to those who wear it, or a complete disregard for their conscience and their religious rights. He’s effectively saying that Canada disrespects new immigrants in the very act of demanding respect from them; and as a Mennonite, he’s saying it from the privileged position of someone whose immigrant ancestors were exempt from swearing at that same ceremony. And as someone whose ancestors were exempt from military service, he’s implying that wearing the niqab is a threat to public safety (“in matters of public safety”).
Mr. Falk, I urge you to reconsider your statement. There are already existing procedures and mechanisms in practice in Canada to allow women who wear the niqab as a symbol and requirement of their faith and conscience to reveal their faces in private to a woman in order to verify their identities. There are places where verification of identity while still respecting a woman wearing a niqab might be a problem (a traffic stop, for example), but the citizenship ceremony is not one of them.
I would also like to affirm your last two paragraphs:
Although Canada is a country built on immigration, I believe that all Canadians, including new citizens, have a duty to protect and adopt the values and freedoms that make our country great. The freedoms that we enjoy are what make Canada so attractive to people from countries across the globe.
We live in the best country in the world, and while we must continue to work hard to respect the diversity of all Canadians, including our newest citizens, we must also always strive to uphold our common values, identity and way of life.
Canada is a country built on immigration, and the respect for religious freedom is one of those common values that makes this country great. Fairness is another. You cannot defend the right of Mennonites to religious education and expression while denying the same to Muslims and still claim to uphold those values of freedom and fairness.
Provencher, let’s keep Canada great by keeping it fair and free.