Canada’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney made a stunning announcement last Monday. Muslim women who wish to become Canadian citizens must uncover their faces in public at the moment of taking the oath of citizenship. In effect, Muslim women are being forced to abandon their religious beliefs in order to become good Canadians.
This is how Kenney justifies the new policy: “The citizenship oath is a quintessentially public act. It is a public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family and it must be taken freely and openly.” In a classic case of doublespeak, the immigration minister argues, “This is not simply a practical measure. It is a matter of deep principle that goes to the heart of our identity and our values of openness and equality.”
But if Canadians do, in fact, value ‘openness’ and ‘equality’, shouldn’t Muslim women enjoy the freedom to openly practise their religion in peace? Even if this means claiming the right to cover the face! Why should Muslim women have to choose between their religion and the prospect of Canadian citizenship?
And who is the ‘our’ to whom Kenney appeals? The immigration minister seems to have decided that the Canadian family comes in only one model. And any ethnic or religious group that doesn’t look the part must be excluded. But is it reasonable for the minister to assume that all Canadians share a common identity and identical values?
In this day and age of global diversity, how can Canada’s immigration minister be so backward? Canada’s new policy on the citizenship oath appears to signal a retreat to the dark ages of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant fundamentalism.
Stewing in the melting pot
In the 1970s, as a student at the University of Toronto, I had ’nuff’ respect for Canadians because of the sophisticated way in which they viewed their complex society. The popular image of a mosaic was used to conjure up all the bits and pieces of the cultures of the world that make up the Canadian whole. It was a most attractive way to represent the distinctiveness of each tiny cultural element that contributed to the larger pattern.
By contrast, the symbol of the melting pot that’s been long used to describe cultural diversity in the United States (US) is far less appealing. All of the cultures (and races) in the pot are expected to melt down into one gooey mess. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work theory. In practice, some races never melt. They stubbornly resist mixing with certain kinds of people. The more they boil, the harder their hearts get.
These are the tough types who turn into crazy conspiracy theorists, like the ‘birthers’. There’s a hard core of deluded Americans who will never accept the fact that Barack Obama was born in the US and is qualified to be president. He is black and, therefore, has no business in the pot, let alone in the White House.
These true-blue American patriots conveniently forget that it is only the First Peoples of the continent who actually have natural rights of possession of the land. Everybody else in the melting pot is a foreigner; and a squatter. But ‘di worl no level, as jackass seh’.
Under the veil
Canada’s new policy will not affect most Jamaicans who wish to migrate to ‘The True North strong and free’. Muslims make up only a tiny percentage of our population. All the same, we should ‘tek sleep an mark death’. Tightening the noose around the necks of prospective citizens who look ‘foreign’ may be an omen of even more stringent immigration policies to come.
One of the excuses given for the new regulation is nothing but a veiled insult. Citizenship judges say they are not quite sure that women who wear the niqab are actually reciting the oath. Since the women’s mouths are covered, they could be speaking mumbo-jumbo, I suppose. But this non-issue could easily be resolved by allowing the use of a microphone. You don’t need to see someone’s face in order to hear his or her voice.
It strikes me that the underlying issue may be the oath itself: ‘I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her heirs and successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.’ Perhaps, at the root of the new policy is a profound fear that some new Canadians do not, in fact, bear true allegiance to Her Majesty. Their God takes priority over a mere earthly monarch.
Canada seems to be following the lead of France, which last April passed a law that prohibits covering the face in public. This intolerant law effectively puts under house arrest women who wish to wear the veil in public. Ironically, the law was supposedly designed to promote gender equity by emancipating Muslim women from restrictive traditional dress. Instead, the law is imprisoning these women in Western codes of conduct.
All across Europe – in Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland and The Netherlands – conservative politicians are pushing for a ban on face coverings. But it’s not really about the veil. As Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, puts it: “The way the dress of a small number of women has been portrayed as a key problem requiring urgent discussion and legislation is a sad capitulation to the prejudices of the xenophobes.”
Fear of foreigners is the real issue. And the big question seems to be, ‘Who is entitled to be European?’ Or Canadian, for that matter. The image of Canada as a beautiful mosaic of multi-ethnic diversity is cracking up. It looks like it’s nothing but a ‘face card’.