Quebec’s Controversial Human Values Charter

Quebec recently proposed a new Charter of values that outlines the prohibition of religious clothing and symbols in public space.

The proposed Charter will,

“Bar public sector employees — including everyone from civil servants to teachers, provincial court judges, daycare workers, police, health-care personnel, municipal employees and university staff — from wearing a hijab, turban, kippa, large visible crucifix or other “ostentatious” religious symbols while on the job.”

Though the Charter is meant to address religious dress and symbols in public space, its impact reaches far beyond office doors, influencing the perception of individuals in shared space and in the private sphere.

Muslims in Quebec are particularly impacted by the limitations of the Charter. “They [Muslim women] get condescending looks, insults, (and) they get spat on on the streets,” Valerie Letourneau, a Muslin women’s group’s spokesperson, told CTV Montreal.

While the Charter preaches tolerance and neutrality, it instead provides the public with government sanctioned intolerance and favoritism. The government’s adoption of such a Charter would show citizens that the government condones intolerance and prejudice and would marginalize people of many different faiths who chose to make Quebec their home.

The separation of church and state is, in my opinion, vital to a progressive, multicultural and nondiscriminatory Canada.

Public space should not be used to promote or endorse any particular religious belief. Though I support this separation, the Charter is counterintuitive to an authentic separation of religious and public life.

The Charter unashamedly favors Christian symbols and practices (crosses in public buildings, prayer before council meetings etc.) within government life while deeming non-Christian symbols and rituals “ostentatious,” a vague and brutally subjective distinction.

A recent poll from La Presse measured the public reaction to the proposed Charter. 78 per cent of Quebecers believe it is “important to preserve historic Catholic symbols,” while 56 per cent say “the Catholic religion should have special status in Quebec.”

When officials were questioned about the crucifix and prayers in council meetings, they defended these actions as a “preservation of culture.” Anyone with a background in religious studies understands how troublesome assertions of the religion/culture distinction can be. These two categories do not exist as separate and clearly defined categories, but rather as muddy and complex systems of practice that constantly overlap, interconnect, and contradict one another.

Some argue that religious belief systems in public life are being replaced with equally limiting secular belief systems.

Reverend John Counsell is the lead pastor at Vanier Church in Ottawa and he recently commented on secularism’s ideological role in the Charter proposition. Counsell says, “The Charter establishes secularism as the only belief system accepted and protected by the Quebec government. Now the prophets and champions of secularism are adamant that it maintains a ‘neutral’ position towards religion, but the only difference between secularism and recognized ‘religion’ is the insistence that secularism is not a belief system.”

For Counsell, secularism is as limiting and biased an ideology as religion.

Counsell makes an interesting point, highlighting the replacement of one system for another, both failing to cater to all worldviews. He highlights the fundamental problem brought to light by the Charter proposition.

It is the challenge of democratic governments, particularly in Canada’s multicultural context, to provide every citizen with equal freedom and access to full expression of their own beliefs.

The proposed Charter of values put forth in Quebec blatantly favors Christian practices in public space. Religious practice and symbolism are smuggled into public space as culture preservation, while other religious practices and symbols are deemed offensive and “ostentatious.”

Though, as Counsell points out, not all citizens prefer secularism, some form of secularization must anchor public life and government structure if neutrality will ever hope to be achieved.

http://www.sharnoffsglobalviews.com/quebec-human-values-charter-196/

In Defence of Reza Aslan

In Defence of Reza Aslan

For Fox News correspondent Lauren Green, author Reza Aslan’s Muslim faith overshadows his critical and objective capabilities as a scholar of religious studies.

Last Friday, Fox News Channel aired the now viral interview with scholar Reza Aslan. Aslan appeared on to discuss his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Lauren Green, the Fox News religion correspondent made the focus of the interview Aslan’s scholarly credentials and not the content of his book.

Green challenged Aslan’s scholarly authority and ability, as a Muslim scholar, to accurately discuss the life and times of Jesus. For Green, Aslan’s Muslim faith (faith she accuses Aslan of hiding) overshadows his critical and objective capabilities as a scholar of religious studies.

