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Wearing the niqab is not a partisan act

Canadian Muslims should not be used as political pawns, says the Saudi ambassador to Canada


Special to Globe and Mail Update

September 18, 2007

The recent decision by Elections Canada to allow veiled voters to participate in the upcoming federal elections without having to lift their veils has prompted a wave of objections from all political parties, including the governing Conservatives. Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated his outright opposition to this decision, suggesting it contravenes previous decisions adopted by Parliament in this regard.

It seems that the niqab issue is taking a sensitive and unfortunate direction between Canadian authorities and the Muslim community in Canada.

First, there was the decision in April to bar five Muslim girls from taking part in a tae kwon do tournament on account of their insistence on wearing the hijab, followed by a series of similar incidents that seem to target Muslim women who wear the hijab or niqab. The recurrence of such cases has opened the door very wide for those who seek to poison the relationship between Canadian Muslims and the authorities as well as the rest of society. Some have interpreted these incidents as an example of religious discrimination against Muslims and as a preamble to further stricter measures against the wearing of hijab by Canadian Muslim women, especially in Quebec.

With the exception of Mr. Harper's objection to the recent decision by Elections Canada, there hasn't been any change in the official position of the Canadian government concerning the hijab or niqab.

In 2004, then-prime minister Paul Martin told the Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations that "wearing the hijab is part of the religious freedom that should be respected and safeguarded." So far, I haven't read that this policy has undergone any review or change by the government of Mr. Harper. One should also point out that the general reaction of the Canadian public has been very positive, in keeping with the spirit of openness and tolerance that characterizes a Canadian society built on the foundation of multiculturalism. A letter writer to this newspaper noted: "Isn't it ironic that Canadian soldiers are willing to die in Afghanistan defending the freedom of the Muslim people there, while in Montreal we are taking their rights away?"

Canada opens its heart and its doors to refugees and immigrants, including Muslims, from all corners of the world. Freedom of religion is entrenched in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that forms an integral part of the Canadian Constitution. In spite of the horrific Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and the ensuing backlash against Muslims, Canada hasn't changed its positive attitude towards its Muslim community. For this reason, Canada is considered by many Muslims as an oasis of peace and security.

I did not want to intervene in the issue of the niqab and hijab, as this is a domestic matter that concerns Canadians themselves, but the name of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been implicated by some writers. I do so now, more in my personal than official capacity.

The Kingdom prides itself on being the cradle of Islam that includes the faith's most sacred sites Mecca and Medinah to which more than 1.5 billion Muslims turn in prayers from the four corners of the world. The King of Saudi Arabia is known as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, refusing the title "His Majesty," which is reserved only to Almighty God.

One of the fundamental pillars of Saudi foreign policy is not to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries; for this reason, no official comment or statement has been issued by the Kingdom on the subject of hijab in Canada.

Nevertheless, Muslims are encouraged to give sound advice to each other. As a fellow Muslim, my advice to Canadian Muslims is to avoid being isolated in their own society, without giving up their identity. Canadian Muslims are law-abiding citizens who contribute immensely to the progress of their new country, serving their society and their community positively.

I trust that countries where Muslims represent a minority, including Canada, will understand and appreciate the religious rights of such minorities; at the same time, Muslims in the diaspora have every interest to honour their responsibilities and duties towards the societies where they live.

I am confident that the issue of niqab that was recently brought to the surface will be dealt with by Canadian Muslims with calm and wisdom, in order to prevent any attempts to exploit this kind of issues for political gain at their expense.

It should be remembered that Muslims in Canada contribute in a very positive and constructive manner in the prosperity and diversity of the Canadian society. They are entitled to be treated with respect and not be used as pawns in any partisan games.

Abdulaziz H. I. Al-Sowayegh is ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Canada.




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