Niqab Nonsense – the Anatomy of a Manufactured Controversy

Canada’s election looms, and as voters prepare to go to the polls they are being confronted with an ‘issue’ that has been invented out of whole cloth (no pun intended): the niqab, the full-body and face-covering garment worn by a small minority of Muslim women. (The burqa, another full veil, has also come under fire). Canada can now happily compete with Donald Trump and Ben Carson’s anti-Muslim fear-mongering.

In a truly wonderful example of how easy it is to distract voters from things which actually matter, Canada’s ruling Conservative party and Quebec’s nationalist Bloc Québécois have transformed the wardrobes of less than 500 Canadians (as will be argued later) into a faux-controversy. The niqab arguably stands in for the public’s feelings about Muslims in Canada – which are becoming increasingly negative, with hate crimes on the rise. The type of rhetoric surrounding the niqab debate too often devolves into hateful generalizations of an entire group, particularly on social media. (Look at the comments section of any article about the niqab for proof).

The targeting of mistrusted religious minorities for political gain is nothing new. Secular activist Tarek Fatah referred to the niqab as an example of “sharia Bolshevism,” apparently unaware that in decades past Jews were maligned in Canada as ‘judeo-bolshevists.’ Fear-mongering about the niqab typically relies on bombastic rhetoric about how a simple piece of cloth represents the tip of the spear of an immigrant invasion; it is the first stage in an apocalyptic plan to destroy Canadian values and society, being executed by a cabal of shadowy non-Christian groups which secretly influence world events. (Sound familiar?)

In the midst of heated and passionate denunciations of the niqab as a symbol of the oppression of women (which I do not argue against here) and as a “political flag” of Islamists (which I do argue against), let us try to take a rational look at the niqab and what its presence in Canada really represents.

Niqabs by the Numbers

Think what you want about the niqab – I offer no defense of the garment whatsoever. But while the coverage the niqab debate might lead you to believe that hordes of faceless Muslim extremists are storming the gates of Canada and threatening to impose sharia law, the numbers don’t support this nightmare scenario. There is no official figure on how many women wear the niqab in Canada, but a comparison with France, while admittedly merely an estimate, suggests the number is insignificant.

France has a population of 66 million, and a Muslim population of 4.7 million. The generally accepted number of niqab wearing women in the country is 1,900, though some estimates put it as low as 367. Canada has less than one quarter that many Muslims. Assuming that the number of niqab-wearing women is the same percentage of the Muslim population here as it is in France (we have no reason to assume it’s more or less), that makes 420 niqab-wearing women in all of Canada. If you go with the lower number, it is 74. Again, in the entire country.

These are merely estimates, and perhaps mine are too low. But even if there were as many niqab-wearers as in France (despite Canada having three million fewer Muslims), the numbers we are talking about are simply inconsequential.

There is a (painfully) simple sanity check to test this claim: Have you ever even seen a niqab-wearing woman? How often have you seen them? I can admit to having seen one or two in Montreal, but I doubt the majority of Canadians waxing hysterical about niqabs can claim they have.
So what is the big deal, exactly?

“As a Muslim, I think Canada should ban the niqab and burqa in public.”

Perhaps the most forcefully stupid piece written to date on this faux-controversy was penned by Raheel Raza, president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow. Raza is herself a Muslim and an activist who some may remember from Netflix’s “Honor Diaries.”

In an article titled “As a Muslim, I think Canada should ban the niqab and burqa in public,” Raza leverages her religious identity to lend legitimacy to her arguments targeting niqabi women and re-enforcing stereotypes about Muslim immigrants writ large. In validating exaggerated fears of an Islamist takeover, she joins the company of other “professional” Arabs, Muslims and ex-Muslims who lend their ethnicity to promote narratives which stigmatize Muslims and Arabs, such as Brigitte Gabriel.

Raza claims to have seen a “steady rise” of women wearing the niqab, though she presents no evidence. Raza charges Canadians with “caving in to Islamists” by respecting the religious freedom of the tiny number of women who chose to wear the niqab. (Evidence of Islamist manipulation of events is also lacking).

Raza accuses “naive and guilt-ridden white, mainstream Canadians” of having been fooled into believing that the niqab is “an essential Islamic practice.” She then goes on to explain that the niqab is not mandated by the Quran, and insinuates instead that it is the “political flag” of “the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaida and Saudi Arabia.” Here, Raza appears just as confused as the “white mainstream Canadians” (whatever the hell that means) she criticizes.

