When Secularism Becomes Discrimination: Quebec Prohibits People With Face Coverings From Receiving Public Services

Quebec

The National Assembly of the Canadian province of Quebec passed a law Wednesday that prohibits people who cover their face from receiving public services or being employed by the government of the province. As the New York Times reports, many observers characterize this move as an exclusively anti-Muslim ordinance.

Islamophobia as Public Policy

What is the motivation for this kind of legislation? The Times quotes Quebec’s Minister of Justice, the bill’s sponsor, as saying the bill is intended to “foster social cohesion.” However, some Muslim activists in Canada are adamant that the legislation is completely unwarranted and merely intended to target Muslims:

“This is an unnecessary law with a made-up solution to an invented problem,” said Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

“We don’t have hordes of women in niqabs trying to access or work in public services,” Mr. Gardee said, referring to a type of head scarf that covers much of the face. “Rather than helping to facilitate inclusion, as its proponents claim, it excludes citizens in the public sphere and reinforces the marginalization and stigmatization of Canadian Muslims.”

More to the point, people wearing face coverings don’t appear to be committing crimes or causing social unrest. So why prevent them from accessing public services such as health care and transportation?

Marginalization in the Guise of Secularism

The cultural context of this legislation is a province suffering an identity crisis. Quebec is trying to preserve its Frenchness in the midst of English-speaking Canada. As in much of the rest of Canada, the population of Muslims doubled in Quebec between 1991 and 2001, and there’s widespread resentment about the influx of immigrants from the Middle East. Before the 2014 elections in Quebec, both parties campaigned on platforms that included either implicit or overt anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Such tough talk has real consequences. In Quebec City in January, a gunman opened fire in a mosque and killed several people.

This legislation, then, appears to be geared more toward assuaging the fears of French Canadians about the Muslim population than fostering social cohesion. In essence, stigmatizing face covering is simply oppressing Muslims under the false pretext of reinforcing secularism.

Should the law be declared unconstitutional? Are there ways to foster social cohesion that don’t disproportionately disadvantage one cultural group?

 

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