- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2007

TORONTO — It began with a reporter’s question to an election worker: Can an orthodox Muslim woman in Canada vote while wearing a veil?

The official responded that there is nothing in the law that could prevent such voting.

No Muslim woman or organization had raised the veil issue and, according to Muslim groups, only a small number of Muslim women in Canada wear the veil. Nevertheless, the question, raised ahead of the March elections in Quebec, has triggered a vigorous debate, snowballed into an outpouring of bitter resentments inside and outside Canada”s Muslim communities and threatened to be a divisive topic in the coming national elections.

Irate Canadians reacted by warning they would vote wearing hockey masks.

Two weeks ago, Canada’s chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, restated the legal position before members of Parliament, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused Election Canada of making “its own laws” and called on the agency to “reconsider this decision.”

Mohamed Elmasry, head of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said that only about 50 of Canada’s 300,000 Muslim women wear the veil (niqab) and that they would unveil for a female election worker.

“It’s a nonissue for us,” he said.

With a federal election looming, Mr. Harper’s Conservative Party needs votes in the French-speaking province of Quebec to win a majority in Canada’s Parliament. In Quebec, where the debate erupted in general elections in March, many Quebeckers told the province’s Reasonable Accommodations Commission that they are in no mood for accommodations.

Many French-speaking, Catholic Quebeckers, a minority within Canada, told the government-appointed commission — created in response to veiled voting and other issues — they are tired of accommodating Quebec’s minorities while their own culture fades.

Lashing out at Muslims, Jews, English speakers, homosexuals and even evangelical Christians, many Quebeckers said they have had enough, and the audience cheered them on.

“I endured them then and now I have to endure them again,” said Remi Lefebre, a speaker at the first session in Gatineau, Quebec, who said he lived in Egypt in 1956.

“The only people making accommodations are Quebeckers,” he added. “For me, I say zero accommodation.”

Accommodation issues with Orthodox Jews also flared in Quebec earlier this year when an ambulance driver eating a ham sandwich was told to leave Montreal’s Jewish hospital, and again when a YMCA frosted its windows after a neighboring orthodox congregation complained about the sight of women in exercise clothes.

Yet even as Canadians grapple with their own meaning of tolerance and accommodation, the country’s Muslim communities — from 50 countries with at least a dozen languages and types of practice — are equally as frustrated.

In 2003, when Ontario moved to give Muslim organizations the same divorce arbitration powers given to Jewish, Christian and Mormon groups, various Muslim women’s groups loudly denounced any use of Islamic Shariah law in Canada. Ontario relented and canceled all religious-based arbitration.

Mr. Elmasry, who supported the Shariah courts, denounced his opponents as phony Muslims who have turned against their faith.

In return, other Muslim groups accuse the Islamic Congress of receiving funding from extremist religious groups in Saudi Arabia.

Alia Hogden, executive director of the Canadian Congress of Muslim Women, said intolerance is spreading in Canada. Quebeckers, she said, were angry when Canada’s Supreme Court said a Sikh boy could wear his religious knife (kirpan) to school so long as it was dull and covered.

“The town of Herouxville [in Quebec] decided on its own that Muslim women who wore the veil were not welcome in their town,” she said.

Anver Emon, a law professor at the University of Toronto and specialist in Islamic law, who came to Canada from Los Angeles two years ago, said Canadian politicians are easily swayed by groups with big names but few followers.

“Most of these Muslim organizations have no membership lists or voting system,” he said. “I’m not sure who they represent.”

Despite this, Canadians remain quite tolerant of minorities and immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. In a 2004 poll, 80 to 90 percent of Canadians said they had no problem with a Muslim co-worker, boss or teacher.

In 2006, Canadians elected their first female Muslim member of Parliament.

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