The zero-sum game of reasonable accommodation

Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve been busy writing my article for ISNA’s Islamic Horizons magazine, looking at the Muslim community of Montreal. I have a few smaller focus pieces to finish up, but the main article is out of my hands now. It will be appearing in the November-December issue of the magazine, at which time I will also post the article up here.In the meantime, I thought I’d just share a couple of thoughts on one of the main themes that came up during interviews I had with various people: reasonable accommodation.

Here in Quebec, people have become unfortunately obsessed with the so-called debate of reasonable accommodation. It’s a term that originates in labor law, but has come to stand for the idea of integration and, essentially, how much accommodation the so-called host culture should make to immigrants (read “non-whites”).

In a city like Montreal, everyone is from somewhere other than here, or at least they’ve grown out of roots from other parts of the world. I can count on one hand the amount of friends I have who are descendants solely of the European colonization of North America. Maybe two or three at most. Everyone else has got pieces of something else from somewhere else, whether it’s European, Asian, African, whatever.

The debate was sparked or exacerbated by media sensationalism, in my view. A couple of infamous incidents really served as fuel to the fire:

This has all been amplified into a kind of dire, catastrophic, apocalyptic showdown of “us” versus “them”, which is patently ridiculous. It almost mirrors the debate in the US over “illegal immigrants.” You have this specter of some bogeyman who is somehow robbing whites of their culture, and now white people feel “victimized” or under attack.

In any case, the Montreal Gazette, our main English daily newspaper, has been running radio ads announcing a new public poll they’re conducting on the issue of reasonable accommodation. In the ad, we hear the recorded voice of a typical customer-service hotline. “Press 1 for this option, 2 for that option, etc.” In Quebec, it’s customary for the hotlines to ask the caller to press one number for service in English, and another for service in French.

In the ad, the telephone voice begins by asking the caller to press 1, 2, 3, or what have you, for service in Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, Urdu, and a host of other languages. Then the ad’s narrator cuts in to announce the Gazette’s series about reasonable accommodation and “what it means to you.” Finally, at the end of the commercial, the customer-service recording says, “For service in English or French, press 37.”

Essentially, what’s happening now is that the idea of accommodation (however vaguely that is defined or perceived) is now a zero-sum game. Either “we” accommodate, or “they” accommodate. If “we” accommodate too much, then we’ll be swarmed by the barbarians at the gates.

Give me a break.

When we talk about accommodation, what are we really talking about? The idea is that we make room for different cultures to participate actively in society, trying to be courteous to ensure that everyone in a democratic, pluralistic society has equal access. Period. It’s not that we’re divvying up pieces of a pie, giving “immigrants” a larger share of “our” pie. It’s about simply baking a bigger pie so that everyone can get a slice.

What I find so baffling is that the criticism leveled so often against Muslims is that they are discriminating toward women. Okay, so by having our female children participate in soccer tournaments and tae kwon do competitions, we’re discriminating?

It seems Muslim women who wear the hijab just can’t get a break. In the eyes of our great Western commentators, the hijab is an oppressive tool used by patriarchal societies to enslave women. But women in the West have the choice to wear the hijab or not. They wear it as an expression of their faith, and it’s a personal decision. They aren’t “oppressing” themselves. They are merely telling the whole world: look at me for me, not for my body; treat me like a human being who chooses to dress with a certain cultural definition of modesty.

The criticism that Muslims are oppressing women and denying them access to public involvement is turned on its head when the so-called accommodating host culture shuns women precisely because they are wearing a hijab. Explain what kind of “accommodation” is needed by a soccer tournament for allowing the wearing of a hijab. We hear ridiculous arguments like “the player won’t be able to hear the referee’s whistle” (because hijab fabric is soundproof, right?), or “the player could be dragged down and choked” (why aren’t the rules of sportsmanship being followed in the first place?). It’s the exact same argument that states a women wearing a short skirt is somehow “responsible” for being raped. It makes no sense.

There’s room enough for everyone in the public space. But pointless “debates” like this one on reasonable accommodation aren’t doing anyone any good, because it implies that someone has to lose. Let’s face the facts: without immigrants, most Western countries would simply disappear off the map due to declining birth rates. We need immigration, and we need pluralism. If I choose to order a club sandwich without bacon, is there really a need to call the press and claim that the social order is about to collapse because one brown dude didn’t add fried pig fat to his sandwich?

All my life, I’ve had no problems with friends or with society in general when it comes to the simple fact that I don’t eat pork. Sure, in the spirit of camaraderie, we poke fun at my non-consumption of swine. But when we order pizza, it’s no big deal to order a vegetarian pizza. “Oh my God, the darkies aren’t eating pepperoni! When you come to our country, you live by our rules, darkie!” I am living by your rules. I’m eating pizza—the quintessential North American food which, by the way, is “ethnic” food originally from Italy.

Honestly, I never even felt any racism in my life, other than the racism I feel through the media. The same thing has occurred with the issue of climate change. 99% of the scientific community is in agreement that we’re on a really dangerous course. 1% of the scientific community, consisting of quacks or corporate stooges, says that the issue needs to be debated. So the media, at least up until about six months to a year ago, gave equal measure to both sides.

It does the same thing with Muslims, giving the 1% of quacks and murderers the same air time as the 99% of humdrum Muslims. And now, they’re following the controversy once more, by airing the opinions of people who never met a person of a different culture, and suddenly turning their unfounded anxieties into the foundations of a “debate.”

The only accommodation being done is the accommodation on the part of the informed toward the uninformed. Enough already.