07 January 2008

José Correa on presenting before the Bouchard-Taylor Commission

Recently, my friend and fellow Muslim, al-Haj José Correa, an alumnus of McGill University, presented a brief to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation on behalf of the McGill chapter of the Muslim Student Association.

I'd like to share with you his account of the events of the day:

The experience of presenting a brief at the Bouchard-Taylor commission felt a lot like I was voting at a general election. Except, instead of simply stepping behind a booth to vote, I got the rare chance of explaining why I was voting the way I was. Now just imagine having to explain to the public after casting your vote - in 15 minutes, and while live cameras focus in on your every word - why you voted NDP or Liberal, etc. I guess that's what the experience was like for me.

Now, before being seated and commencing, Bouchard and Taylor were introduced to me and shook my hand affectionately. For some reason I was somewhat startled. I guess I had developed a slight and undetectable persecution complex over the preceding weeks under the influence of the media, being Muslim and all. The handshakes had managed to pull me abruptly and expeditiously back into the society I thought I was living in before the whole commission began. Moreover, the co-presidents were quite spontaneous and welcoming, surprisingly, given what must have been the thousands of testimonials and presentations that had come before me.

Since Bouchard and Taylor are ordinarily university professors, I couldn't help but feel at times I was really being graded. Still, their questions demonstrated quite convincingly that they had spent adequate time reading my brief, which in a weird way, comforted me. However, one line of inquiry from Bouchard made me question if I was actually defending a dissertation.
At the end, as I exited the hall, feeling relatively satisfied with the course of the presentation, I was unexpectedly swarmed by an estimated 25 journalists and media types -- a first for me. Wow! Thinking back, this was the most fascinating part of my whole experience. Pressed to answer rapid fire questions from a choir of intrigue, microphones and flashes, I suppose lent me a brief glimpse into the lives of politicians and public figures. And that's what it was like.

You can read the text of his brief below:


The Muslim Student Association of McGill University is a student body which provides religious and cultural services to the Muslim community on McGill campus. Such services include daily and Friday prayers, the dissemination of information on Islam and Muslims, and interfaith and cultural activities with other groups on campus.

We are particularly well placed as a Muslim university student group to advise the commission about accommodating minorities, having recently been denied a prayer space by our university administration. We know firsthand what it is like to be denied the very thing this commission has been put together to reassess.


{O humankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you into

nations and tribes that you may know one another. Verily, the noblest of you,

in the sight of God, is the best in conduct. Verily, God is the all-Knowing, Aware. (49:13)}


Simply said, denying minorities the right to accommocations such as providing them with prayer spaces, marginalizes them by creating disincentives to participate fully and equally in the function of important institutions such as universities. Reasonable accommodations make minorities feel included and at equal footing with others and contributes greatly to the welfare of society. Our argument is basic: reasonable accommodations are necessary for proper integration to take place. Depriving minorities of their religious and cultural rights has the opposite effect.

Think also of the message that we send to visiting students from around the world, who represent not a permanent element of our society but are rather witnesses of our society's lack of openness and hospitality. Think of how they view us and what they learn from us and what they take back to their home countries when we fail to meet their most very basic needs by denying them a space to pray, relegating them rather to the corridors and stairwells of our supposedly enlightened institutions. Should this not be a point of reflection? Should this analysis not be part of our own foreign policy considerations?

Moreover, we often and easily overlook the fact that not only immigrants introduce different cultural practices into a host country. Many native Quebecers, for instance, are embracing Islam and are choosing to adopt religious and cultural practices that do not strictly originate here in Quebec. Interestingly, the argument that immigrants should adopt local practices upon arrival does not apply here. When defining the values implied by such things as clothing attire and religious practices, we should note that many liberal-minded, native Quebecers are choosing to adopt these same practices, no longer making these items exclusively foreign but rather part of our inner cultural development.

Our distinct Quebec character is not a motive nor a mandate to change - for the sake of change alone or primarily - that which is right and good about our society just because we hold it in common with the rest of Canada. We are different from the rest of Canada but our differences should not justify us adopting rejectionist and anti-conformist attitudes. Our autonomy and our aspiration to actualize as a distinct society and as a nation should be the result of independent thinking, not reactionary group thinking.

Quebec is poised to empathize with minorities who seek simply to have their differences recognized because they too feel worthy and dignified and not deserving of assimilation and neglect. Wanting to preserve and honour these differences should not be confused with rejecting the host culture, and Quebec knows very well that asserting its distinct character does not imply thinking any less of the rest of Canada.

We should continue to listen to one another and rightfully value the opinion of those who choose to make religious symbols part of their identity. If there is concern for how these symbols are used outside of Quebec, then these symbols can be explicitly defined so that we as Quebecers can make clear which implied meanings we welcome, accept or tolerate, and which meanings contradict our values. As students and as Muslims living in Quebec we dream of a Quebec where external attire will simply mean an internal, private choice, not a public imposition of religiosity or inequality between genders. We have been taught to treat our neighbours as we would ourselves. All of the beauty of ethics can be argued to flow from this one overarching-principle. But we should also be mindful of one important qualification; that is, not to engage in false empathy : false empathy means putting yourself in the position of others but incorrectly construing their inner experience. False empathy is what happens when we insist with golden rule impetus that some given clothing attire is oppressive because we can't help but feel sorry or personally violated. So let us beware of committing false empathy, ironically, to the detriment of others.


But most importantly, we should remain staunchly vigilant of the fact that it is becoming increasingly unpopular to avail ourselves of our rights as Muslims. Our experience is that we often feel the need to take other channels than the ones we are entitled to for fear of earning the scorn of society. In light of this, other groups should step in or be set up to ensure that everyone's human rights continue to be protected.


Ra'ad said...

Brilliant article. Extremely well thought, clear, elaborate yet concise. Like the Bengali's say 'Shabash Jose!'

Maria said...

Very elegant presentation.

Elizabeth said...

I appreciated how you expressed your feelings before and after the inquiry. Your presentation was clear on accomodating minorities.
A job well done!

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