Muslim activist addresses Canadian niqab debate

Former U.S. senator Joe Lieberman was the keynote speaker at Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center’s State of the Union dinner. JODIE SHUPAC PHOTO

Both from a political and a religious perspective, during any “identity-sensitive” situation, a person should be expected to show his or her face, British Muslim activist and author Maajid Nawaz said during the question-and-answer portion of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies’ State of the Union Dinner.

He was responding to moderator and Canadian journalist Evan Solomon’s request that he comment on the Canadian government’s attempts to ban women from taking a citizenship oath while wearing a niqab.

Held Oct. 7 at the Eglinton Grand in Toronto and attended by about 350 people, the event’s purpose was to explore critical issues facing western democracies.

“Even in Saudi Arabia, does any woman have her face uncovered in her passport photo? They all do,” Nawaz added.

His comment elicited a crash of applause from the audience.

The co-founder of Quilliam, a London-based think tank focused on counter-extremism, and author of the 2012 memoir Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism, Nawaz and former U.S. senator and vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman were the evening’s speakers.

Before Lieberman’s keynote address, Nawaz spoke about his transformation from a disenfranchised and radicalized Muslim youth to an outspoken critic of Islamist extremism.

As a young man, he became a member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and was imprisoned in Egypt from 2001 to 2006, renouncing his Islamist past upon his release.

The constant racism and exclusion he experienced as a teenager in the United Kingdom largely contributed to his becoming radicalized, he said, emphasizing that integration into the wider culture of a country is key to thwarting extremism in Muslim communities.

He said Canada should heed this, especially as it deals with an influx of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East.

During the question period, Solomon didn’t explain that Zunera Ishaq, the Pakistani woman who took the government to court for insisting she remove her niqab during the public swearing-in ceremony, had agreed when applying for citizenship in 2013 that she would unveil herself to an official in private before taking the citizenship test, but wanted to keep it on while taking her oath.

The CJN asked Nawaz if he supports the ban even though the Conservative government has said it proposed it not as a security measure per se, but because wearing the niqab during the ceremony is an affront to Canadian values.

 He replied, “I say as a Muslim that there are no religious reasons for not removing the face veil in the face of the law of a country that requires you to do so in specific situations. I don’t subscribe to the French model of banning it on the streets.”

He stressed, however, “I’m aware this [issue] has become a bit of a political football in Canada, and I don’t want my comments to be used by either side politically.”

Lieberman’s speech focused on the way the Jewish community’s standing has shifted in the United States during his lifetime.

Though he grew up in what he called “the shadow of the Holocaust,” Lieberman said, he also came of age in the United States during a period of immense optimism, openness and growth, where he didn’t feel he had to assimilate in order to be considered “a good American.”

Being an observant Jew never stopped him from being elected as a state senator, attorney general and Democratic nominee for vice-president in the 2000 election, he said.

He went on to describe how the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, the existential threat Iran poses to Israel and anti-Israel sentiment on many university campuses make him wonder if “history is turning against us.” 

To make sure it doesn’t, Lieberman said, we as Jews have to stand up and fight for change wherever possible.

He also addressed Islamist extremism, noting that Jews must rise to the defence of Muslims and build bridges with the wider Muslim world, understanding that the extremists in their midst are a minority.

Still, he said, a small number of people can “do terrible damage to values we hold dear,” adding that we must ensure young people aren’t, as Nawaz was, drawn into extremist groups.