Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Quebec sugar shack update

The sugar shack story that we reported on earlier this week, out of Quebec, has "legs", and it sounds like those legs have kicked a hornets nest, unleashing lots of pent up frustrations.
Some new facts have come out, from the owner and other witnesses to the event.

It seems that a group of over 200 muslims had arranged for a visit to one of Quebec’s favorite cultural (and seasonal) experiences, the sugar shack. After the meal, about 50 muslims expressed the wish to pray. The owner let them pray in the dance hall, turning off the music and telling the smaller number of quebecois customers playing and partying in that room, to accept a free sleigh ride for the 20 minutes or so it was expected to take for the muslims to complete their prayers. One customer and his family were upset enough by the situation to have brought it to the attention of the media, which is how all of us have subsequently learned about it.

Since the initial report, the two owners of the sugar shack have been deluged with hundreds of angry calls from fellow quebecois furious at the idea of a sugar shack being turned into a prayer room, not to mention kicking out quebecois customers in order to accommodate the devout muslims and their prayers. This one incident comes on the heels of several other well-publicized "reasonable accommodations", as the politicians have called it, such as women-only pre-natal classes at the local community centers, women-only swimming sessions at the local pools, hajibs on the soccer field, and other changes to custom. Changes to classrooms and community centers are one thing, but changes to the protocol of sugar shacks are quite another, it seems: this is a line behind which the reasonable people of Quebec will not budge, if the response to this story is any indication.

At the Canoe news site, where the story was posted, there are now over 400 comments from readers, a significant majority of them announcing boycotts of the establishment. One french journalist/blogger, Richard Martineau, commented the subject and received a deluge of comments himself, over 150 at the time I write this post. (He asks a pretty good question: what are such orthodox muslims doing at a restaurant whose main courses consist of dishes with ham and pork grease, in the first place?)

The recent developments are that the owner has admitted he made a bad judgement call by granting permission to use the dance hall for praying, and that muslims are presented as divided on whether the accommodation, and the initial demand, was reasonable or not.

In one respect, the owner appears to be a victim of coincidence: the day the story on his sugar shack appeared, a second story was also filed on how some sugar shacks had stopped serving ham and pork for certain recipes because they couldn't accomodate two versions of meals (with and without) in their kitchens. Some angry responses seem to have conflated the two stories together: the sugar shack that stopped the music continues to offer both styles of food, a nuance that many angered Quebecois didn't seem to realize.

At this french news site, you can see two video reports on the story, in french; first a phone interview with a co-owner of the sugar shack, the second a more detailed report on the event appended with reactions from participants and the public in general.

I've made a rough translation of portions of these videos. The following is approximately the first half of the first video, featuring a tv anchorwoman talking with the co-owner of the sugar shack over the phone:

Reporter (on-screen): You received a lot of negative calls..?
Owner (on the line): It was incredible. We were treated as if we were rotting fish, or should I say rotten ham; it was incredible. I never imagined it [the reaction] would take on such proportions.
Reporter: Do you know just who was calling you, was it anonymous callers..?
Owner: No, not necessarily anonymous, some were calling to cancel reservations. Mind you, when we checked our books many of these turned out to be reservations that weren't even made…
…we talked about it afterwards, and we concluded we really missed the boat in giving over the dance floor for prayers. There weren’t many people in the dance hall, but there were people there nevertheless….
…one must understand that we didn’t have much time to react, either: at the end of their meal they wanted to stay in the dining hall to pray where they were eating, and we had other people waiting to eat in there, so what do we do, we go see if there’s anyone in the dance hall, there was not many people there, so we say, okay go there; we didn’t have the same chance as Premier Charest to launch a government inquiry and ask, what do we do now. We made a decision, we decided to do this; we made an error, I’ve made my apologies, but we did what we thought we should at that time.
Reporter: If this ever happens again, what will you do next time?
Owner: [hastily] Oh, no: there’s no question that under no circumstances would we allow praying in any of our rooms, certainly not in the dance hall that’s for sure. That’s over with. No prayers, this is not a place for praying.

From the second video, I've roughly translated the reactions from muslims interviewed by the reporter, starting at 0:55 in the video:
Reporter (off-screen): Even other muslims were shocked by what happened at the sugar shack. It’s provocation, says Rassan Jamali.
Rassan Jamali: When we give in to this type of demand, then they have won. Which they were looking for. After all, a muslim can wait to say his prayers, he can say them later, or he can just say them discretely.
Internet comment from a muslim viewer, read by the journalist: "They are really overstepping all limits and they are putting us all in the same bag. Quebec should just say NO. I did not flee the fundamentalists of Algeria only to find them here!!!"
Reporter (off-camera): Other muslims say it is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot.
Ali Pentaleb: "No one cried for the state, no one stepped on another’s toes, we asked for permission to do something, if the owner had said no, they would never have…" [cut off suddenly in the news report]
Zaki Debabi: They asked for the permission from the owner, they obtained that permission, I don’t see what exactly the problem is.
Seeing these videos in combination leaves me with one major question: how insistent were the guests that their requests for prayers be accommodated. The owner makes it sound as if he was under the gun (if you’ll pardon the expression) and had to find a solution immediately, but he doesn't say why he felt the urgency, and no reporter seems to ask him. Did his guests expect to be able to pray? Did they tell him that they had to pray, whether it suited the owner or not?

From a "give your opinion on the story" page here, out of over 400 comments one is from a poster named "rahhal lahbib", who at 2007-03-19 12:31:00 offers this information:

1- I am muslim
2- If you want to say your prayers the place must be clean, you are not obliged to do them on schedule if you are traveling. I say to this group [of muslims] that you make us, your fellow muslims, ashamed, live as those of this country live otherwise immigrate to saudi arabia and leave us to live in peace, you have messed up Europe now leave us alone in this clean corner of the world, we are muslims just like you, stop bringing shame to other muslims.
This story will continue, and not necessarily in pleasant directions. One wonders how eager other sugar shack proprietors will now be to accept reservations from the next muslim tour group that comes calling, where one wrong step can trigger a backlash of negative publicity on a scale similar to that being exhibited towards the Érablière au Sous-Bois. Reasonable individuals such as rahhal lahbib and Rassan Jamali might now unfairly fall under the same shadow of suspicion as unreasonable fundamentalists that may be trying to stir provocations in Quebec.

Many of the commentors that come to the defense of the two owners of the sugar shack ask, pragmatically and sardonically, what choice did they have: for all the owners knew, if they refused to honor their muslim guests request they might be accused of racism and sued, the victims of a backlash from the other side of the culture clash now underway in Quebec.

1 comment:

truepeers said...

Of all the things about Islam to get offended by, praying, it seems to me, is the least of them (though a perceived attack on Pork and/or sugar shacks would be, for many Quebecers, among the most of them). Of course, Quebecers have lost their faith, and no doubt have their share of insane secularists who are offended by any sign of faith; but still...

So I'm wondering how this is all being stirred up because of the Quebec election this Monday. It seems that getting people upset about the erosion of the sweet Quebecois life will probably help the Parti Quebecois the most, or maybe the ADQ; and I bet the media are mostly supporters of those two parties. So what's really going on here, if such media frenzies can have any rhyme or reason to them? I'm not suggesting a careful conspiracy but no doubt some are happy to collude with circumstances...

To me, none of this is nearly as offensive as being asked to interact at work, or school, or in business, with someone fully veiled or who has more than one wife, or who has actually read the Koran and Sunna in a language he understands and believes what it says about the infidels, for example. Quebecers need to get offended about the serious stuff or they won't be able to have a serious conversation about what is possible in the realm of "reasonable accomodation".