Monday, April 19, 2010

The Conservative Case Against Bill 94

A whiff of the Japanese internment camps exhumes from Quebec’s Bill 94, an act declaring that a woman may not buy, sell or earn from the government, if she wears a particular piece of overalls. This is not to say in this admittedly, inflammatory allusion that we should be expecting the opening of a Gitmo on Ellesmere Island any time soon. However, as concern over a Fifth column animated the overreaction against Japanese citizens, I suggest that a similar angst is kindling an evident overkill of response over a symbol; alien and disconcerting yes; even impractical; nevertheless only a symbol.

I seek to lay out a conservative argument against proceeding with any similar bill in English Canada and demonstrate that such legislation would violate conservative principle. The argument may be pedestrian, perhaps didactic. But, I am trying to build a careful and solid case. I will even venture into subjects considered taboo. But straitjacket of thought prevents the uncovering of roots of problems and full consideration of the panoply of options.

One needs not only to judge the merits of a law, but the spirit that moves behind it. To consider, an event like Bill 94 on it own merits without reference of events prior or the temper of the times, is pedantic.

It appears evident, in the incident that instigated Bill 94; that the state-sponsored language school, the Saint-Laurent CEGEP attempted to more than reasonably accommodate the young Muslim lady, Ms. Naema Ahmed who was cloaked in a niqab. Indeed, it would appear that the lady in question was being obnoxious in insisting that the world be reordered to satisfy her picayune requests. Religious freedom certainly ends at the point where others are coerced to alter behaviour from that which is not otherwise offensive.

But in Bill 94, we have a cluster bomb dropped to put out a nit. Estimates of those wearing the niqab rarely exceed a few dozen. Some suggest that without the legislation, that number will rise. It is just as possible that in the perverse psychology of human nature, the act of banning will provoke greater use. How many of us who thrilled in the illegality of use of alcohol while underage, found upon reaching that age of ‘maturity’, the thrill dissipated? Bill 94 is in spirit, if not in fact, a bill of attainder; an act designated to punish an identifiable individual or group. However, in this case, the person(s) are identified not by name but by a form of behaviour that is unique to them. Although claiming to be against the use of all ‘masks’, the spirit of the bill is geared specifically to Muslims, because according to its framer, it alone represents a symbol of female oppression.

The arguments that justify this ban are lame pretexts and sophistries that cannot hold up against scrutiny. It is clamoured that such Muslim body bags signify a subjugation and victimization of women to their husbands for which the community must free them. But do people, like Ms. Naema Ahmed, not strike you as more assertive zealot rather than submissive victim? At the same time, the niqab is viewed as a “sign of anti-western hostility”. This very well may be. But one cannot argue, with a straight face, victimhood and aggressive Islamofascism in the same breath. It is psychologically incongruent. It suggests women who cower to their husbands while seeking to domineer the greater society.

It is claimed that the niqab “makes people feel uneasy”. But how unlike is this rationale from that which was presented before the Human Rights Commissions? Would the conservative elements, spearheading the opposition to the affront to free speech, care to delineate how provoking uneasiness is inapplicable in one situation, but valid in another?

A Macleans’ columnist protests that such coveralls are a form of degradation and an act of self-segregation. Circumcision too is found degrading and an act that sets an individual and group apart. Decades ago, when the earring was predominantly a fashion statement of the gay, it made people uneasy and signified acts of degradation. One cannot deny that the body piercings of punk rockers or the gloomy attire of Goths make people uneasy, are construed as degrading and are acts of independence, defiance and proclamations of distinctiveness.

Either, the community continues in the evil of selective application of law and principle; or personal conduct shall be defined by those with the narrowest scope of norm.

There is a social price of estrangement to be paid, for deviating from the norms of one’s community. The man, who refuses to join his buddies at a strip bar for reasons of religious scruples or to honour his wide, will certainly find estrangement. (He may even find his livelihood at risk for not being a ‘joiner’.) I am sure the niqab fashionistas are willing to bear this alienation from society. But to suggest that state services, for which these women also pay their dues in taxes, should be denied because they, their clothing and jewelry or conduct fall outside the narrowing scope of a movable dominant culture is tyrannical. Forced integration is just as evil and oppressive as forced segregation.

