When religious freedom and intolerance clash

I have often said that we here in Canada are living in a post-religious society.  This is not to imply that religion does not exist here or that faith is not very important to many Canadians, but rather that it does not have the profile it once did and does not appear to have a significant effect either on public discourse or government policy making.  I think that I am on fairly certain ground here.  The Trudeau government’s decision to rescind the Office of Religious Freedom may have been influenced in part by our general sense of discomfort in talking about religious matters so openly (and I am pretty sure most Canadians were not thrilled when former PM Harper occasionally used the phrase “God bless Canada” after some of his speeches).  We certainly do not have the kind of relationship with faith that our southern neighbours do.

We do have, of course, liberty to worship.  That is a right protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in section 2.  What I find fascinating, however, is that all the freedoms contained in the Charter are subject to an even more important clause, section 1, which states “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”  In other words, you can do whatever you want but there are limits, provided those limits are reasonable and can be justified in the system of government and law such as we have here.

So what does this mean and what happens when religious belief (section 2) clashes with other freedoms and needs to have limits placed on it (section 1)?  I am not a constitutional lawyer but I do know that when these debates arise they get a lot of attention.  There have been a few in recent history in Canada and it is worth remembering those.

  • a Canadian Sikh was allowed to wear a turban as a uniformed RCMP officer: this caused howls of protest but in the end the member’s religious right did not take away the rights of anyone else
  • Orthodox Jews attending a yeshiva in Montreal asked a neighbouring YWCA to frost its windows so that students would not have to see women exercising: I think that most agree it is the school that should have made its windows opaque, not the Y
  • the NDP government elected not to bring in Sharia law for Ontario’s Muslims and ended up removing Jewish and Catholic parallel systems as well.
  • the assisted dying debate and same-sex marriage laws are leading to some interesting religion/tolerance/legality conversations as I write

We in Canada see ourselves as reasonable and generally try to come up with a compromise in difficult situations.  But what if compromise is impossible?  Two recent incidents involving air travel have brought the religious freedom/imposition debate to the fore.  As related in The Economist, female Air France stewards balked at having to wear hijabs and pants when disembarking in Iran (the airline has apparently just resumed flights to Tehran) and there is the infamous case of an Orthodox Jew who had a woman change seats (involuntarily) on a plane since his brand of Judaism forbids men from having any contact with unrelated females.  While some may see the former as unfortunate, one could argue that Iran can impose whatever laws it wants as a state and if you don’t want to abide by them you don’t have to visit (I don’t like that argument, but I understand it).  The case of the Orthodox Jew is very different: should a person have the right to inconvenience another person in a public space based on his or her interpretation of religion?  I think not.

What, pray tell, does all this have to do with terrorism?  Nothing direct, perhaps, but there is a lesson here.  All modern Islamist extremist groups (the ones I specialise in) are, by definition, intolerant, hateful and religiously narrow minded.  They tend to fall somewhere on the Salafist spectrum within Islam and impose their arrogant, brook-no-debate religious ideology on others by force, killing those it sees as apostates (a very long list indeed).  I am not drawing a direct line between all Salafists and terrorists, nor between fundamentalism and extremism, and I do reject the “slippery slope” arguments that so many like to use, but there is something here.  Inaction is not an option when it comes to religious bigotry.

Society must challenge those who believe that their faith trumps the beliefs – or lack of beliefs – of others.  Everyone has the right to practice whatever creed they want in the privacy of their own homes, or even in public, provided that their actions do not harm anyone else or impinge on anyone else’s freedom. At least that’s how we do things in Canada.

We don’t want Islamic State or Al Qaeda or the Taliban to spread their hate and act freely to take away others’ liberty.  That is why we have sent troops to defeat them.  Intolerant interpretations of faiths of all kinds are of the same type, even if the vast majority of adherents are not violent.  And I don’t think we want a society where that intolerance is allowed to fester.

Undoubtedly some will accuse me of practicing the same intolerance as that of the hatemongers.  Far from it.  You can be as uninclusive and rejectionist as you want, as long as your beliefs don’t interfere with the everyday lives of the rest of us.  Isn’t that a “reasonable accommodation”?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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