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How much tolerance is too much?

By Phil Gurski      

What happens when the freedoms of some begin to impinge on the freedoms of others? A few recent incidents in Montreal have raised some very real concerns and force us to face the possibility that in a liberal democracy, not everything should be allowed.

Recent events have raised a lot of debate and emotion in Montreal about intolerance and religious freedoms, writes Phil Gurski. Photograph courtesy of John Lian, Wikimedia Commons.

Living in a liberal democracy is generally a good thing. Not that there aren’t problems that arise from time to time, but those who abide by liberal (in the classic sense of the word) values tend to be open to a great deal of diversity, as long as the overall tenor of society is not undermined. In Canada at least, that means you can speak whatever language you want, practice whatever culture you want, and worship any creed you want. More or less.

So what happens when the freedoms of some begin to impinge on the freedoms of others? A few recent incidents in Montreal have raised some very real concerns and force us to face the possibility that in a liberal democracy, not everything should be allowed. This is, of course, a very tough concept for such societies to consider as it goes against basic principles.

The two incidents to which I am referring involve religion. Recently, a Muslim proposal to bring in “Islamic mortgages”—in itself not an objectionable issue—turned nasty when one of those petitioning for this financial arrangement noted that anyone seeking a house in a new, proposed “Muslim neighbourhood” would have to respect the “values” of the neighbours. “If you want to drink alcohol, you drink it in your house” said the developer proposing the neighbourhood, Nabil Warda. He added that women could choose whether or not to wear a headscarf, but they could not walk around in a halter-top and shorts. “There must be some modesty in the way you dress,” he added. “We don’t want women living there going half-naked down the streets. We don’t like that.”

In the Hasidic community, there is a heated debate with the city over the building of a new synagogue and allegations of unfair restrictions placed on the growing Jewish enclave. Mind you, it is important to remember that this same community claiming inequality also sought to ban bathing suits in local parks. In an even more egregious demand of religious fascism, several years ago, another Hasidic group asked a local YMCA to tint its windows so that yeshiva students would not have to look at women doing yoga. Not surprisingly, these events have raised a lot of debate and emotion in a province already rife with allegations of intolerance; whether or not there is a problem with acceptance in Quebec is another matter.

Canada is a pretty good place to live and we boast of our multicultural values and openness to people from all over the world. Canada is rightly held up as a model for liberty and tolerance in a time where both are in deep trouble. But, there has to be a reasonable limit on accommodating demands such as these. Just about everything must be allowed so far as it does not take away the rights of others who are different.

You might be asking, at this point, what any of this has to do with terrorism—the usual topic covered in my articles. Nothing really, but there is a hook. The Jews and Muslims of Montreal who are seeking to impose their cultural or religious views on outsiders are not terrorists by any stretch of the imagination, but they are certainly intolerant of difference—and, interestingly, they accuse those who oppose their plans of intolerance. We know that terrorism is an act born of intolerance. Terrorists like those who join IS will kill anyone who does not hew to their narrow interpretation of Islam and society.

I have said it before and I’ll repeat it here: I am not a believer in slippery slopes or gateway argumentation when it comes to terrorism. In fact, it is highly doubtful that those who propose intolerant cultural or religious practices in Montreal will resort to violence if they do not get their way.

At the same time, these requests must be rejected as undemocratic and illiberal; they do not belong in a country like Canada. We Canadians may be seen as nice, but we do have our limits. There are occasions on which those limits are reasonable, and where the state has a right—and a duty—to impose them. This is one of those occasions.

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