Throughout the West, Muslims are making new and assertive demands, and in some cases challenging the very premises of European and North American life. How to respond?
Here is a general rule: Offer full rights – but turn down demands for special privileges.
By way of example, note two current Canadian controversies. The first concerns the establishment of voluntary Shariah (Islamic law) courts in Ontario. This idea is promoted by the usual Islamist groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Canada and the Canadian Islamic Congress. It is most prominently opposed by Muslim women's groups, led by Homa Arjomand, who fear that the Islamic courts, despite their voluntary nature, will be used to repress women's rights.
I oppose any role for Shariah, a medieval body of law, in public life today, but as long as women are truly not coerced (create an ombudsman to ensure this?) and Islamic rulings remain subordinate to Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I see no grounds on which to deny Muslims the right, like other Canadians, to revert to private arbitration.
On the other hand, Muslim demands for an exclusive prayer room at McGill University in Montreal are outrageous and unacceptable. As a secular institution, the university on principle does not provide any religious group with a permanent place of worship on campus. Despite this universal policy, the Muslim Student Association, a part of the Wahhabi lobby, insists on just such a place, even threatening a human rights abuse filing if it is defied. McGill must stand firm.
The key distinction is whether Muslim aspirations fit into an existing framework or not. Where they do, they can be accommodated, such as in the case of:
- Schools and universities closing for the Eid al-Adha holidays.
- Male employees permitted to wear beards in New Jersey.
- The founding of an Islamic cemetery in Tennessee.
Adherents of other minority religions may get a holiday off, wear beards, or dispose of their dead in private burial grounds – so why not Muslims?
In contrast, special privileges for Islam and Muslims are unacceptable, such as:
- Setting up a government advisory board uniquely for Muslims in America.
- Permitting Muslim-only living quarters or events in America and Great Britain.
- Setting aside bathing at a municipal swimming pool for women-only, as in France.
- Banning Hindus and Jews from a jury hearing a case about an Islamist in Great Britain.
- Changing noise laws to broadcast the adhan, or call to prayer, in Hamtramck, Mich.
- Allowing a prisoner the unheard-of right to avoid strip-searches in New York State.
- Exploiting taxpayer-funded schools and airwaves to convert non-Muslims in America.
- Allowing students in taxpayer-funded schools to use empty classrooms for prayers in New Jersey.
- Deeming the "religious vilification" of Islam to be illegal in Australia.
- Punishing anti-Islamic views with court-mandated indoctrination by an Islamist in Canada.
- Prohibiting families from sending pork or pork by-products to American soldiers serving in Iraq.
- Requiring that female American soldiers in Saudi Arabia wear American government-issued abayas, or head-to-foot robes.
- Applying the "Rushdie rules" – or letting Muslims shut down criticism of Islam and Muslims.
The dividing line in each instance is whether Muslims accept to fit the existing order or aspire to remake it. Working within the system is fine, taking it over is not. In American terms, Muslims must accept the framework of the Constitution, not overturn it.
This approach implies that Muslim demands must be judged against prior actions and current practice, and not in the abstract. Context is all-important.
It is thus fine for the Alsace regional council in France to provide €424.000 to help build the Grand Mosque of Strasbourg, or 8 percent of its cost, because the same body also voted €325.000 (or 15 percent of the total) for renovations to the Strasbourg cathedral, and a like amount for works at the city's Grand Synagogue. It is quite another when, outside Alsace (which, for historical reasons, is not subject to the same secular regulations as the rest of France), the French government considers paying for mosque construction. It is also unacceptable when the City of Boston, Mass. sells land for an Islamic complex at well below the market price, a benefit unheard of for other religious groups in that city.
Western governments and other institutions urgently need to signal Muslims that they must accept being just one religious group of many, and that aspirations to dominate will fail. Toward this end, governments need to enact principled and consistent policies indicating precisely which Muslim privileges are acceptable, and why.
Postscript 1: Here is a summary of the above argument:
- Muslims have the same rights and responsibilities as other citizens.
- The system should not change in basic ways for Muslims.
- That said, reasonable accommodation within the system should be offered to Muslims.
Postscript 2: A bit more detail on the discussion above about what is and what is not acceptable:
- It is fine for the Belgian or Spanish taxpayer to pay the wages of imams in that country, to the extent that the state already pays salaries for Catholic priests and other religious staff. But the suggestion that the British taxpayer follow suit is unacceptable, given that this contravenes general practice.
- The wearing of the hijab (a woman's hair covering) in French schools should have been acceptable because it broke no precedents (students wear Catholic crosses, Jewish kippas, and even Sikh kirpans). But insisting on wearing the hijab for a passport picture breaks French precedent and is unacceptable.
Postscript 3: Other examples of unacceptable special privileges for Islam and Muslims:
- Permitting only hookah parlours to be exempt from Vancouver's anti-smoking regulations.
- Permitting Muslims to take over the prayer room at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia.
Muslims have taken over the prayer room at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia.
June 10, 2013 update: See my acceptance here of accommodating Muslim prayer facilities at an airport in Kansas City and criticism of San Francisco because one followed accepted procedures and the other did not.