Canada: Unholy alliance on the right

South Asia Citizen's Wire
Religions are on the offensive throughout Canada. In addition to the majority Christians, Canada now enjoys a growing presence of followers of the religions of the world: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and many others.
While non-Christian religions form a very small minority - a combined 7 per cent of the Canadian population - their leaders are growing more active and vocal, lending support to conservative and anti-secular voices among the majority Catholics and Protestants. In turn, right-wing politicians, hungry for votes, support them without regard for long-term consequences.
Non-Christian religious groups increasingly demand privileges similar to those originally granted to Catholics. The controversial Arbitration Law of Ontario, which allows the use of Jewish halacha and Muslim sharia law as the basis for arbitration, represents a religious encroachment on secularism and universal rights in Canada.

Though spearheaded by majority Christians and supported by conservative politicians, the present concerted effort on the part of all these religions to derail same-sex marriage legislation is another example of an (un-)holy alliance against secular democracy.

In pushing their conservative agendas, religious leaders often claim to represent entire communities, a vision sadly reinforced by stereotypes that see religious and ethnic communities as homogenous. The reality, however, is different. For example, while according to the last census there are more than 590,000 Muslims in Canada, they constitute a very diverse population.

Like other religions, Muslims are divided along sectarian lines, not only Sunni-Shiite, but subdivisions among them. Moreover, unlike Muslims in European countries who tend to be of one particular nationality - mostly Pakistanis in England, Turks in Germany, Algerians in France - Canadian Muslims have diverse national and ethnic origins, ranging from India, Pakistan and the Middle East, to Africa, China, the Philippines and Latin America. This ethnic diversity should make it difficult for any religious leader to claim their representation.

Understandably, all religious leaders try to show they have a large following of devout and active believers. While statistically all religions are growing (except for mainline Protestant denominations, which are declining), the rising figures are due primarily to population growth and immigration.

Moreover, one important fact is completely ignored, namely the relatively large and growing number of secularists and Canadians with no religion at all. The combined number of Canadian agnostics, atheists, humanists, pagans and those simply with "no religion" is more than twice the size of all non-Christian religions in Canada. According to the 2001 census, 16.2 per cent of Canadians fall into these categories, a 44 per cent increase in a decade. Vote-seeking politicians may want to also pay attention to this growing group of the population (though perhaps not a good fit for Mr. Harper!).

Many religious institutions simply act as centres for community support and provision of useful social services. This is true particularly for members of minority religions who face serious problems of racism. Lingering and even growing anti-Semitism plagues the Jewish community, hostility toward Hindus and Sikhs continues, and Canadian Muslims are faced with expanding and deepening Islamophobia.

Racism and discrimination have marginalized many Muslims. Census data show that Canadian Muslims, despite post-secondary education levels twice the national average, have an unemployment rate also twice the national figure, and median incomes 37 per cent below the national average. Since 9/11, parts of the Muslim community now find themselves in a vicious cycle, where the more marginalized they become, the more appealing tradition, religion and even fundamentalism become, which only further marginalizes them. And conservative religious leaders take advantage of this situation to attract new followers.

It's a sad irony: In less-developed Islamic societies, progressive secular intellectuals act as agents of change, struggling for forward-looking societal transformation and fighting conservative values and practices while facing suppression by authoritarian regimes and reactionary forces. But in developed countries that host Muslim diasporas, such as Canada, it is the conservative religious leaders who act as agents of change, working toward regressive transformations and eroding modern values and practices even while gaining support from democratic governments in the name of multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism - as opposed to assimilation - is no doubt the best approach to achieving social harmony and respect for group rights in an ethnically diverse society. In granting group rights, however, attention must be paid to the contradictions between the rights of a group and the universal rights of its individual members.

Canadian democracy and its social cohesion are in danger if religious assaults are not confronted by a concerted response by progressive secular forces that believe in the separation of church and state and respect for citizens' rights, as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Saeed Rahnema is a professor at York University's Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies.

Originally published on May 10, 2005 in the Toronto Star