1. We need to have a public discussion about immigration and religion

During several visits to Europe over the last 25 years, friends on the left would tell me, in hushed voices: immigration is a big problem, but you’re not allowed to talk about it, because if you mention it, it means you’re a racist. Since that time, the far right has grown, largely on the basis of fighting immigration. I’d say it’s better to discuss difficult questions openly, because if we don’t, the situation will fester and the far right will grow.

2. Our understanding of the implications of immigration and/or religious practice needs to become more sophisticated

We need to stop relying on slogans like “freedom of religion” and “freedom of expression.” They’re excellent principles and good slogans, but they don’t replace discussion, and they’re not the solution to all problems. We need to stop calling people who disagree with us racists and xenophobes.

3. I don’t want people with extreme views to have power over me or my children

This is not about religion, it’s about extremism of any kind. A Nazi uniform or a Black Bloc outfit (as we’ve seen at various G8 or G20 summits) is a pretty good indication of extreme views, and few of us would support a government employee’s right to wear such clothing on the job.

Much the same way, a religious uniform is not a bad indication of religious conservatism. Religious people who do not wear religious insignia or clothing tend to be more moderate, more liberal in their views. Those who do wear religious insignia or clothing are more likely to be fundamentalist and take literally what is written in sacred texts. Fundamentalists are more likely to believe that men are superior and that God created Adam a few days after he created trees. They also tend to believe that women who don’t dress in the prescribed manner are loose or whores, and that nonmembers of their particular religion will go to hell. I don’t want people with such beliefs sitting in judgement over me or teaching my children.

This is not about religion. The large majority of people of all religions do not wear religious garb. Of course, there are fundamentalists and extremists who wear standard Canadian clothing. Similarly, there are many people who wear religious dress who are not fundamentalist or extremist. These moderates should have little problem removing their religious symbols while at work.

4. We should try to protect young women from parents who force them to conform to religious practices

The rights of young women who do not want to dress in a religious manner should take precedence over the rights of women who choose freely to wear the hijab or niqab. It seems odd to me that some proclaim “the right to choose” as a feminist goal per se. We need to know what is being chosen and under what circumstances.

5. The situation is semi-urgent

State and religion need little separation when religious institutions are small or liberal. As the number of fundamentalists increases, so do potential problems, as it is a sine qua non of religious extremists that they do not accept separation of religion and the state. Where there are large numbers of fundamentalists, there is a trend toward theocracy. At the time of Israel’s founding, no one worried about the small number of fundamentalist Jews. Now, at a local level, they force women to the back of the bus and, at a national level, promote motions in the Israeli legislature that religious law should take precedence over secular (state) law.

In Canada, the number of religious fundamentalists is increasing, and will continue to do so because of immigration and because, as psychologist Jesse Bering puts it, “nonreligious people are being dramatically out-reproduced by religious people of any faith.” Bering cites the work of evolutionary theorist and religion researcher Michael Blume: “Those who ‘never’ attend religious services bear, on a worldwide average, 1.67 children per lifetime; ‘once per month,’ and the average goes up to 2.01 children; ‘more than once a week,’ 2.5 children. Those numbers add up – and quickly.”1

In the United States and the United Kingdom there are private, community-based security organizations patrolling ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.2 Volunteers fight a variety of crimes, and local residents call them because they often respond more rapidly than the police. They are said to be effective in tracking suspects and detaining them until police arrive. They are not armed and do not have the authority to make arrests. In New York City, they have been successful at securing public funding, allowing the purchase of sophisticated equipment. Who could object?

But volunteer patrols have been accused of using excessive force against non-Jewish suspects, and have been criticized for withholding from police information on suspected Jewish child molesters and other criminals, in keeping with Jewish religious prohibitions against informing on Jews to non-Jewish authorities.

As far as I know, we don’t have private religious patrols in Canada, but we do have private religious ambulance services – in Toronto, Montreal and Kiryas Tosh, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave in the Montreal suburb of Boisbriand. According to its website, Hatzoloh of Montreal “was established by members of the Montreal Jewish community”; however, “volunteer members respond to medical emergencies to any member of the neighborhood, without regard to race, religion, or ethnic background.” But the website has almost no French,3 and its religious nature is clear:

You see them every day of the week – including Shabbos and Yom Tov, and at all times of the day and night; dashing out of their homes, shops and shuls to do acts of chesed (good deeds). They interrupt participation in joyous family simchas (celebrations) and even when davening (praying) to Hashem (G-d).

The point is, as populations of the extremely religious increase and concentrate, their political influence will grow, as will their demands for state-like services and powers. At what point will we say, “This is not what we mean by religious freedom”?

6. If we want Canada to accept more immigrants, and especially refugees, we should be willing to make a tradeoff

Polls have shown that as many as 40 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec support the Quebec values charter.4 According to a 2013 EKOS Research poll, “40 per cent of all respondents said there are too many immigrants in Canada.”5 A recent Forum Research poll found that 49 per cent of Canadians said we should “accept immigrants only from some countries which share Canadian values.”6 Thus far, Canada has been spared an anti-immigration movement or political party. Can we mitigate opposition to immigration by adopting policies like the values charter that are explicit about what is expected of immigrants and all Canadians?

7. We want to build a liberal, tolerant society, with a clear separation between religion and state

We should be clear that we regard religion as a private and personal matter. We believe that all people, even children, should be able to make up their own minds about religion. We don’t accept that things are true because the Bible says so; and we don’t ban things because a sacred book prohibits them. Being a person of faith should neither limit you nor get you privileges.


1 Cited by Jesse Bering, “God’s little rabbits: Religious people out-reproduce secular ones by a landslide,” retrieved here.

2 See the Wikipedia entry “Shomrim (neighborhood watch group),” retrieved from wikipedia.org/wiki/Shomrim_(volunteers)

3 As far as I could tell, the website (hatzoloh.ca) is in English, except for a French version of its video. Go to the home page, and click on the right arrow. It’s worth watching.

4 See for example Katrina Clarke, “Almost half of all Canadians support Quebec’s plan to implement ban on religious headwear, symbols: poll,” National Post, August 26, 2013, retrieved here.

5 Eric Grenier, “Canadians still favour immigration, but many want stricter policy: poll,” Huffington Post Canada, March 1, 2013, retrieved here.

6 Armina Ligaya, “Most Canadians in favour of limits on immigration: poll,” National Post, March 10, 2013, retrieved here.

photo courtsey Matias-Garabedian /Flickr