Orwin on Religious Freedom and Liberal-Democratic Toleration

Professor Clifford Orwin, expert in Thucydides, Rousseau, and everything in between, has written a fantastic editorial opposing the ban on veils during the taking of the Oath of Canadian Citizenship. Here’s the link: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/stephen-harpers-veiled-attack-on-religious-freedom/article23044095/

Prof. Orwin taught me while I was at U of T (as he has thousands of other students). I recall reading (or hearing, I can’t remember) him admit that he was too liberal to be a conservative, and too conservative to be a liberal. This editorial demonstrates this self-description perfectly well. And look at the “veiled” criticism of PM Harper after praising him highly in the first two sentences. Not only is Harper “New Agey” he is revealing himself to be downright cowardly in his lack of confidence in Canada’s laws, institutions, customs, and conventions. Canada is a commonwealth of recognition. There is absolutely no threat posed to anything or anyone if a Muslim woman who wears a veil over her face as an expression of her identity does so while taking the Citizenship Oath. Harper did a legitimately good thing by founding the Office of Religious Freedom (and Andrew Bennett has long been respected in the world of religious scholars and practitioners, from what I am made to understand). Why has this courage and vision disappeared? Because of the looming election? Because of demagoguery? Because Harper thinks so little of Québec voters that he’s willing to pander to the lowest common denominator amongst them?

I leave aside, as Prof Orwin has, the question of the legitimacy of this practise within the Muslim faith itself. Seyla Benhabib, in her highly accessible and erudite book Another Cosmopolitanism speaks of the case of four high school girls in France causing a crisis by daring to wear a headscarf to school. The observation Benhabib makes in that case is that while head or face coverings might indicate inequality and subordination or the erasure of identity in the private sphere, the French girls were wearing hijabs in the public sphere precisely to assert their identity and were acting in the secular and public sphere in order to indicate another way of being French citizens. We see in the Canadian case exactly the same assertion of identity.  The Prime Minister is exactly wrong when he believes wearing a veil constitutes hiding or concealing one’s identity.  

Nothing captures the essence of the case against the Prime Minister’s current short-sightedness better than this point:

The worst thing about Mr. Harper’s position is its implication that Ms. Ishaq can’t be a good Canadian unless she discards a practice she regards as incumbent on her as a Muslim and which is entirely harmless to others.

This is the classic principle of liberal toleration, from Hobbes, Locke, and most famously in John Stuart Mill. But perhaps a liberalism – even one that is more conservative and defensive of institutions than the Conservative party – is anathema to the current Prime Minister, because it’s the L word.

During the last Alberta provincial election, Prof Orwin rightly criticized the ill-fated platform idea of “conscience rights” from Danielle Smith. Smith thought that private religious belief, when in conflict with public law, should allow a public servant to refuse some service. As he put it then, “Not all brainchildren deserve to live, and this one of Ms. Smith does not.” This is what true openness, toleration, and religious belief looks like in a democratic society.  Politics isn’t comfortable or frictionless; let’s stop trying to make it so.


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