by Lori G. Beaman (ed.). Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press, 2013. 240pp. Hardcover $94.00. ISBN: 978-0-7748-2265-7. Paper $35.95. ISBN: 978-0-7748-2276-3.

Reviewed by Narendra Subramanian, Department of Political Science, McGill University. Email: Narendra.subramanian[at]


Responses to the demands of religious minorities to maintain certain practices they value have often been framed in recent years as matters of “reasonable accommodation” in Canada and various other Western societies. This volume critically explores the implications of approaching minority rights in terms of reasonable accommodation in law and public discourse, primarily in Canada where the majority of the contributors are based, but also in Britain, France and Australia. The essays argue that such an approach inaccurately presumes that the rules applied to most citizens are inclusive and based on equality; that when minorities demand space to maintain certain cultural practices, they demand exemption from such rules and thus wish to depart from principles of equality; that the ill-defined majority may set the terms of minority accommodation either because they embody superior values, they are taken to have had a longer ancestral presence in the society, or merely because they are numerically preponderant; and that the boundaries between the majority and minorities are fixed. Some of them suggest alternative ways to address minority rights.

Peter Beyer identifies the shifting boundaries between the majority and minorities, natives and newcomers, through Canadian history, and points out that the norm, implicit or explicit, with reference to which people assessed whether particular minority religious practices should be accommodated was neither consistently Christian nor consistently secular. He claims that questions of religious accommodation have arisen recently primarily with regard to morally conservative religious norms with which many are uncomfortable. While various prejudices have influenced the kinds of religious practices that people consider worthy of public presence, Beyer argues that one inevitably needs to address with reference to secular criteria what kinds of religious content might be compatible with building a pluralistic society.

Solange Lefebvre examines how Canadian courts have addressed issues of religious freedom in a context in which people feel freer to assemble individualized religious-spiritual repertoires attuned to their specific circumstances and intuitions, and constitutional discourse attaches considerable value to individual rights. She shows that in many recent cases, the courts balanced the consideration of religious freedom and of other fundamental rights, and framed religious freedom as a right related to a particular individual’s beliefs, including the right to depart from religious orthodoxies. Nevertheless, judges assessed the sincerity of litigants’ proclaimed religious beliefs partly with reference to [*195] the dominant precepts and dogmas of their religion. Lefebvre believes that they could rely far more on the litigants’ specific beliefs, but that references to dogma remain appropriate some actors conform to orthodoxy coexists while others construct individualized beliefs.

To address demands to accommodate particular beliefs and practices, Avigail Eisenberg argues, one needs to assess the identity claims associated with these demands. She highlights how the absence of such assessment vitiated the public debate about Islamic arbitration tribunals in Ontario. The debate focused on the abstract principles of women’s rights and multiculturalism, and did not consider why many Muslims value religious arbitration, how such tribunals address family disputes based on Islamic law, and whether they may in the process address women’s rights. In the process, the debate misrepresented Canadian multiculturalism as incompatible with liberal values, enabled Islamophobic representations of Islamic law, and led to legislation banning the private arbitration of family disputes, foreclosing the possibility of state regulation of such tribunals, perhaps to ensure that they take account of Charter rights. To prevent the marginalization of minority voices, Eisenberg urges that the relevance of contested minority beliefs and practices to religious identity be considered through equitable and open public discussion.

Natasha Bakht discusses public responses to the niqab (full-face veil), which many in the West consider clearly unworthy of accommodation. Opponents of the niqab make various contrary claims about women who wear it – that they are conscious opponents of integration and secularism who might proselytize and pose identification problems and security threats, or that they are victims of patriarchy whom the paternalist state should unveil and liberate. Both kinds of claims are deployed to restrict the public activities of niqab-wearers, and sometimes of hijab-wearers as well. Bakht indicates that these responses reflect much about those who presume to set societal norms, which they define in contrast with the ways of “stranger strangers” whom they deem beyond accommodation. She suggests that we critically analyze such responses to help refashion dominant self-images and inclinations.

Heather Shipley examines the judicial construction of sexual normativity. The courts refused to constrain promiscuous heterosexual activity as they did not believe it posed any harm to society, but the dissenting judicial minority took such behavior to be contrary to shared values. Even while overruling efforts to prevent the use of educational materials regarding same-sex parents in primary schools, the Supreme Court of Canada took account of objections to these materials on religious grounds. Shipley claims that in the process the judges accepted the equation of religious belief and normative sexual identity.

In the one essay in the collection that is not based on empirical materials, Ole Riis claims that minority elites argue for group rights to uphold traditional identities, while majority elites defend individual rights as a means to social integration. He believes that migrants have better chances to maintain connections to the cultures of their countries of origin in Western Europe than in the New World. Moreover, he [*196] argues that group rights presuppose formal inequality and that granting recent immigrant groups collective rights may reinforce their subordinate status and the discrimination they face from the cultural majority. The first two claims are not empirically robust, and the third would have been more interesting if Riis had explored it through empirical investigation. They are in any case not crucial to his conclusion that one should aim for a multicultural, religious and pluralistic society based on voluntary group affiliation and ongoing dialogue between religious and non-religious visions.

James Beckford compares the very different ways in which the religious needs of prisoners were accommodated in Britain and France. The contrast between French republican secularism deployed by a centralized state and Britain’s greater pluralism and decentralization is well known. Beckford points out that the French state nevertheless engages more with the sects present in the country before the twentieth century; and that the absence of a constitutional separation of religion and state in Britain and the state’s closer association with religious institutions make minority recognition easier there. As a result, British prisons accommodate the religion of inmates extensively and recently increased the support they offer for non-Christian religious practices, unlike the French prisons. The disengagement of the French state from providing religious counsel to the country’s large Muslim prison population (which is vastly disproportionate to the group’s share of the population) led these prisoners to rely largely on the advice of Islamic extremists. Beckford notes policy shifts in both countries over the past decade in response to security concerns. British officials have given social cohesion and the containment of Islamism greater importance than countering discrimination and enabling equality. Certain French leaders have adopted a new openness to public religion as a means to promote minority public engagement, and to counter both discrimination from the majority and Islamism. These shifts introduced a partial convergence in the British and French approaches.

Gary Bouma sketches the changes in Australian immigration and accommodation policies, away from racial exclusion and assimilation (initially to a British Protestant and later to a Christian ethos) to multicultural and anti-discrimination measures. The largely successful multicultural policies triggered a minor backlash against Muslims and people of color by evangelical ministries and certain conservative politicians, to which the government responded by building closer links with minority religious elites so that they may enable social cohesion.

Some of the essays, particularly the Conclusion penned by Lori Beaman, suggest alternatives to reasonable accommodation. They argue that one should acknowledge the prior hegemony of mainstream Christian norms, question the social construction of difference so that individuals may respect diversity without reifying difference, be open to accommodate certain practices that appear unwise when viewed from the perspective of dominant norms, and recognize and promote ongoing exchanges across cultural boundaries that could increase shared assumptions [*197] and recast the relationships between religious groups, sects and subcultures based on equality and mutual respect. Beaman calls such an approach one of deep equality, meant to apply both to legal regulation and the ethics of everyday interaction. These suggestions reinforce but also in some ways move beyond the recommendation of the Bouchard-Taylor Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences constituted by the Quebec government in 2007, that decisions regarding minority practices be viewed not as matters of reasonable accommodation, but as processes of “concerted adjustment” based primarily on the initiatives of citizens.

The volume is a valuable contribution to debates on multiculturalism and secularism in Canada as well as in a comparative context. Scholars interested in these themes are likely to find it a useful point of reference, and some of the essays in the volume could be assigned in appropriate graduate seminars and advanced undergraduate courses.

Copyright 2013 by the Author, Narendra Subramanian