Lifting the veil

This ain’t good.

In an interview with Vice, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, while defending the government’s position that wearing a niqab (face veil) during citizenship ceremonies is not concomitant with Canadian values, uttered the following sequence:

” The overwhelming majority of Canadians want that rule to continue to apply. We’ve done a lot in the past year to strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship. People take pride in that. They don’t want their co-citizens to be terrorists. They don’t want people to become citizens who haven’t respected the rules.”  (you can see the entire interview here)

Now I am not a mind reader and I do not know Mr. Alexander personally so I have no intention of guessing what he was thinking when he juxtaposed “niqab wearer” and “terrorist”.  Maybe the two sentences are completely independent thoughts.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that these words will reverberate in a not so positive way with Canadian Muslims.

We need to unpack these statements into two parts. Firstly, the “niqab debate” (ie whether someone taking the oath of citizenship must present his/her face) is highly divisive in Canada.  I must confess that I do not personally like seeing women wearing it but in the end it is a personal choice.  I also am on pretty solid ground I think when I say that the niqab is more cultural than religious.

The second part is more problematic.  The minister’s statement will likely be perceived as his belief that certain fundamentalist practices (and niqabs are signs of fundamentalism) are linked to terrorism.

If we have learned anything about radicalization – and our knowledge is still advancing – we have discovered that a major driver is perception: perception that Islam is under attack, perception that the West hates Muslims and that the West is at war with Islam, perception that the government is Islamophobic, perception that Muslims are discriminated against…

Notice that I am talking about perception and not reality (though the two may be the same in some cases).  Perception is a powerful incentive and the perceptions just listed can be found in probably all cases of Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization in Canada.   Ironically, an attempt to stem radicalization may feed it.

Not only is the belief fundamentalism=terrorism wrong (at the same time it is important to note that the two are not mutually exclusive), but it feeds a growing conviction in Canadian Muslim communities that the government actually subscribes to this perception.

We have a terrorism and radicalization problem in this country.  Most people – including Canadian Muslims – acknowledge this.  And a host of agencies are working on soft and hard approaches to dealing with it (and overall doing a pretty good job).  But unfortunate utterances along the lines of Minister Alexander’s are probably going to set these efforts back.  We cannot afford to alienate the very people on whose assistance we rely.

Sometimes it may be better to keep certain things under cover.

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