Sunday, February 28, 2016

"Secularism" in Canada, aka the petition against Bains & Sajjan wearing turbans

Yes, there is a petition against federal cabinet ministers Navdeep Bains and Harjit Sajjan because they wear turbans. No, I don't believe it comes from white supremacists or Ezra Levent supporters, but from a far worse source: people who should know better.

It is a non-official petition and has under 1,000 signatures despite it being up for at least a month, so it obviously has no traction. At the same time it is depressing for me, someone who jumps for joy at the idea of an active secular and non-believer movement in Canada, to have to send off the e-mail I did below to the group I found promoting the petition. I'll let it speak for itself:

Subject: Sajjan/Bains Petition
Sent from this contact form

Hello to Atheist Freethinkers;

I've found your site Atheology tonight, the first time I've come across it which is a bit surprising considering that I've been an atheist for at least a decade (I'm 25 currently) and an avid supporter of secularism in Canada. I've never heard of Mr. Rand or Atheist Freethinkers before now, and trust me it isn't for lack of searching. Maybe it's because you're based in Quebec, though obviously your English site has been updated recently enough that there is activity on your end.

At any rate, let me say upfront that I share your goals as generally stated in your Manifesto page. Yet I find myself scratching my head over your support for a petition asking specific federal cabinet members to be forced to remove their religious garb due to their position as government officials.

I like to believe I understand and support secular principles, which equals out to the government and its representatives acting without regard to their personal beliefs when legislating or applying laws. For a basic example, a Christian who works for the government cannot refuse to officiate a same-sex wedding because it goes against their belief - the law of the land is such that same-sex marriages are legal, and it is incumbent upon that official to follow the law or lose their position. In essence it is ensuring that no government and no government official can exclude a citizen from accessing services on the basis of their religious convictions, in addition to not favouring one religion over another with laws and services. That, right there, is secularism.

Secularism, however, cannot be the justification for individuals, even those representing the government, having their freedom of expression taken away. Secularism is not there to stamp out belief, curtail the free expression of belief, or ensure conformity of non-belief by individuals. At its most basic, secularism about the government being neutral with regard to religion, yet this petition, ironically, asks for it to be activist on the issue!

The premise of the petition is based on the same flawed idea that the Parti Québécois' Charter of Values (which, yes, I know you also supported through the RPL) had - that individually expressed belief somehow reflects on the government. It's ridiculous and a flimsy cover for what the PQ and supporters truly opposed - outward, public and noticeable expressions of "otherness."

Remember the horrible little chart of what religious symbolism was acceptable? Acceptable were the tiny, little things barley noticed such as necklaces or earrings which only spiritualists and Christians would wear. And what wasn't? Large and obvious garb like turbans or hijabs which people we're not used to having around wear. Aside from its lack of consistency, it was an obvious ploy by Marois and the PQ for the votes of bigots scared of brown people and their changing society - and I apologize if that is a little blunt, but it is the truth.

This petition, whether of the same motivation as the Charter or not, still has just as poor reasoning. The most basic question I can ask is what do I, you, or anyone care if Navdeep Bains or Harjit Sajjan wear turbans? What does anyone care if Carolyn Bennett was sworn in with First Nations religious items, or if Lawrence MacAulay swore in on a Bible, or if any of the past Conservative ministers swore in with a religious item or wore religious garbs? Why does it matter? Those are examples of individuals expressing their belief, not authorities favouring one belief over another in an official capacity or in the application of legislation and laws of the country - the very thing secularism fights against.

And don't send me back a reply with "but it's about their position of authority!" - that's such a bull excuse. You may as well argue that anyone with a name derived from a religious source, like a Muhammad or a Jésus or someone named after a saint, such as Saint David of Wales, must change their name or only be referred to by numbers or pseudonyms in case people are cowered by their position of authority. It's a silly and invalid argument, not to mention that it treats the public like idiots.

Furthermore, the case the petition points to, MLQ vs Saguenay? It says that institutions and officials cannot have a practice that is exclusionary and favours one belief over another [basic summary for those interested] - but, and I admit I'm not a lawyer, I don't believe the wearing of a turban or religious garb by an individual constitutes an exclusionary practice!

Sajjan wearing his turban does not equal out to all armed forces members becoming Sikhs, or that all religious adherents other than those sharing Bains' beliefs are now excluded from from working in his ministry or using Industry Canada's services or whatever example you want to give. Forcing a prayer on a municipal council and its attendees, however, IS an exclusionary practice, which is why the SCC ruled the way it did.

Yet in an ironic twist, I would imagine forcing the ministers to take off their turbans would be an exclusionary practice that interferes with their freedom of conscience! I suspect that would contravene the SCC's ruling.

That you are supporting a non-official petition and not legal action against Sajjan or Bains makes me suspect suspect that you and the RPL agree with me on that last point.

The petition has an incorrect premise and should not be something supported just because it has the veneer of secularism - it isn't secular, it isn't neutral, it's an attack on the freedom of expression of two individuals, one I suspect you would be outraged at if the petition was about ministers who didn't swear in on religious books. Think about that.

In closing, I'm an atheist, a promoter of secularism, and I should be an ally and supporter of yours. However, whatever your stated aims are, you've somewhere crossed the line from being supporters of a secular nation to people just upset at the idea of religious belief or the outward expression of one, and that has unfortunately put you more in league more with bigots and reactionaries than someone like myself who, to be blunt, is among the future core of the secular movement and its activists.

That is a damn shame, and something I hope you will correct in the future.

Thank you,

Kyle Hutton
Burlington, Ontario

Its a long e-mail and who knows if it will ever be read, or held up as an example of a wishy-washy liberal scared of offending the religious - I don't know, and I don't care. I just wish to neatly demarcate the boundary associated as an atheist and supporter of secularism with the kind of... ideas represented by that petition, Atheist Freethinkers, or supporters of the thankfully dead Charter of Values.


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  2. We should all remember that when a Sikh man meets The Queen in either an official or unofficial capacity, state or informal Her Majesty graciously does not require them to remove their headgear. Queen Victoria had Indian servants and if one is to believe the lithographs and pictures that survive from that time the Old Queen and Empress of India was not offended by the piece of cloth adorning their heads.

    If it is good enough for the Queen.......