As Canadian Louise Arbour, the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner, was shamelessly sitting alongside Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, at a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran last week, Elections Canada announced that Muslim women would be allowed to wear identity-concealing face veils, including full burqas, when voting in Canadian elections. Covered Muslim women will merely have to show two pieces of identification to vote (though no one has explained how the official in charge of the ballot box that day will be able to match the face to the picture on the ID), and/or swear an oath and have another voter vouch for them.
Quite apart from the idea of democratic integrity and equality before the ballot box, is the important matter of the misuse of religious face coverings. Veils and burqas have been used in the past to commit fraud as well as criminal and terrorist acts.
Public reaction to Elections Canada’s decision has been negative and strong. Many are threatening to vote in ski or Hallowe’en masks, or with bags over their heads, and to claim religious belief and a need for "sensitivity" as justification. Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, has also condemned the decision. Speaking from Australia, where he was attending a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders, Harper stated, "I profoundly disagree with the decision. Parliament adopted a law this past spring that required the visual identification of voters. That was a law adopted, I think, virtually unanimously by Parliament and I think this decision goes in an entirely different direction."
Ironically, the head of the Canadian Islamic Congress also seemed to question the wisdom of allowing the unidentifiable to vote. Mohamed Elmasry – hardly known as a moderate (he said on Canadian television that all Israeli citizens, due to their compulsory military service, were fair target for Palestinian bombers, regardless of whether they were still in the army) – suggested that veiled Muslim-Canadians would be willing to show their faces to female elections workers in a separate room. While on the surface a reasonable compromise, it still requires special treatment for a religious group, at taxpayer expense. The idea of holding firm on democratic principle, the idea that we are all equal before the ballot-box, seems obscured by political correctness. And the question of what constitutes "reasonable accommodation" in Canada has, it would seem, reached new heights – or perhaps depths – of absurdity.