Freedom of Religion versus Content of Religion: Canada Joins Debate
|Sunday, December 13,2009 20:45|
|By Raghda Salama|
In the past few years, issues surrounding the niqab have escalated. Governments and their leaders worldwide have expressed their condemnation of the niqab. To further amplify such criticism, Sheikh al-Azhar Mohamed Tantawi has expressed the illegitimacy of the niqab in the Islamic faith. His comments on the necessity of a niqab ban in schools have ignited a controversy that had been relatively static in previous years. Sheikh Tantawi’s recent comments, however, crossed out the “Islamophobic” factor of the debate. As the Grand Sheikh of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s leading Islamic institution and an influential actor in Middle Eastern affairs, Sheikh Tantawi justifies his position by stating that the niqab is under no circumstances part of Islamic doctrine.
New faces and organizations have been pulled into this storm following Sheikh Tantawi’s comments. One organization at center-stage is the Muslim Canadian Congress. Executive members of the MCC have openly condemned the niqab stating it as “not a religious obligation” and “[making] the position of Muslim women worse”. This however is not a new doctrine upheld by the MCC.
This year, the Muslim Canadian Congress has taken an unprecedented initiative in Canada. Last month, the MCC has called for passing federal legislation that bans the niqab. The Government of Canada has not reacted to the request.
The MCC argues that concealing one’s identity cannot be justified. It insists that the niqab has no foundation in Islam and that it is merely a Bedouin tradition. It maintains that the niqab is a symbol of isolation, and may even be a security threat.
On the other hand, Sheikh Khaled El Azhary, Imam and Sheikh of Ottawa’s Main Mosque and the Ottawa Muslim Association, quotes the Quran and more than one hadith in defense of the niqab. He believes it to be “a necessary component of Islam” and that it is in no way to be ashamed of.
However, the question remains, how can a ban of the niqab be justified under the Canadian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and religion? There has been no evidence provided to support the claim that the niqab has become a security threat in Canada. In fact, procedures in public places, like airports, schools, and universities, have accommodated niqab-wearing women. Therefore, no harm is done to society as no identity is concealed.
Many strongly believe that the niqab ought to be banned because it has no basis in Islam. Consequently, they neglect the fact that the majority of niqab-wearing women in Canada do so willingly and because they believe it to be a necessity in the Islamic religion. In addition, Canadian law handles religion as a set of beliefs, for which there are infinite possibilities.
How can one expect a nation founded on liberal and democratic ideals to suppress a form of religious expression is a question that yet remains, but scholars and religious figures are attempting to answer.