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Let people say when to give in to minorities

IF you doubt that the fine notion of a human right is degenerating into a greasy little phrase used to hold Western mores to ransom, it’s time to return to the birthplace of multiculturalism. Canada, the country that invented multiculturalism more than 30 years ago, has been consumed with another doctrine in recent weeks. Canadians call it “reasonable accommodation of minorities”. Translated into Australian, the question becomes: at what point should we tell minorities “You’ve had a fair go, pal, now stop asking for special favours”?

To understand this fertile debate, you need to dip into Canada’s multicultural chronicles. A Montreal YMCA agrees to frost the windows of a room used for exercise classes so that teenage boys at a neighbouring synagogue will be saved the indignity of glimpsing Lycra-clad women doing Pilates and aerobics classes. An Ontario judge orders the removal of a Christmas tree from the entrance to a Toronto court to avoid offending non-Christian sensibilities.

The Supreme Court overturns a Quebec school board’s ban on Sikh students wearing a kirpan - a ceremonial metal dagger - to school because it infringes a boy’s religious freedom. Female police officers in Montreal are requested to let their male counterparts deal with Orthodox Jews who find it offensive to be touched by a female. A Filipina mother complains to the Quebec Human Rights Commission about her son being chided at school for the way he eats. The school said they were targeting bad manners. The mother said it was the traditional Filipino way of eating. And on and on it goes.

Against that background, a small town in Quebec caused quite a stir last month by issuing a set of standards so newcomers understand “the social life and habits and customs” of life in their new country.

The provocative statement issued by Herouxville says that a “woman can drive a car, vote, sign cheques, dance, decide for herself, speak her piece, dress as she sees fit ... walk alone in public places, study, have a job ... However, we consider that killing women in public beatings or burning them alive are not part of our standards of life.”

The statement explains that townsfolk listen to music, drink alcohol and decorate Christmas trees. Boys and girls play games together, men and women ski on the same hill, and “if you came to my place we would send the kids to swim together in the pool”.

“Don’t be surprised, this is normal for us,” the declaration says. It seems that Herouxville, a town with no migrants but in need of immigration, has been watching events unfold in Europe. Mayor Claude Dupont told one newspaper that the standards are “saying out loud what some people are thinking quietly but don’t have the balls to say”.

But when a small town in Quebec does the talking, it is depicted as insular, racist hicksville by Canada’s left-leaning media. When respected academics such as Francis Fukuyama say more or less the same thing, even keen multiculturalists will slowly nod their heads and concede there may be something to this argument about realigning the unruly rights debate. Writing in the Journal of Democracy last year, Fukuyama pointed out that “some contemporary Muslim communities are making demands for group rights that simply cannot be squared with liberal principles of individual equality” on which Western societies are built. The kinds of accommodation include demands for sharia law, or at least Islamic family law, the right to exclude non-Muslims from certain types of events or the right to challenge free speech in a pluralist society, he explained.

With impeccable timing the Danish cartoons are back, once again raising the issue of just how far we extend the alleged right not to be offended. Satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which published the notorious Danish cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed, was in court last week defending itself against three Muslim organisations claiming “injury caused by religious slander”. French presidential candidate and Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy weighed into the case, issuing a letter supporting the newspaper for expressing “an old French tradition, that of satire, derision and disobedience”.

Sarkozy’s defence of his country’s mores was a stark contrast to the cultural cannibalism across the Channel where a 19-year-old student at Cambridge University went into hiding earlier this month after publishing an offensive cartoon of the Muslim prophet in a special edition of a student magazine on religious satire. The student is facing the prospect of disciplinary action by university authorities.

Whether you’re with Sarkozy or the Cambridge authorities on this, two things are pretty clear. No right, whether group or individual, is absolute or unconditional. Even the right to life is qualified: think abortion, killing in war or self-defence. So assertions that a prisoner has some right to be given halal meat in jail - as child sex offender Sharif Mahommed claimed and won in a Queensland court recently - is just as much poppycock as saying that in Western societies Mormons have an inalienable right to polygamy or Muslims have a right to practise female circumcision. Societies can, do and should set limits and conditions on alleged rights.

The second certainty flows from the first. Fuelled by the human rights industry, requests for accommodation are framed as rights. And because what is often claimed as a right is really no more than an individual society deciding to accommodate requests from minorities, these are essentially political, not legal, questions. Whether a municipality should pay for a women’s-only swimming pool so Muslim women are not forced to share the water with lubricious males should be decided by elected representatives of the people, not by judges.

Instead, the courts get to play umpire. Last week, the head teacher of a high-achieving grammar school in Birminghamshire was dragged into court for not allowing one of her students to wear the full-face veil - or niqab - in the classroom. The school policy allows girls to wear the hijab - or head scarf - but drew the line at the niqab.

Lawyers would have us believe these are legal questions only their learned friends on the bench can determine. It’s nothing more than a naked grab for power and a belief that their views on these matters are more educated than the great unwashed. At the hands of the legal profession and a zealous human rights industry, terms such as human rights and discrimination have fast fallen into disrepute.

Lawyers may be consciously or unconsciously blind to the dilemma. But the upshot is clear enough: accommodating minority demands for special group rights that conflict with liberal democracies is nothing short of cannibalisation of Western culture.

Over to you ...

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The multiculturalists are very busy defending the rights of various minorities but seem to forget that living in a democracy also demands respecting the rights of the majority. The majority culture and its practitioners have rights, too.

Posted by naomi on 2007-02-24 18:53:51 GMT

Janet A. makes many good points. Ironically, the only one which seems too trite to mention here is the first one -- i.e. the frosting of glass at the Montreal YMCA. Surely that is just a simple courtesy, which I would have thought they would have done for any local school, religious or not, to avoid distracting the students. Hardly a big deal and 'no skin off any noses'. Was there some need for her to include a Jewish case, and first up at that, to make it easier to bring the more relevant examples of groups demanding exceptional treatment? Overall however, she raises many good points, although there are many more serious examples that she could have usefully mentioned in such an article to more forcefully illustrate this principle.

Posted by MT on 2007-02-21 01:41:58 GMT