I’m with the ‘intolerant’ Quebecers

MARK STEYN: The niqab deserves no more respect than a Vader mask

I’m with the ‘intolerant’ Quebecers

Photograph by Brian Howell

The other day, a reader wrote to say that, while en vacances au Québec, he had espied me in a restaurant. With a couple of obvious francophones. And, from the snatches of conversation he caught, I appeared to be speaking French. “Appeared” is right, if you’ve ever heard my French. Nevertheless: “You’re a fraud, Steyn!” he thundered. The cut of his jib was that I was merely pretending to be a pro-Yank right-wing bastard while in reality living la vie en rose lounging on chaises longues snorting poutine with louche Frenchie socialists all day long.

I haven’t felt such a hypocrite since I was caught singing The Man That Got Away in a San Francisco bathhouse two days after my column opposing gay marriage. But yes, you’re right. I cannot tell a lie. I have a soft spot for Quebec. Not because of its risible separatist movement, for which the only rational explanation is that it was never anything but one almighty bluff for shakedown purposes. Yet, putting that aside, I’m not unsympathetic to the province’s broader cultural disposition. I regard neither Trudeaupian Canada nor Quietly Revolutionary Quebec as good long-term bets, or even medium-term bets. But, if I had to pick, I’d give marginally better odds to the latter. And the reasons why can be found in the coverage of Ms. Naema Ahmed and her “illegal” niqab, the head-to-toe Islamic covering that only has eyes for you.

The facts—or, at any rate, fact—of the case is well-known: a niqab-garbed immigrant from Egypt has been twice expelled from her French-language classes at the Saint-Laurent CEGEP and the Centre d’appui aux communautés immigrantes by order of the Quebec government. That much is agreed. Thereafter, the English and French press diverge significantly. The ROC reacted reflexively, deploring this assault on Canada’s cherished “values” of “multiculturalism.” In the Calgary Herald, Naomi Lakritz compared Quebec’s government to the Taliban. So did the Globe and Mail, in an editorial titled “Intolerant Intrusion.” In La Presse, Patrick Lagacé responded with a column called “The Globe, Reporting From Mars!”

The headline was in English, and on the whole M. Lagacé’s English is better than the Globe’s French. He began by noting their unbelievably stupid editorial on O Canada, in which they endeavoured to balance their charge of sexism in the English lyrics (“in all thy sons command”) by uncovering sexism in the French—“terre de nos aïeux” or “land of our forefathers.” Where, fretted the Globe for a couple hundred words, are the foremothers? This is what happens when your claims to be Canada’s national newspaper rest on the translation services of Babel Fish. As M. Lagacé pointed out, “aïeux, en français, englobe hommes et femmes.” Englobe maybe, but not in Globe.

It’s not surprising, then, the anglo media wasn’t quite up to speed on “les nuances et les détails” of La Presse’s and the other French coverage. Ignored in the rush to raise the rainbow banner of multiculturalism were, for example, the teacher’s insistence that she needed to see the pupil’s mouth move to teach her a new language; Mme Ahmed’s demand that male pupils remove themselves from her line of sight; her refusal to participate in discussions round a table; the school administration’s attempt to accommodate these various difficulties; and, since Mme Ahmed has now gone to the Quebec “Human Rights” Commission, the right of the other students not to have their classes disrupted and their own attempts to learn French set back by one pupil’s intransigence.

In return, the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente redeemed her paper with a characteristically sharp column on the new “two solitudes”—French and English Canada’s different view of Islam, which she argued mirrored broader Franco-Britannic approaches. She’s right. France thought nothing of banning the veil in its educational establishments, whereas in Britain a teenage girl who took her school to court for the right to wear the full-body “jilbab” had as her lawyer none other than Cherie Booth, wife of then-prime minister Tony Blair.

On this one, I’m with the “intolerant” Quebecers. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Common Law man. I like to be treated as an individual enjoying equality under the law, no more, no less. But these days that’s not on the menu in either English or French Canada. Instead, we have competing philosophies of group rights. In the ROC, the group rights that matter are those of leftist social engineers’ preferred minorities—gays, natives, Muslims, pre-op transsexuals. Quebec also prioritizes group rights, but in this case the group that matters is the majority—la collectivité. As I said, I rejoice in English law’s ancient disdain for the very concept of group rights. But, if I’m forced to choose between one view of group rights or the other, Quebec’s seems less psychologically unhealthy.

It’s the unthinkingness of the Anglo reaction that’s embarrassing: there’s a niqab-clad woman in the story? Oh, she must be the good guy. That’s Chapter One of Multiculti For Dummies, right? In the Quebec coverage, you at least get the sense they’re thinking through the questions. I dislike Islamic body bags and regard them as a form of degradation and an act of self-segregation. I say “Islamic,” but in fact as a mandatory expression of piousness they barely date back to the disco era. The niqab should command no more cultural respect than a guy walking into class in Darth Vader’s getup and demanding the women be removed from his line of vision. Except in the ROC they’d call in the Mounties over that. We would never for a moment view with equanimity large numbers of masked men on our streets. But how quickly we’ve got used to walking around, say, Tower Hamlets in East London and seeing more fully covered women than you do in Amman. Mme Ahmed’s views may be sincerely held, but, if so, they mean she can never be a functioning member of a pluralist Western society in any meaningful sense of the term. Given that the Quebec government is paying for her francization lessons, it is not unreasonable for them to reach that conclusion.

But that’s Quebec. Canada’s state ideology says, if you can get here, you’re as Canadian as Sir John A. Macdonald. Quebec’s says this is who we are; deal with it. In the ROC, “Canadian values” are that we have no values: we value your values, whatever they happen to be.

Not so, you protest. Why, even the Globe and Mail will still draw a line or two. Their editorial denouncing Quebec’s intolerance began:“There obviously need to be some limits on the accommodation of religious and cultural minorities. Female genital mutilation is one example. Child marriage is another.”

My, that’s big of you. But in practice even this robust line is written endlessly flexible. As the Toronto Sun recently reported:

“Federal immigration officials say there’s little they can do to stop ‘child brides’ from being sponsored into Canada by much older husbands…Muslim men, who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents, return to their homeland to wed a ‘child bride’ in an arranged marriage in which a dowry is given to the girl’s parents. Officials said some of the brides can be 14 years old or younger.”

So, if it’s women’s rights vs. the joys of multiculturalism, bet on the latter. What next? Gay rights? Norway’s Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion has just given its prestigious 2009 Role Model of the Year award to Mahdi Hassan, a man who wants a ban on homosexuality, and is open to capital punishment as a means of enforcing it. No Nordic blond would make Role Model of the Year with such pronouncements, but it’s amazing how cute they sound coming from your multiculti types.

How many people have to think like Mr. Hassan for it to tell us something about where Norway’s headed? How many women in the CEGEP class have to act like Mme Ahmed for it to put a profound question mark over the future of your society? In the ROC, even to ask the question is illegitimate, not to say “racist” and “Islamophobic.” Quebec is disinclined to such masochism, regarding itself very much as the S in the Canadian S&M dungeon.

Margaret Wente thinks many English Canadians agree more with the Quebec government’s approach than with the elite opinion expressed by the Globe et al. Demonstrating their bizarre insulation from their own market, the Montreal Gazette sneered that the land of the “tongue troopers” didn’t also need a government dress code. But we’re not really talking about clothes, are we? “If you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values,” said the Immigration Minister, Yolande James. “We want to see your face.”

One can have legitimate disagreements about what follows therefrom, but I agree with that statement. Vive le Québec niqab-libre!

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.