It is argued that the wearing of the niqab cannot be found in Islam’s holy books. But neither can the ban on card playing or the use of electricity referenced in the Bible. In state sanctions against sexual assault, not every particular manner of assault, that the imagination of mankind can conjure needs to be codified aforehand in order to indict a perpetrator. In similar vein, we must afford the right of the religious, the latitude to interpret the extensions of the precepts found in their holy books.

In the case of Islam, a good case could be made that the wearing of the niqab proceeds from verses enjoining both males and females to “lower their gaze and guard their modesty”. Anyone visiting a mosque in an Arab land has experienced the request to cover their forearms and other exposed flesh before entering. One may claim hypocrisy on the part of Arab men on this regard. But it cannot be argued that the ethic and ethos is not contained in their holy books or historic tradition.

I am not naïve enough to believe that inequality between the sexes may not contribute to the donning of niqabs and burkas. What of it? Do the precepts of our heritage not include the right to be different; even to be wrong; so long as no demonstrable and significant material harm is done to themselves or others? Besides, is it possible to enforce gender equality? Can one “free women of this burden” if the women in question have hearts and minds that return to that burden, the moment that external interference is eased.

That mentality that enforces scrupulous gender equality at the point of a legislative gun, differs little from the spirit behind the Inquisition and the auto de fé. If Muslim woman are battered, given unequal shares in divorce settlements or are victims of any injustice of substance, then yes, let wrong be righted. But to attack a frock as a presumed symbol that offends our sensitivities is the preoccupation of the small minds of a small people.

The Pluralist Spirit

But let us get beyond the pedantic particulars of this legislation. What truly is the spirit enervating such legislation?

This nation has been severely divided on the issue of multiculturalism from its inception. There has been a significant amount of ignorance and/or disingenuity over the consequences of multiculturalism. A culture cannot be circumscribed to mere costume, dance and food. It involves a body of thought, ethics and ethos that profoundly enervates those people. That subculture may engraft itself into the ideas, both general and political,
of the culture of the host nation,. The reverse is just as true. And it is pollyannish to believe that the best part of all cultures will prevail. Recall the skit of a verbal exchange between the actress Sarah Bernhardt and George Bernard Shaw. Sarah suggested “Mr Shaw, you and I should make love, for with my looks and your brains we would have wonderful children” to which Shaw retorted “Aha! But what if the child were born with my looks and your brain?”

The vision the pluralists imagine, has existed on earth before. Prior to the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. when an theological viewpoint began to become a hegemony, the Roman Empire operated under pluralism. The Roman state was quite willing to give each local culture, autonomy to govern itself while it slowly soaked the wealth into its coffers. To some extent, long subjugation under Roman rule homogenized the people. However, local customs were allowed to be maintained under local councils. Roman governors and itinerant magistrates were often called upon to settle judicial matters in accordance to the principles and customs of the locals. This loaded these officials with the need to acquaint themselves with multiple cultural understandings.

Like our current environment, there was a prevailing philosophic skepticism about what is true and good. All pagan religions were considered equally valid. By that, it was perceived that community spirit could be retained across the various nationals and subcultures. Thus, scope of governance was minimalist. Mostly, only that which directly threatened the physical and economic security and welfare of the state was legislated against. However, it was found that a unifying principle was required to promote allegiance of all individuals and subcultures to one another and to the political state. That came in the form of Emperor worship. The challenge then, to this pluralism emanated from Judeo-Christian quarters. A fundamental tenet of the Jewish and Christian ethos rejected idolatry, the worship of any other god than Jehovah; or even acknowledgment of any other god’s validity. Furthermore, the belief in absolutes socially alienated the adherents of these religions from their peers; implying a superiority of ideology and practice and a denigration of their peers. Thus, the intractable conflict. Because Roman prejudices esteemed those religious practices with a pedigree of age, the Jewish religion was given a special dispensation from Emperor worship. Christianity was not so lucky.

