There's a good reason why Canada doesn't have a headscarf ban

The French government's decision to ban Muslim headscarves and other prominent religious symbols in schools is a logical extension of their general approach to government. But I don't mean that in a good way. Those whose admiration for France is driven primarily by its opposition to American foreign policy need to remember how much ideas matter. I'm not even convinced France's Greater Europa project is working out all that well. As I've said before, I think they're playing Athens to the wrong Rome. But it must be a particular disappointment that after all their hectoring of Americans for their provocative insensitivity to Islam, their hijab ban (unthinkable in the U.S.) led Canadian Islamic Congress national president Mohamed Elmasry to write that "France recently topped the list of Western human rights violators ..."

Why did they do it? Because French opposition to the "Anglo-Saxon model" does not simply consist of gratuitous if futile shots at George W. Bush. It runs much deeper. It offers a half-open society, with free political discussion about what people shall be required to do, not what they shall be allowed to do.

This fall in the Globe and Mail, Mr. Elmasry mocked calls for moderate voices among Canadian Muslims: "I propose that our government issue special 'moderate' cards for all Muslims in this country, whether citizens or not. Here's how it would work. An independent panel of experts is appointed, comprising one Canadian, two Americans, two Israelis and two representatives from the Muslim applicant's country of birth or family roots ... most Canadian intelligence reports against Muslims in this country come from the U.S., Israel, or selected Muslim countries."

Clever, but it's France that, at the end of 2002, established an official Muslim council. The interior minister called it "a chance to create an official Islam of France and a way to fight the Islam of cellars and garages ..."

It's no anomaly; similar bodies already existed for Catholics, Protestants and Jews. But France's record of social harmony is not impressive and my guess is French state-sanctioned Islam will not impress Muslims much, in France or elsewhere.

In truly open societies, by contrast, you are allowed great latitude including in choice of headgear. But, crucially, an open society is open at both ends. To be seen as moderate you have to say moderate things. Otherwise people will draw the obvious conclusion.

For instance, in a letter to the Citizen in October 2001, Ottawa Mosque imam Gamal Soleiman wrote "I am amazed at being called a 'racist' and 'propagandist' for saying that the dastardly deed of Sept. 11 could not have been committed by Arabs, as they lack such sophistication and efficiency. I did not know it was a crime to express my opinion." It might be if a non-Arab said it. It's certainly a scandal. And now the Citizen reports a hate-crimes complaint against a Muslim newspaper in B.C., over an article apparently denying the Holocaust, and blaming Jews for both world wars and the Great Depression.

An open society shouldn't ban hate speech. It's far better that evil be defeated in open debate. And unlike the French government, I'm sure it can be. It's how open societies work. And it's why I want to hear moderation from prominent Muslims, not silence punctuated by growling about the motives of those who ask about such silence. When my colleague David Warren makes provocative suggestions, other Christians openly disagree. Whereas in deploring the hijab ban, Mr. Elmasry said on a recent trip to Iran and Egypt he didn't meet one Muslim who didn't want more democracy, including Iran's president. But among the politicians, academics and cab drivers he spoke to, "the vast majority ... accused powerful Western countries ... of blatant hypocrisy" because, for instance, "most Iranians believe that their governmental system, although dissimilar to both the British and American models, is nevertheless democratic; yet the West did not even bother to study it as a valid alternate model."

Please, sir, don't talk like that. We did study it. Jimmy Carter's UN ambassador even called Ayatollah Khomeini "somewhat of a saint." But it turned out badly, like other non-western models on offer, from Cuba to Zimbabwe. It's not hypocrisy that makes us reject them, it's experience.

If you're looking for an alternative democratic model, consider France. Its government even officially certifies Muslim moderates. Unfortunately the same approach leads, logically, to a ban on hijabs in schools.

We don't do things that way here. And we are right not to.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson