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Heritage Committee study hears pleas for pluralism

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — Witnesses urged government protection of Charter freedoms and respect for pluralism before the Heritage Committee Oct. 16 in a study called for by Islamophobia Motion M-103.

Former Ambassador of Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett told the committee Canadian society needs to address anti-Muslim hatred that comes from “ignorance, indifference, and fear,” but it must also address similar “hatred of Jews, Catholic, LBGTQ persons, people who oppose same-sex marriage, First Nations people, pro-lifers, and the list goes on.”

“With regards to the subject at hand, the Government of Canada’s role is to uphold the Constitution and to guarantee the freedoms we bear as citizens,” Bennett said. “These freedoms are not the gift of government. They are borne by us as citizens by virtue of our humanity.”

Genuine pluralism means leaving room for deep disagreement, he said. “A common civic life without debate and encounter between us is no civic life at all.”

Combating racism and religious discrimination requires a “cultural shift” at all levels “from Parliament on down, and from local communities on up to live their religious faith and beliefs publicly, including in professions, in our universities and our schools, our cultural institutions, and in our legislatures and public services,” Bennett said.

Larry Worthen, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, told the committee his organization’s 1,600 physicians and dentists “cannot turn off or on our faith in God.”

“Faith is so much a part of who we are that it must, by its very nature, spill over into all aspects of our lives,” he said. “Because of this commitment, we are very empathetic to the concerns of all religious groups when we hear about prejudice, discrimination, or lack of tolerance in Canadian society.”

Worthen asked the committee to imagine a scenario in which a group with a characteristic protected by the human rights codes and the Charter “was unable to practice their profession in certain provinces, or be educated in certain professional schools, because they had a particular protected characteristic.”

Imagine these people faced “no acknowledgement of the legitimacy of viability of their worldview; were told “not to seek positions in rural areas;” and advised they would “only work in small areas of their profession because of their protected characteristic.”

“Imagine policies put forward by their regulatory bodies designated that people who shared their moral convictions on a topic were seen to be unprofessional, selfish, and not worthy of the noble position that their profession provided,” Worthen said. Imagine “regulatory leaders used their power to act upon their prejudice,” inevitably ending in discrimination.

“This scenario is not fictional,” Worthen told the committee. “It is real. It affects doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals in parts of Canada who cannot, because of their religious beliefs, be involved in the intentional killing of patients at any stage of life.”

Some witnesses challenged the use of the word “Islamophobia.”

Farzana Hassan, an author and columnist appearing as an individual, told the committee she is a Muslim woman who originally comes from a country where “blasphemy is considered a crime against the state.”

While anti-Muslim hatred can be palpable at times in Canada, Hassan said the word “Islamophobia” poses unique problems because of how it is understood in Islamic nations as well as by the majority of Muslims. “This understanding does not allow for any criticism of Islamic precepts and practice,” including any criticism of “Islamic culture, practices and Muslims,” she said.

Dr. Sherif Emil, a pediatric surgeon at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, told of his growing up a Christian in Saudi Arabia where he routinely experienced religious persecution. He, too, warned of the varying definitions of Islamophobia around the world that prevent criticism of Islam, and used examples of people who have been imprisoned in various countries for running afoul of laws prohibiting it.

“In fact, many of the practices of Islamic State — public beheadings, murder of homosexuals, stoning for adultery — are also the practices of the government of Saudi Arabia,” Emil said. “The only difference is that the Saudi government codifies them into law, and brands anyone who dares to criticize them, as the Swedish foreign minister recently did, as exercising Islamophobia.”

On Oct. 18 leaders of prominent Jewish organizations testified before the committee.

“Any definition (of Islamophobia) that is vague and imprecise, that is embraced by one community but not all, that catalyzes emotion or irrational debate on scope and meaning can by hijacked and only inflame tensions between and among faith communities in Canada, and detracts from the committee’s objective,” said Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, a Jewish human rights organization.

He noted in 2015 Jews were the most targeted group for hate crimes in Canada.

“While most anti-Semitic hate crimes in the 80s and 90s were attributable to elements of the far right, we have sadly witnessed an increasing number of anti-Jewish incidents from within the Muslim community, sometimes by those claiming to act or speak in the name of Islam,” Mostyn said. “We know that this trend is of concern to many leaders in the Muslim community, just as it is within the Jewish community.”

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