Does not this sound familiar? Is not Canadian policy toward its indigenous populations veering towards the granting of considerable local autonomy? Is not a pluralist definition of tolerance being inveighed upon our society? Whereas, Western tolerance had, in past, acknowledged truth but permitted the right of others to be wrong; the philosophic outlook of the pluralist subscribes to the view that all is equally true and all equally valid; it tolerates all but those who fail to subscribe to that view. And consistent with their core philosophical principles, is not this pluralist ideal undergirding the promotion of
local religious councils including sharia law courts.

This mindset is the predominant worldview that emanates from the large international cosmopolitan centers of almost every nation in the world. It is not American. Indeed, it is as much anti-American as it is with every local culture of almost every nation. It can be found in almost every bureaucracy of every continent’s nations and even in its leaders. It is not a conspiracy; merely an ideological consensus.

I take several issues with pluralism; a primary one being the underlying philosophic basis of philosophic doubt and cultural relativism and the inconsequence of truth and reality. For the law of gravity applies equally, whether under Chinese, Indian, Nigerian, Peruvian or North American skies. So does bondage and the unraveling of individuals and nations that amass too much debt. This may gall the relativists and the Politically Correct, but there reasons why civilizations rise and fall in relation to their neighbours. And those reasons are largely determinable.

If a consistent ideology and ethical code doesn’t direct public affairs, force will. It may make take on the guise of public opinion; even world public opinion (though money and connections may be more accurate instruments). But anyone who has the fortitude to stomach the proceedings at the U.N. can attest, collective opinion is no protection against error or evil. Let the whole world believe that house prices should be $10,000,000 in today’s terms and mandate this by law. But if only the rarest of buyers could purchase a house at such price, there will either be a collapse of the market or collapse in the market. This is not capitalism; merely the law of objective reality. Let different cultures believe what they will. If it doesn’t measure up against human and natural realities, reality will bite.

As has happened in ancient past and is now occurring, pluralism slowly results in ghettoization, societal defragmentation and disintegration. There are no core axioms to a pull society together. (I suppose, as many have, one could counter-argue that assertion with human rights. However, human rights are more of a wish list than a moral code founded on rational truth. And it ought soon become evident that the regimen and codification of human rights radically attacks pluralism.) In pluralistic societies with various and radically different cultures, there are few shared empathies that bring one community to the assistance of another. Nations of varied cultures tend to lack cohesive national wills (whether for good or evil). European ineptitude and weakness demonstrates this reality in its dealings with 1990s Serbia. The European body politic with greater population and GDP than the U.S., does not have the uniting reverence in its founding ideas that much of the U.S. still has. Such political entities have tended towards relying on strong leader models for unity.

Finally, belief in pluralism with its underlying relativism, has the consequence of a lack of any strong of belief. By this, pluralists may wish to prevent any group to disturb the social peace. However, it tends to give opportunity for those of with strong conviction to conquer and oppress because all other individuals/groups have insufficient conviction to be willing to die, fight or counter a would-be tyrant.

In this, the worldview of Islam thus significantly challenges the assumptions of multiculturalism and pluralism.

The Nativist Spirit

Against this vision, do conservatives and nationalists of all nations tend to rail and push back. The spirit behind those who wish to clamp down on the niqab are those who are resisting this pluralistic internationalism. They want to keep what they perceive to be their perceived distinct, homogeneous national culture.

If one reads American political history since WW2, one hears of President after President complaining about Foggy Bottom and the Foreign Service; even circumventing these bureaucracies. The opposition to this mentality was expressed in the 2004 election where Bush’s campaign jumped all over Kerry’s desire to gather a consensus of support from its allies; claiming that the latter wished to have its foreign policy defined in Paris. It is diametrically opposed to American Exceptionalism. It is more Democratic, as Republicans have a tendency to worship their American form of Christian God and revere the Constitution, heritage and civic religion.

One sees evidence of its nature in the failures of certain counties of the EU to ratify the constitution. If one surveys the electoral results, the more rural a voter was, the dramatically more opposed he was inclined to be. When I travelled through the capitals of Europe many decades ago, I sensed an increasing sameness in shape and attitude from cosmopolitan city to cosmopolitan city. It is in the country that the people retain some semblance of national culture.

