The alarming advance of anti-Islamic sentiment across Quebec has stunned observers in the rest of the country.
While the chattering class of pundits in the English-language media laments this turn of events, they often fail to notice its insidious creep in their own backyards. The illusion of a stark contrast between both societies results from the fact that Islamophobia developed in Quebec within the context of a set of political, cultural, and historical conditions that do not exist in precisely the same manner outside the province.
Some commentators have pointed to the fear of an unknown Other as a key contributor to racial prejudice. Certainly there is much truth to this. While residents of multiethnic Montreal work and socialize with people from diverse cultural backgrounds, the situation is far different in the regions, where the population tends to be overwhelmingly homogeneous. This situation, combined with the influence of a mass media increasingly monopolized by a right-wing conglomerate, undeniably fuels the trend.
Exploiting social anxiety
However, such explanations fail to account entirely for the pervasive visibility of Islamophobia in Quebec, the particular discourse invoked in its defence, and the amount of attention and debate that Bill 62 (and its antecedents legislating women not to wear the full face veil) has garnered, given that it deals with, according to almost all estimates, fewer than 100 women in a province of eight million people. Despite the fact that such a law enjoys similar support outside Quebec, no other provincial government thus far has felt compelled to act on this sentiment.
British cultural theorist Stuart Hall and his colleagues provide some insight into the constellation of factors feeding anti-Muslim sentiment in Quebec. They note that during any given crisis, its core ambiguities and contradictions are experienced as “an unnaturally accelerated pace of change, as an unhingeing of stable patterns and moral points of reference.” The tensions thereby aroused give rise to a rootless social anxiety that fixes on different phenomena.
In many respects, the people of Quebec have felt a sense of prolonged crisis over the past decade. Despite the recent upturn in economic fortunes and the gradual fading of the sovereignty debates from centre stage, many nonetheless perceive an enduring social and economic stagnation that stubbornly refuses to dissipate.
The economic recession of 2008 and the imposition of austerity measures by successive governments are merely some of the more acute sparks of this crisis. However, the sources of this state of affairs simultaneously draw from economics, politics, and identity.
Any analysis of Québécois society and identity must touch upon the legacy of the Quiet Revolution, whose aims — a robust democracy, gender equality, secularism, and control of the economy by the francophone majority for its own collective empowerment — inspired government policies up to the end of the 20th century.
Since then, however, neoliberal “common sense” has gradually displaced the old projet de société that was designed to achieve these objectives through extensive government intervention in the economy and in social affairs. Despite the abandonment of this collectivist project, the Québécois still cherish the values and ideals behind its formulation. The Quiet Revolution continues to carry great emotive and motivational power.
Yet the new policies have failed to secure its legacy, and have provoked a crisis that is lived out and experienced in several ways. The turn to neoliberalism and austerity has eroded social and economic stability. Deregulation, and the reliance on unpredictable market forces without any strengthening of the social safety net, leads people to experience life as increasingly chaotic and difficult. Furthermore, the hastened pace of change resulting from the release of naked capitalistic forces on society means that “all that is solid melts into air.” Old certainties have disintegrated, and the world now appears increasingly alien and unrecognizable.
The result is a crisis of identity.
Neoliberal policies also take economic and political power from the public, concentrating it in the hands of a distant, wealthy, unaccountable elite. The people perceive this on an instinctive level. Such sentiments give rise to a pervasive cynicism with politics and the feeling that the political class, almost all of which has clustered around some shade of liberalism, has abandoned them. None of the major parties appears to offer credible and achievable pathways out of the morass.
Together, the experience of upheaval and alienation fosters the palpable sense, though not often explicitly enunciated, that democracy is in retreat. Individuals no longer feel that they have a say in what happens to them or control over the forces buffeting their lives. This creates a dangerous atmosphere in which they can become vulnerable to populist politics. They seek to “take their country back” – but from whom?
In the absence of a comprehensive framework for expressing this sense of impotence and anxiety, societies often engage in what Hall labelled “displacement.” There develops a discrepancy between the threat and the reaction, between what people perceive and the causes they attribute to that perception.
The frequent invocation of secularism and gender equality in identity debates is therefore no surprise. While the cloak of progressive values renders racist policies more palatable, it also compellingly conjures a history unique to Quebec, harkening to the Quiet Revolution and its endangered principles. In addition, as Toula Drimonis recently noted on this site, there have long existed “deep-seated and not-always-unfounded fears of cultural and linguistic assimilation” in Quebec. Islamophobic sentiment adopts this established script by juxtaposing supposedly religious, regressive Muslim Others with “our” progressive local culture.
Light against darkness?
Popular understandings of the Quiet Revolution also feed this discourse. What was in fact a complex and lengthy transformation over decades often becomes, in the public memory, a struggle squarely between the domineering and regressive Church, and the will of the people in a rapidly evolving and progressive society. The fixation on secularism tends to evoke this simplified view of the Quiet Revolution as a battle of light against darkness. It thus implicitly positions the newcomers as harbingers of a once-vanquished religious authoritarianism that is incompatible with Québécois society.
The language with which Islamophobes describe Muslims is revealing. They are a creeping, insidious, monolithic threat that, like all conspiratorial forces, is simultaneously distant yet immediately traceable to the rot of society. This representation of Muslims — as an amorphous, lurking menace, alien to the Québécois way of life — captures many of the anxieties the public experiences: fear at the loss of the familiar, of domination, and of the authoritarian imposition of antithetical values by outsiders. Muslim immigrants thus become “an index of the disintegration of the social order,” an identifiable and visible source of cultural collapse in the homogenizing world of global capital.
This breed of politics engages popular frustrations and provides the public with a compelling outlet for expressing them. The issue of face coverings, and of religious symbols in general, provides a handy means of forging some semblance of consensus and unity in a fractured society. Such laws soothe the sense of abandonment shared by many, and allow the political class to pose as the defenders of Québécois values without taking any concrete measures to address many of the root causes of social anxiety. But for as long as these go unchecked, Islamophobia retains some of its most potent sources of energy.