Hijab message we need to hear

Selon la Gâzette, le Premier ministre du Québec devrait s'occuper des règlements dans le sport organisé...

Now that Quebec has a new cabinet, it's time for some political leadership against the alarming anger stirred up this week by an 11-year-old girl's headscarf.

Here is what a cabinet minister, or better yet Premier Jean Charest himself, should say on the subject:

"My fellow Quebecers: There is nothing offensive or alarming about the hijab. The Quebecois nation needs to take a deep breath and reflect on why so many of us are so upset about a simple scarf. Our reputation as a welcoming society, not to mention our respect for the human rights we hold so dear, hang in the balance.

"For centuries, Quebec society was marked by the honoured presence of many women in flowing black garments that covered them from the top of the head right down to the ground. We entrusted to these women our children, our sick, our elderly. In recent decades, the role of Roman Catholic nuns in our society has atrophied, and the number of women choosing this life has dwindled. But long before Muslim customs became an issue, other devout attire - turbans and yamulkes, for example - has been common in Montreal, if not across the province, and has harmed nobody.

"Nor does the hijab harm anyone. The suggestion that there is an unfair sports advantage for Muslim girls in wearing this garment is laughable, so we must ask ourselves what has really made it such a flashpoint lately.

"Quebec has heard much talk, in recent years, about 'open' and 'civic' nationalism, by which is meant a national pride that unfailingly embraces everyone who chooses to live here, or at least everyone here who learns some French. Our collective reaction to the hijab risks giving the lie to these bold claims. "Le Quebec aux Quebecois" might be a little more rooted in our historical homogeneity than we wish to admit.

"For some Muslims, true, the hijab denotes not only piety but also cultural affirmation. The rest of Canada, in which mid-size towns as well as big cities now have considerable cultural diversity, has long accepted such ideas. Even the RCMP allows Sikh officers to wear turbans instead of the familiar uniform headgear. Montreal, too, is home to all manner of innocent cultural affirmation.
"Remember, too, that the tae kwon do athletes barred from competing last weekend spoke flawless Quebec French, and furthermore were showing an open eagerness to integrate into the broader society. Tae kwon do is not, after all, a sport with Islamic origins. Just as tae kwon do itself has come to us from the outside world to be adopted into Quebec life, so have immigrants from Islamic and other countries. Just as we have adopted countless bits of the world's culture, we can welcome people who wear headscarves.

"Many Quebecers, I know, are vigilant against any role for religion in public life. But this whole issue of 'reasonable accommodation' is a tricky and sensitive one. For that reason I have named two of our wisest men, Charles Taylor and Gerard Bouchard, to consider the whole question and propose to me, and to the people of Quebec, some principles to move us forward. Ours is a secular government, and should remain that way. Reconciling that with the varied private faiths of many Quebecers is a serious matter. For that reason it is one to be handled calmly, in the spirit of liberty and openness that has made Quebec the most liberal society in Canada in so many ways.

"No mere scarf should lead us to giving passion primacy over reason."

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