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It would be easiest and most gratifying to call residents of Saint-Apollinaire, Que., nasty, anti-Islamic bigots for saying non to having a Muslim cemetery in town.
It might, for a handful of the tiny fraction of villagers who voted in last Sunday’s referendum on the matter, be true.
But such name-calling and virtue signalling would not only miss the point, it would shamefully miss the opportunity to examine the deeper truths that this single-incident ugliness brings to the surface. Among the most crucial of those truths is one offered by a leader of the campaign to deny Muslims their own burial ground.
Cemeteries, local resident Sunny Létourneau said as she went door-to-door collecting signatures to force the public vote, are a reflection of society as a whole. Ms. Létourneau insisted neither she nor others opposed to the new cemetery were motivated by anti-Muslim animus.
They oppose separate Catholic cemeteries, too. They are against burial on the basis of any faith tradition, period. They want to stretch egalitarianism beyond the grave so that we are equally dead together. By extension, they deny the very existence of sacred earth. Whatever is hallowed by some must be hollowed of its particular holiness until it holds the same degree of emptiness for everyone.
Alarming as such thinking might seem, Ms. Létourneau’s explanation is more refreshingly candid than the freezer-burned disclaimer of Premier Philippe Couillard, who insisted it doesn’t reflect Quebec society as a whole. True, the anti-cemetery bloc won by a minuscule three-vote margin. The “victory” was based on a ludicrously low 36 ballots being cast in a hamlet of 6,400 citizens. It is also true Quebec’s political class, from local Mayor Bernard Ouellet to Mr. Couillard himself, was stung by the bumpkin embarrassment and have vowed to find a suitable workaround.
But the view articulated by Ms. Létourneau is hardly confined to one bucolic ’burb on Quebec City’s south shore. It is as much a fact of life in Montreal’s dense urban borough of Outremont. Just as voters used democracy to disallow a Muslim cemetery in pastoral Saint-Apollinaire, so Outremont’s urban trendies rallied to pass a zoning bylaw that outlawed building new places of worship; for example, synagogues and mosques.
As Montreal-based writer Gideon Strauss wrote, those who carried the day in Outremont used the same tactics, to further the same argument, as their Saint-Apollinaire compatriots. They used the machinery of municipal government to overturn the essence of religious freedom, all while insisting that they had nothing against any specific religion. They just want to keep all society safely insulated from any form of religious faith.
In that desire lies a crucial truth that affects all Canadians. It is the truth of our forgetting that religious freedom is about religion, yes, but it is first, last and always about freedom. As my colleague Andrew Bennett, Canada’s first and last ambassador for religious freedom, puts it so eloquently: the freedoms of religion and conscience are and must be the first freedoms to which all others are bound.
Why? Because if you are not free to believe, and that necessarily contains the freedom to share your personal and communal sense of the sacred in a respectful way, then you are not free at all. At best, you are licensed to act. You are granted permission to behave. You are allowed, whether by the state or by the limits at which your fellow citizens will inflict blunt-force democratic trauma, to be what others say you can be. You will be buried under the weight of Ms. Létourneau’s ideal of cemetery egalitarianism.
Name-calling in response to single incidents won’t resolve that. Only digging deep into the truth underlying the ugliness will bring us face to face with what assaults on religious freedom mean for our whole society. Tiny Saint-Apollinaire has given us yet another opportunity to act. It would be a shame to miss it.
This piece initially ran in the Globe and Mail's Opinion Section on Sunday, July 23, 2017. To read the original piece, visit here.
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