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Enriched By Difference

The following is the testimony that Cardus Senior Fellow Andrew Bennett will deliver this afternoon before the Standing Committee of the House of Commons on Canadian Heritage as it studies Motion-103 on combating Islamophobia.

5 minute read
Topics: Religious Freedom
Enriched By Difference October 16, 2017  |  By Andrew Bennett
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Thank you Madame Chair for the opportunity to appear before this committee to offer my thoughts on the issue before the committee: systemic racism and religious discrimination.

My views are informed by my work as Senior Fellow at Cardus, Canada’s faith-based think-tank, where I focus on issues around religious freedom and public faith. They are also informed by the extensive work I did with different faith communities as Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom from 2013-2016. Finally, they are a reflection of my Catholic faith.

Let me offer six preliminary thoughts on this topic as points of departure for my comments on the need for promoting genuine pluralism in Canada that is respectful of difference:

  1. The fact that Canada is a diverse country is self-evident, it is diverse ethnically, socio-economically, religiously, ideologically and so on.
  2. As a community of human beings struggling to live a common life we often get it wrong and erect barriers between ourselves that limit genuine engagement with one another.
  3. There is racism and religious discrimination in Canada. There always has been and there always will be. In our country today, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others face discrimination variously because of who they are; what they believe; what they wear; and what they value – all of which can be at odds with what secular elites in this country believe to be true.
  4.  On the question of Islamophobia, this is a vague term. Let’s be clear on what needs to be addressed: anti-Muslim hatred. This is a hatred that is bred from three evils: ignorance, indifference, and fear. All must be addressed at the level of our own communities. These self-same evils manifest themselves in hatred of Jews, hatred of Catholics, hatred of LGBTQ persons, hatred of people who oppose same-sex marriage, hatred of First Nations people, hatred of pro-lifers, and the list goes on. We need to combat hatred and discrimination in our communities and discover anew the dignity we each bear by learning to talk to one another again, to learn to respect and champion difference. Government can help to better facilitate this by encouraging greater public expressions of religious faith and different beliefs so that we can hear one another.
  5. With regards to the subject at hand, the Government of Canada’s role is to uphold the Constitution and to guarantee the freedoms that we bear as citizens. These freedoms are not the gift of government. They are borne by us as citizens by virtue of our humanity. In upholding freedoms such as freedom of religion, freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, and freedom of association, the government and the courts should have a very broad understanding of these freedoms and allow them to be largely free of restrictions except where such limits can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. This is a society that must be founded upon respect for difference, even when beliefs are so different that they are seen to run counter to the prevailing narrative of the day. The government should be careful to not be too prescriptive of freedoms either within government institutions or in the broader society thereby imposing undue limits on freedom of expression, freedom of religion, or freedom of association.
  6. Finally, to respect and to champion difference is to promote a genuine pluralism in which disagreement, even deep disagreement, is allowed. In our disagreements with one another we must always exhibit great charity, recognizing the inherent dignity we all bear as human beings.

Let me speak further about this genuine pluralism.

A common civic life without debate and encounter between us is no civic life at all.

Too often in our country these days we either shy away from engaging our fellow citizens or we engage them in a confrontational way, often via the perceived anonymity of, what I would say, is the profoundly disconnected world of social media. This is emblematic of an increasingly uncommon life and it is not sustainable.

As Aristotle asserted in his Nicomachean Ethics, the pursuit of the common good is founded upon ensuring human flourishing. This understanding of what is at the core of our social, economic, and political lives has been affirmed by many since Aristotle including by St. Thomas Aquinas from my own Catholic tradition. I would assert that the common good of human flourishing must be at the very heart of our understanding of what pluralism is.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the advancement of human flourishing and the associated commitment to pluralism must be deeply rooted in the championing of human dignity above all else in our common life. I say above all else because this dignity comes from God.

In championing human dignity, we must not only recognize but also respect that we believe different things, and that we hold different views on what is most important in human life. Often these different views and beliefs are profoundly different and can cause us to feel ill at ease. They might at times even raise our ire. So long as all that we say and do is said and done charitably, in a manner that is respectful of the other and their inherent human dignity, then we can agree to disagree.

Even in that disagreement we can encounter one another.

As a Catholic Christian, my understanding of the dignity of the human person is grounded in my belief that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. I believe that this reality was made present among us when God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, He who is fully human and fully divine, without commixture or confusion in His two natures and two wills, one in the Holy Trinity, one God in three persons. He is the Saviour and Redeemer of the World.

Now, many of you here reject this view and affirm a belief radically different to my own. Likewise, I would reject what many of you believe. Yet, here we are, side-by-side, living in this place we call Canada, our country. Our common life is enriched by our difference as well as by our shared goals for this country and, please God, for each other.

To read Father Raymond J. de Souza's testimony on Motion-103 as previously published in Convivium, click here

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