Since this controversial Fox interview writers and analysts have criticized Green and deemed the interview an embarrassment. While this critical stance has been the trend, there are some who challenge statements made by Aslan in the interview, further scrutinizing his legitimacy as a scholar.

In his article “Reza Aslan Misrepresents His Scholarly Credentials” Matthew J Franck attacks Aslan’s academic credentials. During the Fox interview Aslan states that he is a scholar of religions and “does this for a living.” Franck calls Aslan a liar.

Aslan teaches Creative Writing (not religious studies) at the University of California, Riverside. Franck does not consider the research, publications, or lectures by Aslan representative of his knowledge. Franck also critiques Aslan’s reference to himself as a “PhD in the history of religions” as Aslan’s PhD is in sociology and not history or religious studies.

Mark Juergensmeyer, a scholar of religious studies, has come to Aslan’s defense.

Jurgensmeyer, who was Aslan’s advisor at the University of California Santa-Barbra, writes,

“Though Reza’s PhD is in sociology most of his graduate course work at UCSB was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies. Though none of his 4 degrees are in history as such, he is a ‘historian of religion’ in the way that term is used at the Univ of Chicago to cover the field of comparative religion; and his theology degree at Harvard covered Bible and Church history, and required him to master New Testament Greek.”

As any student or scholar of the humanities/social sciences knows, and as Juergensmeyer points out, these scholarly fields are incredibly interdisciplinary, constantly bleeding into and overlapping with one another.

To use another example, Sam Harris is a prominent writer in the field of religious studies, discussion all major traditions in his many publications on belief, though he holds no graduate degrees in the subject itself.

Harris has undergraduate education in philosophy and a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. Reza Aslan’s PhD may be in sociology, but this does not discredit his ability to contribute as a specialist in the field of religious studies. His body of research speaks to his proficiency in this subject area.

After receive some negative attention for his comments, Franck wrote a second piece, “Is Reza Aslan Off the Hook?” saying it was not his intention to entirely discredit Aslan’s authority as a scholar, but still holds to the argument that Aslan was misleading in describing his qualifications.

Rather than addressing the content of Zealot, Green and Franck split hairs over the religious affiliation and academic credentials of the author. Both Lauren Green and Matthew J Franck are sloppy in their criticism of Reza Aslan.

http://www.sharnoffsglobalviews.com/aslan-defence-150

Get Involved

Quote

“Freedom isn’t free. It shouldn’t be a bragging point that ‘Oh, I don’t get involved in politics,’ as if that makes someone cleaner. No, that makes you derelict of duty in a republic. Liars and panderers in government would have a much harder time of it if so many people didn’t insist on their right to remain ignorant and blindly agreeable.”

Bill Maher

“Time to Scrap Affirmative Action”

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Last month’s issue of The Economist featured an article examining the continued implementation of affirmative action and the legitimacy of such a strategy as a means of promoting diversity. The article highlights the artificiality of the affirmative action initiative, and the potential need to eliminate this strategy all together.

Affirmative action, while seeming to promote multiculturalism, is merely fabricating an inauthentic pluralism, one based on either very false or limited notions of human character and identity.

The suggestion that ethnicity is enough to unify groups and categorize people in this manner is extremely narrow. This limited view ignores socio-economic, political, personal traits, upbringings, religious affiliations and other factors relevant in creating identity.

Constructing a false equality based on limited categorizations is not only inaccurate, but damaging.

The fear however, is that without an imposed or regulated form of diversity (like the official form of multiculturalism seen in Canada), groups will be insular and exclude ‘others’. Is a forced and artificial equlity preferable to an organic, and perhaps less diverse, alternative?

Canada’s View on Terrorism

Since the Boston Marathon bombing, and the plot to derail a VIA Rail passenger train in Toronto, terrorism has once more moved to the forefront of many Canadian and American minds.

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded to these events by warning against “committing sociology” in examining terrorist activity. While Harper’s comments were aimed directly at Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, his message reached the ears of Canadian citizens, and, for some, it was a message of cynicism.

Harper was responding to an earlier comment made by Trudeau who called for an examination of the motivations of terrorists and their feelings of exclusion and alienation from society. This message mirrored US President Barack Obama’s statement after the attacks: “These things are serious,” said Harper, referring to acts of terrorism, as he urged listeners to avoid intellectual examination of terrorism’s causes, and rather, focus on finding and stopping terrorists.

Tory MP Pierre Poilievre also made a statement of blunt anti-intellectualism saying, “the root causes of terrorism ‘are terrorists.” Period. According to Harper, asking the “why” question excuses, rationalizes and even endorses acts of terror.

Why Such Extremism?

Why does Harper seem to hold such a narrow view of this issue? Why does he see no value in sociological analysis? Sociologist Anna-Liisa Aunio commented on this perplexing question, noting that even mainstream popular culture is capable of asking sociological and philosophical questions surrounding violence. Why then, does the current Conservative government scoff at and discredit this practice?

This critique of sociological questioning is reflective of a continuing polarization between the far right and the far left. Perhaps not as clearly seen in Canada until recently, this same intellectual blockade has persisted in the US for some time, particularly surrounding the gun debate, the attack on women’s rights, and the ongoing environmental discussion.

This divide is more than a differing of opinions between Conservatives and Liberals. There is a growing divide between these two camps, as each side appears to the other as more and more extreme in their views. This anti-intellectualism on the part of the right often leads to a standstill, something quite clearly shown in the US political system. A system made sluggish and ineffective by a lack of communication, cooperation, and compromise.

The Long Game

Can there not lie a middle ground between these two stances? Surely, terrorist activities should be stopped, and the loss of life halted, but there should also be space for discussions of why these events occur, and why men and women choose to take part in such activities.

What social triggers cause an individual to head down this path, what social, political, economic, psychological factors lead to a person taking innocent lives, and often their own life, in the process? What goals do they feel they are fulfilling? What lead them to participate in these events in such a damaging and permanent way? Sociology must not be a dirty word.

This “sociology” Harper warns against, and those who commit it, are perhaps playing the long game. Rather than focusing on how to foil terror plots as they arise, these sociologists look to what social, political, religious forces may have caused or fueled the extreme states of anger seen in many terrorists.

For Aunio committing sociology “doesn’t mean that we excuse violence – it doesn’t even mean that we can necessarily explain it. It does mean that asking the ‘why’ question is necessary, if only to understand the world a bit better.” The left-leaning, intellectual, sociologists do not claim to be on the path to ‘solving’ terrorism.

Not the “who,” “where,” “how” question, nor the “why” question, can exist effectively in isolation. These differing methodologies must work in tandem, in a joint effort to understand, and hopefully quell, terrorism. These sociological questions must not be mocked, but pursued. To ignore certain avenues of questioning, other views, other means of analysis, is to look at a very narrow slice of the intellectual pie.

This piece can be found at:

http://www.sharnoffsglobalviews.com/canada-terrorism-039/

Why We Can’t Forget Mitt Romney

Last week Scott Prouty, the man behind the infamous 47% video, came forward on MSNBC’s the Ed Show. The recent public awareness of Scott Prouty, now several months after the US Presidential election, has lead to repeated uses of a certain, chilling, four letter word. Mitt.

For myself, never hearing the name Mitt Romney again would have been too soon. Many on the left echoed this sentiment. Bill Maher, shortly after the election’s completion, petitioned Romney’s name never be spoken again.

When I first heard Bill Maher’s proclamation I agreed wholeheartedly. I wanted to block out the memory of the entire election campaign and think about the future challenges and tasks ahead for America, post-election. Rather than hover in a state of exhausted exasperation with the far-right, I wanted to ignore them completely.

Since the election, the conversation shifted to more tangible challenges and away from the details of post-election analysis. Gun violence, unemployment, obesity, and education have all sparked necessary discussion in America and around the world. Prouty’s recent public appearances however, have brought the election back to mind.

The Democratic win in the 2012 election should not cause the left to ignore Romney and his fellow Tea Partiers. Regardless of the election’s outcome, these far-right voices are still present in current debates, as we have seen in discussions surrounding gun violence. Their influence can still be felt.

According to recent research however, America is becoming less conservative, not more. The far-right is not a larger group, merely a louder one. These extreme right-wing views are being broadcasted from a significantly smaller portion of the population than people realize.

As tempting as it may be to shut out the noise of the minority American far-right, we must instead listen and speak out.

What good are more voices if they remain silent?