On Sunday February 24, there was an illuminating editorial in the Toronto Star by Haroon Siddiqui titled “Harper’s real agenda on religious freedom”…
On Sunday February 24, there was an illuminating editorial in the Toronto Star by Haroon Siddiqui titled “Harper’s real agenda on religious freedom”. Siddiqui begins his article by saying “Let’s see what’s right with Stephen Harper’s new Office of Religious Freedom before enumerating what’s wrong with it.” Skip one sentence and the criticism begins with a note that “critics are accusing Harper of mixing religion and politics; giving religious freedom more importance than other human rights; turning a blind eye to the fact that most religions discriminate against women and gays; ignoring atheists; allocating only $5 million a year and a staff of five to implement his grand vision”. Further in the article, I note that Siddiqui finds more wrong than right.
Even before the election in which the present Conservative government took office, Siddiqui and other conspiracy theorists were talking about Harper’s “hidden agenda”. Surprise – the hidden agenda was unveiled on February 21, 2013.
It seems that Siddiqui either did not see or hear Mr. Harper’s entire speech at the launch or had misunderstood the mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom and therefore has presented confused and contradictory statements in his article, some of which are troubling to me.
Fact that the office of Religious Freedom was launched at an Ahmaddiya mosque (which we pluralistic Canadians applaud) seems to be only one of the problems for Siddiuqi, but let’s start at the top.
Siddiqui writes “protecting religious freedom abroad, Harper would no more subordinate other human rights than does the Charter of Rights in Canada. Dealing with competing rights, our courts rely on reasonable accommodation, a doctrine Canada pioneered.” If we look around globally today, most human rights violations, especially in the Muslim world, are being perpetuated in the name of religion so human rights ARE religious rights. The reasonable accommodation that Siddiqui speak of, has morphed into special rights for certain religious groups and continues to create controversy.
Siddiqui also says that this office ignores atheists. Let me quote from Harper’s response at the launch to a question by a National Post reporter on the same topic. Mr. Harper said “Just as it’s important that religion be respected in a pluralistic and democratic society, it’s important that those who don’t share faith be respected.”
Siddiqui writes about Harper catering to the ‘evangelical Christian base in his caucus and the electorate.’ He also mentions that “the state funds or subsidizes religion — paying for Ontario Catholic schools Catholic schools.” I seem to recall that long before other faiths made Canada their home, this is a country that was based on a Judeo-Christian ethos and unless I am wrong, Christians are still the majority. Their faith and practices seem to have been sidelined by growing “religious accommodation” of others so the ORF would be well its mandate to protect Christian rights. Note that today there is no dearth of Islamic schools all over Canada – some with a sketchy history of anti-Semitism in their curriculum. All this by the way has no bearing on the new office.
Siddiqui mentions that in the consultative process of setting up the Office of Religious Freedom, the government “wooed Coptic Christians from Egypt, Christians and Ahmaddis from Pakistan, Bahai’s from Iran and Ismaili Muslims…” Hello? Have we forgotten that these groups are heavily persecuted abroad? Is the writer unaware of the ongoing tragic massacre of many of these groups in Muslim majority countries? Keeping this in mind, it seems very appropriate that Harper’s election promise was made at a Mississauga Coptic Church and the new ambassador for Religious freedom was announced at the Ahmaddiyya Mosque in Vaughan. It’s time these persecuted communities got a nod of support from pluralistic and democratic governments like Canada where I am blessed and honoured to be a free and independent thinking citizen.
Siddiqui then goes on to list other minorities who have not been mentioned by the Office of Religious Freedom. He specifically names the Rohinga Muslim minority in Myanmar, the Muslim minority of 175 million in India, Kurdish and other minorities persecuted in Iran; the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, Hindu and Sikh minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia. Let’s cut some slack. The ORF is less than a week old. Mr. Harper has consistently mentioned that all religious atrocities will be addressed. I have no doubt these issues will come up – in time. Many of us who are human rights activists can only deal with a few problems at a time and bringing up all global problems in one week is being short sighted.
Then Siddiqui talks of the “Shiites of Lebanon”. May I remind him of their track record? They are governed by Hezbollah who are banned as a terrorist group in Canada. Besides they are not persecuted and have become a problem unto themselves for peace loving shias.
The Office of Religious Freedom is very welcome and much needed in Canada. They have a huge challenge ahead of them and we would do well to support their mandate both in Canada and abroad. As a recent example, in Pakistan, police has registered a blasphemy case against Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States. A month ago, at a rally in front of the Pakistan Consulate in Toronto about the murder of Shias in Pakistan, a flier accusing Israel was circulated and regular hate is propagated both in mosques and in periodicals funded by either Saudi Arabia or Iran.
If Canadian Muslims want to live by the Pluralistic and democratic values of Canada, they must ensure that their voices are not echoing instructions of foreign government unfriendly to Canada, but that we are empowered by the liberal values of our own government and its mandate for religious freedom globally.
Raheel Raza is President of The Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow.