Imam Omar Koné is a Muslim congregation leader at the Masjid al-Iman in Montreal, and serves as a regional director of the worldwide Haqqani Foundation, which follows the Naqshbandi Sufi order. After graduating in microelectronics, he received his MBA with a specialization in technology, and has worked as an engineer for ten years. Originally from Mali, he has been very active in inter-faith dialogue throughout Montreal and regionally for a number of years. Imam Koné’s involvement with the issue of reasonable accommodation in Quebec began with his participation in panels organized by the School Board as a specialist on reasonable accommodation in religious matters. He later participated as a community leader in the Bouchard-Taylor hearings.
Alternatives International: Let’s start with the basic terminology of the debate. How appropriate do you find the words “reasonable” or “accommodation”?
Omar Koné: It is a fair term to describe that reality. When you have to get out of the common way of doing things it is called an “accommodation.” If we want to analyze if it infringes on equality, then the term appears to carry a certain bias because it already sets the way the majority is doing things as the model. I prefer the word “reasonable” more because all of our actions have to be balanced, fair, and not excessive. It shouldn’t cause an inconvenience to one side or another. For example, if a prison guard wants to ask for a 2 hour break to say his prayers, that might not be reasonably possible, but he may reasonably take a 15 minute break, during which somebody could replace him.
AI: What were some of the questions that public sector professionals asked you with regard to the Muslim community during your participation in reasonable accommodation panels organized by the School Board?
OK: An issue that always came up was segregation between sexes. For example, teachers faced problems in parent-teacher meetings- having to address the father and not the mother. A lot of male health care professionals had to face the fact that they couldn’t approach certain women if they were wearing a hijab. They were generally confused about accommodations that had to be made for religious practices. They didn’t understand what the religious obligations were – at what age did they start, or why some people did them, while others didn’t.
AI: Were these the same issues raised during the Bouchard-Taylor Commission?
OK: While previously the question was how to give accommodations to integrate immigrants, during the Bouchard-Taylor Commission it shifted to the necessity of accommodation. Accommodation was seen as something potentially threatening to the identity of society, so the very concept was opened up for debate.
AI: Do you feel that the focus of the debate should have instead challenged the implicit hierarchy of “us” versus “them”, and the necessity of accommodation arising from that distinction?
OK: I don’t know if our society is ready for it. That’s because Quebec has a history defined by threats to its own identity and a perpetual struggle with the huge majority, so I don’t think they would have been ready to take that step further.
AI: During that debate, what were the issues raised specifically with regard to the Muslim community?
OK: An issue that was brought up was why we have to accommodate people on the basis of religion. The view that accommodation based on religion has no rational basis is very common. The value system of Muslims dictates aspects of their way of life, and people were asking why they would have to accommodate for food, and place and time of prayer. Why would they allow people to opt-out of gym classes because they were fasting, or because they could not dress a certain way?
AI: In a diverse community like the Muslim community with its different practices, what is considered part of the religion and what is not? Who decides that?
OK: There is no central council of jurisprudence in Islam. There is also no standard school of thought or a standard level of practice. There is a broad range of practice that come out of one religion, based on which we are all asking for reasonable accommodation. It is not an easily solvable problem, because even with a council of jurisprudence – as we see in some countries where their judgement is taken as ruling – a person can say that they don’t accept that council, and we would still have to accommodate that person. People don’t often understand that the principle of reasonable accommodation is applicable at the individual level, not at the group level.
AI: Were the issues that dominated the debate represented the main demands of the Muslim minority or are they fringe issues, in comparison with other barriers that prevent their integration?
OK: Muslims are asking for accommodations that would allow them to be able to live their daily lives in harmony with their faith system. These accommodations that people are asking for on a day-to-day basis are not a barrier to their integration. But integration starts, first of all, by allowing immigrants to participate fully in society by letting them work. But most people cannot work for reasons independent of their religion and their accommodation demands, because they have a different mentality about how to build up a career and promote themselves, but also because of the lack of recognition of foreign educational and work experience, or diplomas. The debate on the reasonable accommodation did not look at these barriers.
AI: Do you think the issue of institutional barriers is an important part of integration and accommodation?
OK: It is a huge part of integration but it doesn’t have too much to do with accommodation. A reasonable accommodation is something you give to someone because of for example a disability, their faith, or sexual orientation. The structural barriers to integration do not fall under accommodation. They have to do with the opening up and the breaking down of, for example, different interest groups, like Collège des médecins and collège des ingénieurs. Such institutions keep new comers out of the system with so-called quality criteria, when people who come here are often very highly qualified.
AI: Do you think these barriers should have been part of the debate?
OK: The integration of foreigners should absolutely be part of the public debate. But, I want to underline that the public debate and the work of the commission are two different things. The commission had a mandate to look at reasonable accommodation. But since the hearings were open public consultations, it became a debate on the integration of immigrants. Unfortunately, instead of being a constructive debate about the place of immigrants and their problems, it became a debate about the problem with immigrants and the spaces they were perceived to be overtaking.
AI: The commission has on occasion been criticized for creating a forum that legitimized the expression of xenophobia and racism. What are your views on this?
OK: The hearings did open the door for a lot of xenophobic expressions. But most of the time, more good things were said than bad. The media did not cover it. Unfortunately, bad news sells better. They also acted very poorly in representing immigrants’ demands. Whenever they called a Muslim woman for an interview, they refused women who did not have their hair covered to go on TV, enforcing stereotypes. The media also played a role in letting people express their anger at immigrants on TV, radio, and newspapers. People would hear about one, or two, or three crazy accommodations that were all over the media, and get the impression that the entire face of Quebec was changing. They did not filter the information well and lost perspective about many things: that among the thousands of demands for reasonable accommodation, religious ones made up one or two percent; out of which a low 30 percent were coming from Muslims; and the majority of accommodations were asked by native Québécois.
AI: Do you think the commission will generate positive outcomes for immigrants?
OK: It is hard to say, but the commission, by meeting Muslim communities, discovered many things that most people are not aware of which will come out with the report. For example, when the commission came to Montreal, one of Mr. Taylor’s remarks was how they were astonished by the quality, eloquence, and education level of the people that were representing the Muslim communities and how they all brought up the same issues like the lack of recognition of foreign diplomas.
The interview was conducted by Waleed Ziad and Ceyda Turan for Alternatives International. Waleed Ziad is an economic consultant in Montreal and Ceyda Turan is the editor of Alternatives International Journal.