Secularism and Islamophobia in Quebec

Secularism and Islamophobia in Quebec June 11, 2019

Will nationalism and xenophobia win the day in Quebec?

The clock is ticking on two bills currently being reviewed by the legislature in Quebec, an immigration bill and a measure to prohibit public employees from wearing religious symbols or clothing. If the proposals aren’t voted on by Friday, they’ll be tabled until after the legislature’s summer recess.

The Values Test

Bill 9 is a boilerplate immigration reform measure that the center-right government of the province says is necessary to keep immigration in line with the resources of society and the needs of its businesses. The opposition, however, sees the legislation as creating more problems than it appears to solve, particularly in a province currently suffering a labor shortage.

The controversy over this bill centers on a so-called values test that immigrants would have to pass to acquire citizenship. The bill contains no specifics about the nature of the questions on the test, and this vagueness has led to delays in the measure’s progress through the legislature.

Secular Dress Code

Bill 21 is even more controversial, a measure to prohibit civil servants in Quebec from wearing religious attire or displaying religious symbols. There have been lengthy debates over the extent of this measure, and whether the “social cohesion” its proponents say it’s designed to foster comes at the price of civil liberties.

Quebec’s Muslim and Jewish minorities see this bill as institutionalizing discrimination against them, and representatives of these minorities say that the hearings on Bill 21 deliberately limited their input.

New Millennium, Same Bigotry

These measures have been characterized by their proponents as being in the tradition of laïcité, or institutional secularism in Quebec. Once considered an observant Catholic nation, Quebec underwent a period of secularization in the 60s.

Today’s calls for secularism, however, come at a time when the demographic nature of the province is changing. The percentage of Muslims in Quebec at the time of the 2011 census had increased to five times its level during the 90s. The conservative party gained power in the most recent provincial elections by promising to balance immigration with integration. Hate crimes against Muslims more than doubled between 2012 and 2015.

It’s not as if there have been problems associated with the province’s burgeoning Muslim population, such as social unrest or Islamist terror cells. There have been no complaints lodged with the government concerning people who wear burqas or other attire associated with religion. In fact, the most heinous mass violence in recent memory in Quebec was 2017’s shooting at a Quebec City mosque that left several Muslims dead. Nevertheless, nationalists are pushing Bill 21 as if it’s necessary for the future of society in Quebec.

In a secular, democratic society, there can be legitimate gray area where religious freedom needs to be balanced against civil liberties. Freedom of religion isn’t some absolute right that justifies any practice or behavior. That said, the legislation at hand is targeting people (and women in particular) for the clothes they wear. I can’t be the only person who thinks that’s extreme.

A Solution To a Problem That Doesn’t Exist

Originally, secularism in Quebec was intended to limit the power of the tyrannical Catholic Church and protect the rights of minorities. Today’s measures undertaken in the name of secularism are meant to further oppress those minorities. Does anyone else notice the difference here?

Secularism shouldn’t be a weapon to use against minorities. This kind of legislation is meant to pander to the xenophobia and paranoia of a white majority who fear losing influence to immigrants, whom the majority views as the enemy within. These laws institutionalize bigotry by making it clear that people who wear headscarves or turbans shouldn’t be in positions of power in Quebec, or even teaching in public schools. These measures don’t make society safer or more equitable, they merely use the trappings of secularism to marginalize and harass the Other.

What do you think? Should public employees be allowed to wear “religious” clothing? Is discrimination acceptable if it’s done under the pretense of secularism?

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  • Some in Quebec want to follow the example of France, where secularism is almost a pseudo religion. They also ignore that for many people, even in relatively non-religious Quebec, the assumption will be that white people are Christians unless shown otherwise. Then there’s the willingness to give Christian symbols a pass, like the crucifix in the National Assembly. After all it’s “historical,” despite only dating to the Duplessis era.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    Agreed on opposing laicite. And, per Tim, “interesting” that Quebec goes the “historic” angle; maybe like Nino Scalia, “civic religion” will be the next camouflage.

  • I just see a big difference between the separation of church and state when it comes to limiting the power and authority of the Catholic Church on one hand, and the separation of church and state when it comes to a city bus driver wearing a turban on the other. It comes as no surprise that village atheists don’t have enough empathy to acknowledge secularization’s effects on minorities in the West.

  • Antoon Pardon

    I don’t see a problem with limiting free expression of public emplyees while in service. The public employee is there to represent the goverment/state, not a particular religion/organization/political party.

    Should a public employee be a member of an organization that advocates strongly againt homosexuality, should we allow such a person to be wearing a logo/symbol of that organization? Should we allow public employees to wear a T-shirt with a (political) advertisement/logo/symbol? As far as my experience goes, most people answer no to these questions. So treating religious logos/symbols the same way, is not discrimination, it is treating everybody the same.

  • Antoon Pardon

    You can’t separate those two. Every measure that allows some kind of exception to the minorities, will allow that same exception to the majority. Limiting the power and authority of the Catholic Church here in Belgium came partly because public employees were not allowed to wear crosses while on the job. That was a well accepted law. Why is it suddenly a bad law when muslims are asked to abide by it?

  • I’m not sure cultural attire necessarily advertises religion, or constitutes official endorsement of religion, in the way that a T-shirt with a political slogan explicitly endorses a position on an issue. There’s a lot of gray area, obviously, but I look at it like a civil servant wearing a baseball cap or a wedding ring; it’s not like the government is necessarily advertising the sports team or endorsing the institution of marriage.

  • So public employees in Belgium aren’t allowed to wear crosses, but you have a Catholic monarchy and a government that pays salaries to Catholic priests.

    Way to keep that Catholic Church in line, bro.

