OVER a long and painful history the Ismaili Muslim sect has been dispersed, at times forcibly, to 25 countries across the world. So when their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, announced last month that he had chosen Ottawa as the site for his new research centre on pluralism, it was widely seen as a particularly powerful endorsement of Canada's tolerant multiculturalism. But his comments came as this approach, enshrined in law and seen by many Canadians as part of their national identity, is coming under unprecedented public criticism.
In recent weeks, the debate in Britain over the wearing of the niqab or face veil has crossed the north Atlantic to Canada. It came on the heels of claims that the leaders of the large Indo-Canadian population in British Columbia were turning a blind eye to widespread domestic violence. Last year saw an acrimonious dispute in Ontario over whether Muslims could use Islamic sharia courts to settle family disputes. (The provincial government eventually decided that they could not.)
In themselves, fights over cultural practices and symbols are nothing new in Canada. Sikhs went to the Supreme Court to win the right for uniformed policemen to wear turbans and students to wear ceremonial daggers known as kirpans. What is new about the latest arguments is an underlying tension between some cultural practices of recent immigrants and the mainstream values of Canadian liberal democracy, such as sex equality.
This comes as a small minority of Muslim immigrants seek to emphasise their separation from, and even hostility to, the wider society. In June 17 Canadian Muslims were arrested on charges of plotting terrorist attacks on targets including the national Parliament. "Muslims are the first group to seriously challenge our notions of multiculturalism and tolerance," says Neil Bissoondath, a writer on the subject.
Similar debates have raged in Europe. Two things give them a different edge in Canada. First, even more than the United States, Canada is nowadays a nation of immigrants (see chart 1). Immigration is both increasing and increasingly non-European (see chart 2). Second, from its birth as a self-governing nation in 1867 Canada was a multicultural mixture of British and French settlers and the indigenous people they called Indians. A century later, this was officially recognised. In 1971 Pierre Trudeau, a Liberal prime minister, declared Canada bilingual and multicultural. The Multiculturalism Act of 1988 replaced the previous policy of assimilation with one of acceptance of diversity.
Multiculturalism has since sunk deep roots in government, reflected in everything from broadcasting to education policy. It has itself become a basic Canadian value. Polls show that a majority support continued immigration and do not want it limited to whites. Almost half believe that immigrants should be free to maintain their cultural and religious practices. But a poll published this week reflected the new disquiet: when asked whether those practices should be tolerated if they infringe women's rights, a large majority said No. Some feminists counter that Canada tolerates other practices that they see as demeaning, such as cosmetic surgery.
One school of thought says that it is time to set firmer rules for what is expected of citizens and to define more clearly what it means to be Canadian. Adherents to this view gleefully seized on a comment by Yann Martel, a novelist, that "Canada is one of the greatest hotels on earth-it welcomes everyone from everywhere." (Mr Martel claims that he was misunderstood.)
But most commentators still subscribe to multiculturalism as not just a worthwhile aspiration but as the only way of holding Canada together. To preserve it, some trust in muddle-through. When another writer, Michael Ignatieff, who is standing for the vacant leadership of the opposition Liberals, said he favoured recognising Quebec as a "nation", he was roundly abused, and not just by those who favour a stronger Canadian identity. Better to leave well alone rather than going through the wrenching process of reopening constitutional debates, his detractors said. "Canada is a country that works better in practice than in theory," said Stéphane Dion (echoing a national cliché), one of Mr Ignatieff's rivals for the leadership and himself a Quebecker.
Others worry that laissez-faire is a recipe for rising tension. They say there is no alternative but to negotiate solutions to cultural clashes, new or old. Rudyard Griffiths of the Dominion Institute, a think-tank concerned with Canadian identity, points to a long history of finding ways to accommodate seemingly intractable differences of language, culture and religion, such as those between English and French speakers or Catholics and Protestants.
Some of the new disputes will doubtless be resolved in the courts. Politicians, who until a few years ago were happy to talk up multiculturalism, have mainly fallen silent. There have been a few exceptions. Dalton McGuinty, the premier of Ontario, said of the niqab debate that women were free to do as they pleased. Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister, invited the Aga Khan to dinner. His government is helping to set up the new pluralism centre. Officially, then, Canada still stands squarely behind multiculturalism. But the silences are eloquent.
One nation or many?
Canadians continue to believe in diversity and tolerance. But it is becoming harder