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ARCHIVED - Building a Just Society:
A Retrospective of Canadian Rights and Freedoms

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Discuss

Irshad Manji

What word comes to mind?

What word comes to mind when you think about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? I've been asking a bunch of friends -- all of them solid Canadians. So solid that more often than not, the word they mention is "solidarity."

I'm going to say something that will make the solidarity crowd uncomfortable. It might even make them angry. Fine. After all, solidarity is about being unified, not uniform. It's about working for a common goal yet feeling utterly free to take different approaches toward that goal. Here goes.

Photograph of Lester B. Pearson addressing a committee at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco, 1945
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Lester B. Pearson addressing a committee at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco, 1945

When I reflect on the Charter, the word that pops to my mind is "individuality." I realize that for many Canadians, individuality might sound too much like the American ideal of individualism. It doesn't have to. Individualism -- "I'm out for myself" -- is not the same as individuality -- "I'm myself and my society grows from my uniqueness."

This respect for the individual's capacity to benefit the group rather than threaten it is what the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is meant to affirm. No, I'm not forgetting about the section that promotes multiculturalism and therefore the group. But that section exists under the umbrella of a bigger message about the individual. To quote the Charter's chief visionary, Pierre Trudeau: "National unity, if it is to mean anything in the deeply personal sense, must be founded on confidence in one's own individual identity; out of this can grow respect for that of others and a willingness to share ideas, attitudes and assumptions."

Cover of a book by Irshad Manji entitled RISKING UTOPIA: ON THE EDGE OF A NEW DEMOCRACY, 1997

Cover of a book by Irshad Manji entitled Risking Utopia: On the Edge of a New Democracy, 1997
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Cover of a book by A. Alan Borovoy entitled PRINCIPES DE NOS LIBERTÉS FONDAMENTALES : INTRODUCTION AUX LIBERTÉS CIVILES ET À LA DÉMOCRATIE, 1978

Cover of a book by A. Alan Borovoy entitled Principes de nos libertés fondamentales : introduction aux libertés civiles et à la démocratie, 1978
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Individuality as the cornerstone of a healthy community: With 25 years of experience in working towards that balance, you could say our Charter is ahead of its time -- and increasingly universal in its lessons.

That's because around the globe today, a contest is raging between those who insist you belong to one tribe and those who want to transcend the tribe. Let me offer an example that's close to my heart as a Muslim dissident. In Iraq, Britain, Spain, Australia and Canada, some clerics are seeking to impose sharia or Islamic law on Muslim women and children. And they're doing it by proclaiming that cultures have rights, as if the individuals within those cultures don't.

Calendar of Religious Holidays distributed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, 1982

Calendar of Religious Holidays distributed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, 1982
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Document recording federal Cabinet discussion of Canada's need to sign the United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women, August 29, 1956

Document recording federal Cabinet discussion of Canada's need to sign the United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women, August 29, 1956
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In Canada, at least, Muslim women have spoken up against this abuse of multiculturalism. But we've found that too many non-Muslims are afraid to join us. In their fear of offending a group, non-Muslims erase their own individuality -- and the voice that goes with it. The result is more than a lack of solidarity; it's also a lack of diversity, for diverse ideas die at the altar of skin tones. Welcome to a not-so-brave new world where individuals need as much help as they can get.

Do I exaggerate? Then consider a second -- deadlier -- example of culture becoming lord: honour killings. Last year in Pakistan alone, at least 600 women were murdered for allegedly violating their family's honour. I say "at least" because I'm referring only to the reported cases, never mind all the unreported ones. Six hundred. That's the same number of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Champions of solidarity have been very vocal about human rights abuses at Gitmo. Honour killings haven't generated nearly as much condemnation.

Cover of a book by Rhoda E. Howard-Hassman entitled COMPASSIONATE CANADIANS: CIVIC LEADERS DISCUSS HUMAN RIGHTS, 2003

Cover of a book by Rhoda E. Howard-Hassman entitled Compassionate Canadians: Civic Leaders Discuss Human Rights, 2003
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I suspect it's because of cultural relativism, the belief that we have no right to question what happens in the name of somebody else's culture. It's true that denouncing honour killings demands questioning an aspect of Arab culture -- namely, tribal honour. This is bound to ruffle group feathers. For individuals who are protected only by their consciences, defying the group takes guts. Once again, culture wins. Once again, I'm reminded of how urgent a document like the Charter has become.

Urgency is an alarmist word for some. "Can't we have it both ways?" they ask. "Can't we embrace the equality of individuals and the equality of cultures?"

Yes, we can, when we convince the gatekeepers of cultures to open the doors, include more voices and clear room for those voices to reinterpret traditions. But even that requires challenging traditions themselves. Because if all human beings are entitled to a certain set of dignities, then cultural practices that violate those dignities can't, by definition, be defended. Period.

All of which brings me to three lessons that Canada's Charter can teach the entire world. First, we don't cease to be individuals merely by belonging to identifiable groups.

Second, we must lose the false -- and dangerous -- assumption that just because human beings are born equal, cultures are too. Cultures aren't born. They're constructed.

Finally, the universality of human rights is premised on the dignity of the individual, not the sanctity of culture. When we sanctify that man-made construct called culture, we make it static. We drain it of the dynamism that individual creativity injects. We wind up with groupthink. Otherwise known as fundamentalism.

Over the next 25 years, may more Canadians develop the courage -- and just enough solidarity -- to celebrate the value of the individual, at home and beyond.
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Further Research

Irshad Manji is an award-winning journalist, human rights advocate and author of the international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change. She can be reached at www.muslim-refusenik.com.

Muslim Refusenik.
www.muslim-refusenik.com
(accessed October 24, 2006).