The angst about the change; the ‘pollution’; of one’s native culture, particular political culture, by immigrants has been given short shrift by the left-leaning; dismissed and denounced as mere narrow bigotry.

Though aware of the pejorative by which the term has been utilized, when I speak of “nativist”, I deem it just as valid a social and political outlook as that of the pluralist. It speaks to a social unity that can only be acquired and retained by a shared and consistent set of general ideologies, values and laws. It speaks to a belief that certain values and policies are superior with better outcomes than others; else the society would not have chosen them. At their best, the nativist has no problem visiting the lands of other nationals; perhaps even admiring and adopting that which seem superior to his own. But such a one finds it grating to be under rules, so alien and external to the workings of one’s own heart which immigrants are deemed to pursue.

There exist many potential benefits to social regimen of nativism. Those, who live within it, almost innately know what to expect of oneself and of each other. It is easier to navigate through life. The most metrosexual and pluralist-minded of my son’s friends found himself asked to leave a Filipino wedding after committing an ultimate social faux pas, that of publicly kissing his girlfriend before an old flame of hers. Who knew?

Being less expensive to navigate, a homogeneous national culture is more competitive. I hate making economic arguments. Those who do tend to be enervated by economic arguments tend to see life in this one-dimension and as one wag put it, “know the price of everything, the value of none.” Nevertheless, the argument does have value.

Where the pluralist sees extreme freedom, the nativist sees moral and rational chaos. Where the nativist sees psychic security, the pluralist sees stifling boredom.

There are several problems with those who wish to reassert (a perhaps somewhat modified) traditions of yore, upon this day. Even if all the immigrants and their descendents of the last fifty years vanished, could one declare that there exist the ruminants of a social consensus? Between capitalists, social conservatives, republican conservatives, classic (British) statist conservatives, neocons, social libertarians, economic libertarians, socialists, classic liberals, statist liberals, environmentalists and who knows how many permutations of they exist, all the fringe movements and alas Quebec nationalists; where is the consensus?

Secondly, there is a tendency for homogeneity to become hegemony.

The Anglo-American traditions, (being transmitted to us rather than fought for and thus were/are not very zealously guarded); of minimalist and limited government to extend the scope of individual liberty to the fullest practical possible; of checks and balances in government to minimalize the odds of tyranny; are those customs that are being clamoured for by the conservatives. The violation of almost every one of the principles of this political ethos underlie the conservative rancour against the Human Rights Commissions and the statist-saturated tenured personnel and rabid mobs that dominate the university scene.

Anglo common law acknowledges the necessity of state action and realms in which the state predominately operate. However, different institutions were deemed essentially beyond the concern of the state except in extreme violations of abuse of power by those community institutions. The Reformation doctrine of Liberty of Conscience was extended and secularized to grant liberty of speech, of religion (and non-religion) and other civil liberties. The coercive governance of the minutiae of human conduct and thought, the domain of moral and intellectual imperialists, has been generally abhorred.

The Challenge of Islam

Into this fray, enters the challenge of Islamic belief which is profoundly incompatible with pluralism (multiculturalism). Islamic belief, Islam commands the establishment of a theocratic state; with unchanging precepts not subject to the whims of popular sovereignty; to be attained by perpetual jihad (violence if necessary but not necessarily violence). Once in control, the fate of pagans and agnostics/atheists are limited between conversion and death. The fate of Jews and Christians depend on which part of the Qur’an suits the temper of the times. Unlike the Japanese, the founding constitutional documents of a Muslim enjoin him to be a Fifth Column. The more orthodox, the more inclined one is to be contemptuous of liberty and other aspects of the Western heritage as they press on their jihad to convert the West to Islam by degrees. It is not necessarily through the terrorist bomb. They may merely contrive politically to slowly forge a new commonwealth as their numbers grow.

These are not virulent assertions. A rendering of their religion’s source code and the practice of the doctrines within by the immediate followers, who coerced the many new subjects of their new found acquisitions, attest to the veracity of these claims.

