National Column: Vote on Muslim cemetery wasn’t truly secular

by Shree Paradkar

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 St-Apollinaire 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 Universite of Montreal.

“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 Quebec 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 Woods last 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?”

Shree Paradkar tackles issues of race and gender. You can follow her @shreeparadkar.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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