Vote on Mus­lim ceme­tery wasn’t truly sec­u­lar

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Shree Parad­kar is a na­tional af­fairs writer tack­ling is­sues of race and gen­der for Torstar Syndication Ser­vices. You can fol­low her @shree­parad­kar.

Death is sup­posed to be the great equal­izer.

Not so, showed a bizarre demo­cratic process that un­folded in a small Que­bec town on Sun­day night. A ref­er­en­dum, os­ten­si­bly about zon­ing changes, ended up giv­ing a hand­ful of non-Mus­lims the power to tell Mus­lims how to bury their dead.

It took only 19 vot­ers in StApol­li­naire to re­ject the cre­ation of an Is­lamic ceme­tery that would have made it only the sec­ond in the prov­ince owned and op­er­ated by Mus­lims.

The only Mus­lim-owned burial ground in a prov­ince with an es­ti­mated 250,000 Mus­lims is lo­cated in Laval, north of Mon­treal. Oth­er­wise, there are four non-de­nom­i­na­tional ceme­ter­ies that have ear­marked sec­tions for Mus­lims that are leased out to them.

While both kinds of burial grounds fol­low the same re­li­gious rites, many Mus­lims who want the re­as­sur­ance of eter­nal rest or fear ex­huma­tion or don’t want to give fu­ture gen­er­a­tions the re­spon­si­bil­ity of re­new­ing leases end up fly­ing the bod­ies of their dead to the lands of their ori­gins. In this con­text, the large, im­me­di­ate ques­tion is: Should such a ref­er­en­dum have been held at all? No, says Yan­nick Boucher, an an­thro­pol­ogy lec­turer at the Univer­sité of Mon­tréal.

“I de­plore the si­lence of our po­lit­i­cal elites on this is­sue,” he told me by email. “It seems to me ir­re­spon­si­ble on the part of our politi­cians to leave re­spon­si­bil­ity to the cit­i­zens of Saint-Apol­li­naire to de­cide on such a big is­sue.”

The coun­cil in St-Apol­li­naire, a town of 6,000 peo­ple just south­east of Que­bec City, had unan­i­mously en­dorsed the pro­posal of an Is­lamic ceme­tery, af­ter a lo­cal non-de­nom­i­na­tional fu­neral par­lour struck a deal to sell a par­cel of its land to an Is­lamic group.

The buyer was the Cen­tre cul­turel is­lamique de Québec that runs the Que­bec City mosque where a white ex­trem­ist gunned down six Mus­lims at prayer in Jan­uary. Five of those vic­tims were flown out of the coun­try for burial.

The sale re­quired mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the zon­ing per­mit, and when that at­tracted enough of an op­po­si­tion, it trig­gered a ref­er­en­dum.

Just 62 peo­ple, who live and work around the pro­posed ceme­tery site, were el­i­gi­ble for the ref­er­en­dum. Of them, only 36 res­i­dents voted (19-16 against). One bal­lot was re­jected be­cause it was spoiled.

I’m wary of nar­ra­tives that por­tray Que­bec as some­how be­ing less open-minded than the rest of Canada. So this ques­tion bore closer scru­tiny: Did the vote by the 92-per-cent Chris­tian town near Que­bec City stand as a scan­dalous sym­bol of ex­clu­sion or did it sig­nify a sup­port for sec­u­lar­ism in a prov­ince that re­sound­ingly re­jected the role of the Catholic Church in its in­sti­tu­tions?

Cer­tainly, the mayor of the town of 6,000 thought Is­lam­o­pho­bia was a fac­tor. “I think the fear has started be­cause of the word, ‘Mus­lim’,” Bernard Ouel­let told The Cana­dian Press last week.

Mo­hammed Kesri, the man lead­ing the Is­lamic ceme­tery project, told the news agency, “There are Catholic ceme­ter­ies, Protes­tant ceme­ter­ies, Jewish ceme­ter­ies - we aren’t in­vent­ing any­thing here.”

At a meet­ing in March in the town, the usual us-ver­sus-them fears had emerged among the ho­moge­nous pop­u­lace. Mus­lims were get­ting pref­er­en­tial treat­ment, some­one said. Would there now be more mosques? More women with veils?

“Peo­ple put all Mus­lims in the same bas­ket and see them as rad­i­cals. I am dis­ap­pointed,” the Globe and Mail quotes Ouel­let say­ing af­ter the ref­er­en­dum.

Sunny Le­tourneau of the Cit­i­zen Al­ter­na­tive Com­mit­tee, who wasn’t el­i­gi­ble to vote but op­posed the re­li­gious ceme­tery, struck an ar­gu­ment for sec­u­lar­ity, say­ing ceme­ter­ies should in­clude ev­ery­one. She doesn’t have an is­sue with Is­lam in par­tic­u­lar, but all re­li­gions that ex­clude oth­ers based on faith, she told the Star’s Al­lan Wood­slast week.

If we take Le­tourneau’s sen­ti­ments at face value, the prin­ci­ple be­hind them might have merit, but even so with the caveat that no re­li­gious group would hence­forth re­ceive per­mis­sion to op­er­ate its own ceme­ter­ies.

Such an idea would run afoul of peo­ple’s char­ter rights to free­dom of re­li­gion. Ac­cord­ing to hu­man rights and con­sti­tu­tional lawyer Julius Grey, the Que­bec town ref­er­en­dum does ex­actly that.

Grey told The Cana­dian Press that sec­u­lar peo­ple telling Mus­lims where they can bury their dead is akin to telling a Jew he or she can eat at a nor­mal cafe­te­ria and not keep kosher.

What did the ref­er­en­dum show? That even in death, Mus­lims are seen through the lens of their dif­fer­ences. That true sec­u­lar­ism would not have be­gun and halted at a ceme­tery for Mus­lims alone.

“Such a re­sult, how­ever demo­cratic it may be, can only nour­ish rad­i­cal­ism among the pop­u­la­tion most vul­ner­a­ble to dog­matic ideas,” Boucher said.

“I am think­ing of the young Mus­lim aged be­tween 14 and 21 who are of­ten in search of iden­tity. Iden­tity is built by the gaze of the other on one­self. What mes­sage do we send to them with this ref­er­en­dum?”

Parad­kar

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