However, Muslims are no different than other people. They are not some large hegemony. The extent to which they subscribe in thought and action to all articles of the Qur’an varies between persons. I doubt that more than 10% of the actions committed by those who claim to be Christians are consistent with the Scriptures which they have never read. And not all socialists retain Marx’s orthodoxy of abolishing marriage and private family. Nevertheless, these foundational precepts in Islam will be a constant source of influence, watering their culture. So basic seem these tenets; that to deny them seems to deny Islam. Thus, a red flag must go up; vigilance mandated. However, until a reality exists that Moslem numbers and zeal make imaginable a power grab, I suspect, that most adherents are sufficiently satisfied to merely extract as much local community autonomy as possible from their host countries in the name of pluralism; to be a state within a state.

It is evident that neither Europe, nor North America, bothered to investigate Islamic thought, history and culture and the logical outcomes of permitting their immigration and promoting multiculturalism. They allowed Muslims to check in without checking their ideological baggage. In retrospect, they could have required would-be Muslim immigrants, to denounce those aspects of Islam that truly are incompatible with Western values or threaten its survival; indeed, to ask foreigners to lose their souls in order to reach our shores. (It would, no doubt, have damaged this country’s reputation and does seem unenforceable.) However, our official policy of multiculturalism never required such renunciation.

Therefore, after these Muslim immigrants have built their lives amongst us all these years on the understanding of multiculturalism’s principles; to capriciously change the rules is simply unjust. I am not suggesting that Canada is damned forever with the current policy. But if the nation does make changes, existing Muslim populations should be exempt from their application.

To enact an equivalent of Bill 94 in English Canada would be inconsistent with its historical Anglo-American political heritage. It may be comprehensible in Quebec. Though Catholicism no longer plays significant roles within the province, the Catholic conception of state and society continues on in its secular form; a perception of societal strength dependent on ideological unity; an arrangement prone toward oppression of minorities. If it hasn’t happened to any large degree in Quebec, it results from the countervailing influence of English Canada and the U.S.

However, English Canada has a cultural heritage of limited government; of a limited scope within which government can interfere. The long complaint of the Right has been that the Left has slowly betrayed that value as the state impresses itself upon every minutiae of human endeavour. To enforce a dress code, a symbol rather than substance, extends beyond the watershed between what is illegal and what is merely immoral or different. Punitive measures to reform non-substantial behaviour is a return to an uglier form of conservatism; one that replaces the statism and social engineering of the Left with one of the Right; one that codifies and regulates all minutiae of everyday life and ideological right-thinking. Furthermore, the incongruence by which conservatives attack attacks on their liberty while promoting attacks on the liberties of others betrays their principles and undermines their moral authority. The conservative ethos tends to lose the battle for the minds of a people, less to its intellectual and moral inferiority, than to the hypocrisy of its adherents.

One cannot see Bill 94 in isolation. If today, Muslim practices are forbidden in government offices, why not tomorrow on all property, including roads and sidewalks as is occurring in Belgium? Or to follow France in banning all religious symbols in state education systems. Or barring all public servants from wearing religious symbols as being pushed by one hundred Quebec intellectuals in a recently signed petition and echoed by an PQ push for a "charter of secularism." Or in barring the building of new minarets in Switzerland because of “architectural values”. (Are there no McDonalds Restaurants in Switzerland?) If Muslim today, why not Jew and Christian tomorrow; those of conservative values the day after?

Watching Europe these last few years over their Muslim problem, one denotes the beginnings of a long persecution in the style of the Late Roman Empire, after the Edict of Nantes until 429 A.D. I suspect that when Constantine began to curtail Jewish privileges, he never imagined a long but quickening process of the denigration of the Jewish personhood, existence and livelihood that lived well into the Modern Era.

I am not opposed to specific restrictions and regulations in the use of the niqab that respond to objective and practical ends. However, to make carte-blanche ban on a petty symbol with rationales that are emotive and subjective is bad and dangerous policy.

It betrays a virulence that has crossed over from the Atlantic onto our shores, with its first real manifestation, in the land of Duplessis. At worst, let it remain there.