In Quebec of late, the terms “secularism” and “religious neutrality” have become euphemisms for anti-immigrant and more precisely anti-Muslim sentiment. Sadly, there is not a single party in the National Assembly that is above employing these code words to appeal to what they must perceive as a growing xenophobic vote.
This bipartisan pandering to Islamophobic sentiments was on full display last week as Quebec’s governing Liberals announced plans for Bill 62 on religious neutrality. It was presented, not coincidentally, alongside Bill 59, which targets hate speech and radicalization.
By presenting these two bills together, the Liberals are sending the message that Muslims are to be feared and the government is taking action. This dog whistle to an Islamophobic audience takes a key political issue away from the rival Parti Québécois, but at the clear expense of a vulnerable minority.
More surveillance will lead to more radicalization
Bill 59, intended to stamp out radicalization among Muslim youth, includes an odd patchwork of measures on issues as divergent as hate speech and forced marriages. While leaving the definition of “radicalization” dangerously vague, the bill offers an array of new powers for the courts, police, teachers, social workers and government ministers to intervene when there is suspicion of radicalization. Though the full implications of these measures remain unclear, the bill does seem to be setting the stage for a new kind of Islamophobic McCarthyism in Quebec.
While this province has not been immune to the global problem of Islamic extremism, it is hard to imagine a successful strategy to counter it that does not involve the participation of the Muslim community itself. Leaders in the Muslim community have stated time and again that they want to be seen as partners in the fight against extremism. Instead, Muslim leaders were not even consulted before this legislation was tabled.
Had the government done more consultation, it might have considered the possibility that increased surveillance and harassment of the Muslim community could further alienate its members and increase the probability that some might gravitate towards extremist movements — the precise outcome this surveillance is ostensibly designed to avoid.
How will excluding veiled women help them integrate?
By seeking to address a problem that does not exist, the religious neutrality bill serves to further alienate the Muslim community from Quebec society. If the goal is to see devout immigrants integrate into society, why are we denying them access to employment and government services?
The bill bans the wearing of face coverings for Quebecers providing or receiving public services. Such a bill might be understandable if Quebec’s public sector were teeming with masked women, but there is not a single government worker demanding their right to wear a face covering at work. During the 2013 Charter of Values debate, the closest thing the media could find were two women in Verdun who worked in a private daycare. But these women chose not to wear their niqabs at work. Similarly, the tiny number of women in Quebec who choose to wear a full face covering have never refused to remove their niqab for reasons of security or identification.
But none of this matters. The point of this bill is to validate public perceptions that Muslims are scary extremists attempting to impose their values on innocent Quebecers.
The reaction of the PQ and the Coalition Avenir Québec was unsurprising. Both parties, having embraced the politics of xenophobia long ago, argued that the bill failed to go far enough.
More surprising was the fact that Québec Solidaire joined them on the xenophobia bandwagon. In responding to the proposed bill on religious neutrality, MNA Amir Khadir told CBC radio that QS would go much further than the Liberals by banning the wearing of religious symbols by state employees holding positions of authority such as judges, prison guards, police and state prosecutors. This position had its origins in the recommendations of the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor commission on “reasonable accommodation” and is reflected in the Secular Charter introduced by QS in 2013.
Québec Solidaire fumbles on minority rights
As a longtime supporter of QS, I find this position profoundly disappointing. Because QS is a party claiming to be both progressive and inclusive, I feel it is important to explain why this policy contradicts those values.
I teach in one of Quebec's most ethnically diverse high schools. When the PQ announced its intention to implement its Charter of Quebec Values, banning the wearing of religious symbols by all employees of the state, it galvanized our school community into action. We began weekly protests outside of our school and produced a video entitled A Lesson in Values for Madame Marois, which garnered a great deal of attention in the week prior to the election.
We did all of this as much out of concern for our colleagues who could lose their jobs as for our students who faced being excluded from public sector jobs because of their religious identity. After all, our job as teachers is to believe in the future of all our students. How could we stand idly by while the government acts to put serious limitations on the future of many of our students simply because they happen to come from religious families?
I wish Amir Khadir and QS co-spokesperson Françoise David could spend some time in my class. I wish they could meet the brilliant, creative and compassionate young students who happen to wear religious symbols. Would they be willing to look the hijab-wearing young ladies in the eye and tell them that because of the piece of cloth around their head they should not dream of someday becoming a judge? Would they be willing to look the young men wearing kippahs in the eye and tell them that they should forget about a career in policing?
All religions are not equal under these laws
The QS prohibition on religious symbols is problematic for many of the very same reasons the PQ prohibition on religious symbols was. For one, it has nothing to do with religious neutrality. A neutral state would treat all religious groups the same.
These prohibitions impose serious restrictions on those religious groups for whom the expression of religious identity through certain kinds of dress is important (Islam, Judaism and Sikhism), while leaving those religious groups for whom outward expression is less important (Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism) free to participate fully in society. For example, according to the QS policy, a Sikh man in a turban, whose faith is centered around notions of social justice, would be prohibited from holding a position of authority, whereas an evangelical Christian, whose faith is centered around a series of medieval values and who wears no outward sign of his faith, is free to occupy any job. This is the opposite of neutrality.
To argue that individuals in positions of authority wearing religious symbols somehow threaten the neutrality of the state is patently absurd. Police in Toronto have been wearing turbans since at least the 1980s. Try suggesting to a Torontonian that this means the Toronto Police Department is somehow unduly influenced by the Sikh religion and they would probably laugh in your face. A far more likely response would be that they see a cop in a turban as a symbol of a truly inclusive society, one that allows members of religious minorities to participate fully in the society in which they live.
The reality is that there is no threat to the secular identity of the Quebec state. While vestiges of the Catholic Church’s influence still linger (the crucifix in the National Assembly, for example) it is ridiculous to suggest that the Church still has any real influence over government or state institutions. Even more absurd is the suggestion that Quebec is somehow being “Islamicized” by one of the most marginalized and discriminated against minority groups in the province.
The real problem here is that every political party in the National Assembly, whether on the left or right, seems powerless to resist the temptation of pandering to xenophobic sentiments — which have no place in an open and democratic society.