People have not been suckered into believing the niqab is a mainstream practice, as Raza implies – it is OBVIOUSLY fringe and can justifiably be called extreme. The only people claiming it is mainstream are people who are deeply misinformed – generally, the very potential voters which this fake controversy hopes to recruit.

Yes, the niqab is fringe, even extreme, but so what? The government’s job is not to codify which interpretations of a religion are the correct ones, provided the behavior of the religious person is not illegal – and I need not remind the reader that the killing of apostates, honor killings, and female genital mutilation are illegal. The women wearing the niqab claim it is for religious reasons, and we have no hard evidence with which to disbelieve them. Just as freedom of speech protects even speech that we disagree with or view as extreme, so too it seems to me that freedom of religion protects the niqab.

But what of Raza’s assertion that the niqab is not a religious but a political symbol, one associated with all of the world’s Islamist and jihadist groups? This argument seems to position niqab-wearers as the first wave of an Islamist attempt to overturn Canadian society, shock troops in a ‘stealth jihad’ to erode our values.

It is a tremendous waste of time to point out that, in addition to niqab-wearers being SO FEW in numbers as to make this elaborate plan ridiculous, no proof at all has been furnished that this is anything other than a handful of conservative immigrants clinging to habits from their home countries, habits which the history of immigration suggests their children will almost certainly abandon. The fact that women associated with the aforementioned Islamist groups wear (or are forced to wear) the niqab is not proof that Canada’s niqab wearers are associated with those groups.

You might very well argue that these are women who are refusing to integrate into Canadian society, which is itself troubling (and would be even more so if their numbers weren’t so small) but you would be greeted with laughter from any sane party if you seriously tried to convince them these women posed any threat to our democracy whatsoever.

Raza rambles to a lackluster conclusion. She quotes Tarek Fateh’s “sharia bolshevism” which I cited above. She asks why we can’t be more like Pakistan, where (unlike in Canada) jurists rejected the niqab. (Maybe because we’re a pluralistic democracy which respects human rights, including freedom of religion, and because we never look to Pakistan for advice on dealing with any of our rights-related questions?) Finally – Raza ends by advocating for a “niqab ban” similar to the ones adopted in France, claiming that this will not only expose “the hypocrisy of the Islamists” but must be done “for the sake of our security as well.” The only hypocrisy which would be ‘exposed’ by a niqab ban would be that of a multicultural society which claims it values tolerance and freedom of religion. The security argument is a laughable, last-ditched effort to make sense out of the inchoate, hysterical mess of Raza’s article.

Niqab Bans

And what of the niqab bans? A number of countries have banned women from wearing the niqab in public, including France and Belgium, as well as certain municipalities in Spain. The latter provides a particularly humorous example of the uselessness of such a ban – Spanish authorities in these municipalities were unable to find a single niqab-wearing woman in their district. In France, fines have been handed out to the women who persist in wearing it – how this added financial burden is supposed to help women integrate into French society remains unclear to me.

Which brings us to my final argument, the core absurdity of suggesting the niqab be banned. The entire argument hinges on a question of what women should or shouldn’t be allowed to wear. Contrary to popular polemics, there is little (if any) evidence that women wearing the niqab in Western countries are forced to.

“Immigrants Need to Follow the Rules”

Say what you will about the niqab – that it represents a willful attempt to self-segregate, a refusal to integrate, a denial of the face-to-face contact which daily life requires. Even say that it is degrading and oppressive to women, or that it is a sign of religious fundamentalism. Yes, efforts should be made (as they are made, by groups such as the Thorncliffe Neighborhood Office in Toronto) to engage with these women and integrate them economically and socially into our country – such integration may ultimately lead to their abandoning the niqab.

But do not let criticism of this garment spillover into criticisms of all Muslims, or all immigrants. The argument that ‘immigrants need to follow our rules’ is vapid – immigrants, by and large, DO follow our rules. The niqab, given the tiny number of women who wear it here, is an exception and not the rule when it comes to the integration of Muslim immigrants to Canada. It is only natural to expect some friction when people coming from a vastly different cultural background arrive in their new homes.

Say what you will about the niqab, but don’t pretend this is an issue that has any real bearing on the vast majority of Canadians. That it is being presented to us as an important election issue suggests both duplicitous intent on the parts of our political leaders, seeking to play identity politics by pitting the majority against a minority; and it reflects wider fears among Canadians about a Muslim minority that is distrusted and poorly understood, and whose issues are held to be the only thing that defines it.

– By Mal Francis