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Montreal Interfaith Forum: Bridging the Secular State and a Religiously Inclusive Society - Part 2

Montreal, Canada - A deeply divisive debate has been at the center of media attention since autumn 2013 in Quebec and particularly in Montreal. The profound differences between urban centers that are multi-religious and multicultural contrast with views found in culturally homogeneous rural segments of Quebec. Issues at the forefront on the ongoing debate were addressed at a March 20, 2014 UPF meeting in Montreal.

Presenters included, Dr. Daniel Picot, current secretary of “Religion pour la Paix” (Religions for Peace) in Quebec. Dr. Picot, a professor of history and psychology, provided the audience with a historical overview of what has led to the current crisis. Speaking in French to the largely bilingual audience he pointed out that ultimately “le lien c’est le bien” (the link is the good), because without relationships among the various communities, there cannot be hope for a better future.

Ms. Shaheen Ashraf of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women reminded us that the Qur’an teaches that “You are of one another” and deliberated over the need for freedom of religion as the basis for a healthy secular state. Ms. Ashraf reminded the audience of the need for all people to be reverent of spirituality and the ongoing need for dialogue and understanding among people of faith.

Rev. Darryl Gray, founder and senior pastor of the Imani Family and Full Gospel Church, explained that the attitude behind the proposed legislation was of greater concern than the actual implementation of the proposed charter. Legislation can be changed, but too often attitudes do not. A secular state should treat all citizens equally. Unfortunately, religious people have not always acted in a fair way. For example, laws that emphasized segregation were too often introduced by religious people. Rev. Gray reminded the participants that the founders of Canada found ways to live with one another through cooperation, compromise and good will. The current crisis is more likely the result of political opportunism than a desire to improve current relationships between members of different communities.

The meeting concluded with a lively question and answer session.

Remarks by Ms. Shaheen Ashraf:Is There a Conflict Between a Secular State and a Religiously Inclusive Society?  

I begin in the name of God, most Compassionate, most Merciful and quote to you from the Qur’an one of the many verses that establishes equality not only among men and women but also among humanity (3:195): “Never will I let go to waste the good deeds of any among you, whether male or female; you are, of one another.”

I want to ask you, do you, like me, feel that this Charter has created conflict and confusion? In my mind there should be no conflict between religion and state. A solid state is one that allows the freedom of religion. Religion and state are two different categories. They have their separate work. The state takes care of the physical needs of the people, whereas religion takes care of the souls of people.

We humans, (one of the many species that inhabit this Earth), are supposed to evolve. With time it seems to me that instead of moving forward and becoming a better species, we are digressing to the point of no return.

The other day, when I was in Pakistan, I was sitting alone and philosophizing (I should say brooding) over these happenings at our government level here in Quebec. I came to the conclusion that the people leading us at the helm are not a reverent lot.  

We are told that a reverent person is someone who essentially has chosen to be spiritual. Unfortunately there is no room in our society today, for any kind of spirituality. Science, politics and business have no room for it, so our society has no room for it.

Think about this carefully! We as a society are harming our fellow humans. Our state is taking away our God-given right to even choose how to dress, how to express our beliefs. Is this democracy? Or is this dictatorship disguised as democracy?  

God Almighty in the Qur’an (109:6) tells us to say to each other, "Unto you, your belief and unto me, mine." There are many instances recorded in the books from the time of the Prophet of how he encouraged people to follow their own books. He judged between them, taking laws from their own books (the Torah and the Gospels). Christian delegations when visiting the Prophet in the city of Madina stayed at the mosque and worshiped in their own way. Just look where we are today.

One incident comes to mind in which someone from one of the delegations desecrated the mosque by soiling it purposely and the companions of the Prophet were ready to beat him up. The Prophet intervened and told them that if they were not willing to clean it up, he would do it himself. He fetched some water and washed the desecration himself. This is one of the many examples of acceptance, inclusion and tolerance that tell us that state and religion can go hand in hand without creating hindrances for the other. 

We need to learn that we are all fellow humans and we must not destroy each other. We must say this and mean it. This reverence also due to the animal kingdom and the rights of our Mother Earth should be respected. We have yet to learn that the Earth has rights over us that need to be respected.

There are no signs of any acceptance or compassion in this Charter of Values (I call it lack of values). Without reverence, without recognizing that all things are sacred, this world becomes cold, mechanical and barren. Lack of reverence also creates violence. We have seen the violence perpetrated against so many young Muslim women. Violence used to happen before the announcement of the Charter too, but it has increased 300 percent. I did not hear of any violence against Sikh or Jewish men; it is the Muslim women who have suffered during all this confusion. I get calls and messages almost every day from some young woman stating that she was pushed off the Metro till the doors closed behind her, or pushed and called f***ing immigrant. One girl wrote, “I was pushed to the extent that I almost fell off the escalator.” These are only a few stories that I relate to you, I do not want to bore you with more.

I think this is truly not acceptable. We all need to get together and do something about it and do it soon, before something serious happens. Then my answer to your question whether there is a conflict between a secular State and a religiously inclusive society is that there should be no conflict. Both could exist side by side, without interference in the affairs of the other.

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