Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Don't be too smug about Egypt

Volatile mixing of religion and politics was common in Canada

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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood followers argue that the new constitution approved Dec. 15 is representative of a true democracy. Their opponents believe otherwise because hidden in the constitution are clauses which would make the Islamic Sharia code the final arbiter of law and morality.

By compelling judges to base their rulings on strict religious principles and permitting Muslim clerics to dictate morality, including how women should dress and act in public, Morsi's constitution ignores one of the most significant tenets of western democracy -- the separation of church and state. And, that can only lead to more repression against minority rights and a tyranny of the majority.

We in the West mostly are appalled by this, but we should not be too smug. Though Canada and the U.S. were both established with the separation of church and state as a guiding legal principle, this did not mean that Canadian and American law and morality were not governed by religious tenets.

Both countries were Christian nations and for much of the 19th and 20th centuries contemporary Christian beliefs shaped the law and dictated customs on everything from the length of women's skirts to what consenting adults could do in the privacy of their own homes.

In Canada, the federal Lord's Day Act of 1906 forbade almost every activity on a Sunday, except attending church.

In Manitoba, as elsewhere, you could not watch a play or sporting event on Sunday, nor take a train to the beach in the summer if you did not have a car.

In Toronto, until the early 1960s children were prohibited from using public toboggan slides and the police padlocked playground swings.

It was not until 1985 that the Supreme Court finally ruled that the Lord's Day restrictions on retail hours were an infringement of the Charter of Rights.

While Canadians have never lived under the rigid rules of current day Saudi Arabia -- regulated as it is by the mutaween, the religious police -- in the name of morality, the state censored theatre, films and literature and went so far as to supervise bathing attire. Religious beliefs also influenced Canadian laws governing abortion, unwed mothers, interracial marriage and homosexuality.

In Ontario, more puritanical than most provinces, the government passed the Female Refuges Act in 1897 specifically to target "wayward" and therefore immoral young women under the age of 35.

Judges routinely incarcerated women in reformatories for "idle and dissolute" behaviour. In 1939, Velma Demerson, a white 18-year-old, was charged under the act as being "incorrigible" because she was pregnant and living with Harry Yip, a Chinese waiter.

Her father had reported her to the police. She was given a one-year sentence, most of which she served in a decrepit reformatory. She lost custody of her child and suffered many indignities. The Ontario government finally apologized to her in 2002.

It has taken more than a century, but such religious-inspired legal rulings and attitudes have nearly vanished in Canada, though battles against abortion, same-sex marriage and even extending hours for Sunday shopping still rage.

In many parts of the Muslim world, the links between religion, politics and law remain paramount and thus the violent clash in Egypt between those who demand a country governed by religious rule and those who opt for a more western perspective.

Nevertheless, the solution to this problem might not be as insurmountable as it seems. Israel has figured out a way to build a secular, western-style culture, but within a much more religious environment than you would find in North America.

Israel literally shuts down on sundown on Friday nights, the start of the Jewish Sabbath, even if many Israelis consider themselves secular. Religious political parties have influence in the Knesset and the courts take into account religious practices and principles.

By no means is the system perfect. Ultra-orthodox Jews, known as Haredim, were angered this past summer when the government cancelled the military exemption for ultra-orthodox men.

There have also been incidents of Haredi men verbally attacking young women, and in one case spitting on an eight-year-old girl riding a bus, for what they deemed inappropriate dress.

With its accommodation between conservative and more liberal Muslims, Turkey is a better example for Egyptians to emulate. Anyone who has visited Istanbul will attest to its unique blend of Islam and western culture. The call to prayer can be heard five times a day, but it is also possible to see women in the streets dressed in short skirts as well as burkas.

During the past decade, under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party or AKP, the country has become somewhat more traditional.

Yet, Erdogan, portrays himself more as a conservative democrat (sort of a Turkish Republican-Tea Party type) than an Islamist.

Egypt is on a precipice. President Morsi and his advisers can either respect the will of the minority and compromise with the millions of Egyptians who do not want to live in a fundamentalist religious state, or sentence the country to decades of religious strife.

Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 J15

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