There is no doubt that throughout much of the West these days there is considerable angst over immigration and the impacts of new arrivals on Western societies. Whether it is the real – but largely exaggerated – fear that terrorist groups like Islamic State are seeding refugee flows with operatives ready to unleash carnage on European cities, or the rise of populist parties in Europe and the US which paint immigration as some kind of existential threat – again vastly exaggerated – to what these countries think they stand for, immigrants are increasingly seen as an unwelcome “fifth column” that must be stopped before they can irrevocably change who we in the West are.
I suppose that for some (many?) in the traditional West, new citizens, with their strange tongues and even stranger cuisines, dress and customs, represent the unknown, and the unknown is seldom greeted with open arms. Leaving aside the unfortunate amnesia that those who oppose immigration have for the very history of countries like Canada, which, let’s face it, is founded on immigration, it is becoming a given that the advent of “foreigners” is not seen as an advantage. It is also true that for many it is Muslim immigration that is viewed as some kind of existential threat.
So, the debate goes on and facts are often relegated to the margins as pesky, unwanted contributions. Both sides in this debate have their entrenched positions and compromise is hard to see any common ground.
One of the points of contention is the degree to which immigrants (i.e. Muslim immigrants) should be encouraged (or even forced) to integrate into the norms and values of the country welcoming them. A repeated theme across Europe has been whether immigrants should accept local practices, even where these clash with the customs of the homeland. We were thrown into this maelstrom once again this week when Switzerland decided that Muslim girls must partake in mixed gender swimming lessons.
This may strike some as a tempest in a teapot (a pother in a pool?) and beg the question whether the State has any business in the spas of the nation (pace Pierre Trudeau). Do we not have enough problems, and much larger ones than that, to worry about than whether girls and boys take a dip together?
And yet, there is something to this ruling and it has to do with whether or not we want to create a tolerant, inclusive society. No, I am not saying that an absence of integration is a surefire recipe for radicalisation and terrorism because I know better than that and have been beating that drum for decades. But there are merits to having all citizens buy into a small set of public practices all in the interest of social cohesion.
We in Canada may debate ad nauseum what “Canadian” means, but there surely are a few fundamental tenets that are non-negotiable, such as the belief in a secular, liberal and democratic nation, gender (and increasingly same sex) equality and the rule of law, even if we don’t always get these right.
The demand that boys and girls are not separated routinely based on gender (there may be a legitimate argument for extremely limited occasions such as math and science education for girls only) is one of those immovable convictions. “Separate but equal” is a phrase that would strike many in 2016 as a form of apartheid since while the “separate”part is easy to achieve, these arrangements are rarely “equal”. In Canada. most education is co-ed. That is the standard and is as it should be.
Muslims who immigrate to the West are obviously allowed to practice their faith in private as they see fit and the State has no say in this (provided of course that it does not undermine the rule of law). In the public domain, however, a different set of rules apply and those are the rules of the majority. Sorry, but that is how democracy works.
To those who reply that imposing gender mixing would force many families to take their girls out of swimming lessons, I grant that such may happen. This does not shake my absolute certainty, however, that it is necessary in a multicultural land. We cannot allow each community to dictate its own public demands on the majority. Newcomers must by definition adjust to a new reality and conform to a few accepted standards. This is not unreasonable since these requirements are few and far between and do not impinge on private practice and faith.
We in Canada pride ourselves on our inclusiveness and open society. It is incumbent on immigrants to be as open.