Speech of Homa Arjomand delivered at Millennium Scholarship Foundation's fourth conference held in Ottawa, Canada, on September 17th 2004.
I am pleased to be among you today. My focus is on the division of religion and the state. I have divided my discussion into the following parts. First, I will very briefly talk about the characterizes of a civil society. Then I will concentrate on the conflict between, ‘minority rights' and the rights of individuals in society. I will also consider the role of muti-culturalism and cultural relativism as an obstacle for the achievement of the separation of religion from the state. I will conclude with a case study that demonstrates the difference between the life of an individual in a secular and one in a non -secular society. Characteristics of a civil/secular society: A civil society is based on the concept of the equal and universal rights of all citizens. My aim is to prove that a civil society can only stay civil if religion and religious practices remain private matters. That, of course, would be the precondition of a freer society. In a civil/ Secular society, when we talk about the separation of religion from the state, we mean the separation of all religions from all laws and regulations, from education, from the judicial system, from employment and even from our official calendars. We mean removing all forms of religious reference to marriage in official registration and documentation. We mean the removal of any reference to anyone's religion in the law, identity papers and official documents. We mean the removal of any religious manifestation of the religious affiliation of an individual who is in public office. We mean the removal of all laws, which support the segregation of males and females in all aspects of society, including public institutions, assemblies and workplaces. But, the achievement of a secular society has never been easy. In the past decades it has become even harder. Culture and religion have become a primary issue dictating people's lives. Culture became more important than equality, more important than the rights of the individual; more important than women's rights and children's rights. In the past decades we witnessed the growth of cultural relativism and multi-culturalism through the unspoken approval of political and financial support provided by "the international religion industry". Multi-culturalism has become another tool to increase the marginalization and ghettoization of immigrant communities. In this concept the issue of minority rights versus respecting the rights of individuals are one of the main obstacles in establishing a secular society.
In connection to Sharia Court in Canada, the issue of minority rights has been raised by the initiators of Sharia court in Canada who claim that minority rights require the installation of a Sharia court. Let's open the concept of "minority rights" versus "individual rights", by using the same argument that the initiators of Sharia court in Canada used. We are told that because the population of Muslims in Ontario has reached
six hundred thousand, therefore the government has to validate and legalize their collective rights as Muslims. The above statement simply says, "Respect the rights of my collective group and do not interfere in the family issues in Muslim community." What is missing are the rights of individuals within that group. The rights of my 13-year-old client of mine who was pulled out of school and forced to marry a man twice her age are not addressed. To place 'minority rights' above individual rights would mean allowing my 13 years old client to get raped regularly for the rest of her life in what is a community defined marriage. It would mean that members of the greater society, who are not part of that community, would be forced to accept this horrific situation and be totally impotent in opposing or preventing it, simply because the girl belonged to a so called a Muslim community. Modern and civil societies are based on the concept of the equal and universal rights of all residents. They are based on the social identity of human being as opposed to their identity by religion, nationality, ethnicity and so on. A civil Society is not built on different " clans and tribes". A civil society should not create different minorities and then base its law and regulations to fit these created minorities. Horrific scenarios occur in societies where people are divided according to their nationality, religion, ethnicity, race and other non-civil factors, and then laws and regulations are created in an attempt to suit them all. Contrary the Ontario Arbitration Act 1991 allows religion to interfere with judicial system, the creation of muli-culturalist and cultural relativisms is used as its intellectual ally. If every resident in Canada independent of her or his country of origin, religion, race, gender, has the exact same rights, then the concept of minority (group of 600,000 Muslims) disappears, and there would be no need to recognize special rights for non-existent social groups. To make my point more clear I'd like to present a case study in order to picture the life of an individual in secular and non - secular societies. Zari is 31 years old, speaks her own language but cannot write it. Zari and her husband and her four children came to Canada about four years ago as political refugees. Her husband is the main applicant. Zari admitted to police through an interpreter that her husband abused her physically and sexually during the 16 years of her marriage. In the last incident Zari could not take the physical abuse and screamed so loudly that her neighbor called the police. Her husband was arrested. Zari and the children remained at home. What her rights are outside of her community, as a Canadian resident? I am talking of her individual rights. How about the rights of the children? What rights do they have in Canada as family? Hopefully among the audients there are some law scholars who can explain in detail what rights Zari has. But for now, let me explain what would happen if Zari is not treated as a member of collective minority. Zari would not need a lawyer, as the state would surely represent her. The husband would be charged with assault. If he were released on bail, a condition would be a restraining order preventing him from going near Zari and the children until the matter was resolved in court. Not even phone contact would be permitted, as the violence occurred while the children were present. A Child Aid Worker would be assigned to the family's case in order to protect the children while they were living with their mother. Zari would be the main care provider for the children. They would remain in their home while receiving social assistance and they would have the opportunity to attend counseling in order to get ready to establish a life free of violence. Before I forget, I'd like to mention that Zari, as an individual, has the right to live and to integrate into Canadian society. She will be contacted by an outreach worker who will help her, not only to recognize her rights, but also to make use of those rights. With the help of the outreach counselor, Zari and her children will be able to get subsidized housing that will, hopefully, suit her family; subsidized day care; before and after school programs; summer camp; and she will even be able to attend English classes(something that she always wished to do, but was never permitted to do). In two years, perhaps Zari will be able to go for job training. Bear in mind that I only referred to a fraction of her rights in a secular society.
Every day Zari will face new challenges. With the support services of the
secular society, Zari and the children will be able to overcome those
challenges and to enjoy the right to earn a livelihood; the right to the
necessaries of a normal life in present -day society; the right to
leisure, rest and relaxation; the right to individual independence; the right to
socialize and to have a social life; the right to enjoy a healthy and safe
environment and so on.
Let us see what happens to Zari's family under the Arbitration act 1991
this act directly allows the interference of religion in the Canadian justice
system. It allows Muslim families to resolve their family disputes
according to Sharia law and regulation, and Zari, as a member of the Muslim
community, is expected to make use of this act.
Shaik Roohi the Imam of her community mosque visited Zari the following
morning and told her, "You must undo the harm you have caused your family.
A stranger (he meant police) had no right to interfere in your private life
and your marriage (the Imam is not a stranger). We are Muslim not