  • Antoon Pardon

    What do you mean with “Catholic monarchy”? We, to my regret, have a monarchy. And those monarchs happen to be catholics at the moment. However, they never show any catholic symbolism while in public and they can convert to any other religion they want. There are no religious requirements of the monarchs in Belgium.

    And yes we pay the salaries of Catholic priests, just as we pay the salaries for the representants of Judaism, Protestantism, Humanism, etc. The law also stipulates that those representants payed by the government are forbidden to engage in politics.

    I also don’t understand your point. Lets assume that we had a real catholic monarchy and we only paid catholic priest. What would you prefer? That the catholic church was also allowed to encourage its members to carry catholic symbols as public servants, teachers, etc or that at least in those area’s we had some limits on the reach of the RCC.

  • Antoon Pardon

    My take is that as a representative of the government you should be careful to not even endorse a position implicitly. So wearing something that associates you with one specific (sport) team is in my view out of the question.

    And the problem is not with cultural attire, the problem is with religious prescribed attire. We have the same kind of problems with muslim women here in the care sector. The prescription is that for medical and paramedical employees the arms should be nude below the elbow in hospitals and hospices. However some muslim women find that they are discriminated against by this rule because in their culture/religion a naked wrist is considered indecent and not allowed.

    If it would be about cultural attire, people would simply say that those are the (hygienic) rules for a job in the care sector and if your culture means so much for you that you can’t follow those rules, you will have to find a job somewhere else. But now that it is about a religious prescription people are seriously considering whether this is discrimination or not.

    IMO religion is often used for trying to get privileges. If there is some conflict between secular rules and religious prescriptions, the religious often try to frame that as discrimination. While if other people have a conflict between their conscience and secular rules, they are supposed to live with it.

  • If there is some conflict between secular rules and religious prescriptions, the religious often try to frame that as discrimination.

    Well, if a law inordinately inconveniences one group of citizens, then that could be considered discrimination. I can see objecting to religious exemptions for behavior that’s harmful, but I don’t really see the damage to the social fabric wearing a headscarf does. And accusing Muslim women of enjoying “privileges” is a stretch.

    In 21st century North America, these sorts of measures are ways to enforce assimilation and conformity. The hijab in the West has long been seen as a signal that the wearer has deliberately set herself apart from Western culture, and that’s what offends the white majority here. We look with contempt and condescension on people who don’t dress and eat and speak like us.

    The changing demographics of Western societies is a real cause for concern, and it dismays me to see freethinkers and skeptics—minorities in society too—go along with these measures instead of looking more closely at their effects in a multicultural society. We don’t seem to want to ask ourselves why so many Muslims are coming to the West, as if the USA’s support for the Saudis and its wars of empire in the Middle East haven’t contributed to this diaspora.

  • Chris DeVries

    I ​agree. ​I’ve ​been ​an ​election ​worker ​a ​few ​times ​now ​in ​Canada ​(not ​Quebec), ​and ​while ​on ​duty, ​you’re ​not ​even ​allowed ​to ​wear ​the ​colours ​red, ​orange, ​blue ​or ​green, ​because ​of ​their ​association ​with ​the ​political ​parties. ​Regardless ​of ​your ​personal ​politics, ​these ​colours ​have ​meaning ​that ​could ​intimate ​to ​the ​public ​that ​you ​support ​a ​certain ​party. ​So ​as ​long ​as ​the ​enforcement ​of ​this ​new ​law ​in ​Quebec ​is ​TRULY ​equal ​(i.e. ​a ​person ​wearing ​a ​visible ​crucifix ​is ​nowhere ​to ​be ​found ​amongst ​employees ​of ​the ​government ​anywhere, ​given ​a ​pass ​by ​their ​supervisors), ​I ​think ​the ​harm ​this ​law ​does ​is ​outweighed ​by ​the ​good.

    Most ​notably, ​I ​don’t ​actually ​think ​this ​is ​a ​solution ​to ​a ​non-existent ​problem, ​especially ​where ​teachers ​are ​concerned. ​Kids ​respect ​and ​emulate ​adult ​authority ​figures. ​Religious ​neutrality ​ensures ​that ​a ​teacher’s ​belief ​system ​is ​not ​associated ​(good ​or ​bad) ​with ​a ​child’s ​perception ​of ​them.

    Also, ​as ​an ​employee ​of ​the ​people ​or ​even ​a ​private ​company, ​I ​think ​my ​employer ​has ​the ​right ​to ​stop ​me ​from ​wearing ​a ​shirt ​that ​expresses ​my ​atheism, ​even ​if ​it’s ​designed ​to ​be ​non-offensive ​(like ​the ​stylized ​A ​that ​has ​become ​associated ​with ​the ​movement). ​Some ​people ​don’t ​want ​to ​be ​reminded ​that ​there ​are ​many ​other ​people ​in ​their ​community ​who ​don’t ​share ​their ​private ​delusions. ​Some ​are ​even ​offended ​by ​the ​IDEA ​of ​atheism. ​I ​don’t ​agree ​that ​they ​should ​be ​so ​offended, ​but ​I ​think ​they ​have ​a ​right ​to ​not ​be ​confronted ​with ​something ​that ​offends ​them ​when ​engaging ​in ​an ​activity ​that ​is ​MANDATED ​by ​their ​government. ​You ​can ​choose ​to ​not ​frequent ​a ​store ​whose ​employees ​flout ​their ​non-belief; ​you ​can’t ​not ​attend ​a ​court ​hearing ​as ​a ​subpoenaed ​witness, ​or ​a ​public ​insurance ​provider ​to ​buy ​car ​insurance.

    Generally-speaking, ​I ​don’t ​think ​people ​have ​an ​all-encompassing ​right ​to ​be ​not ​offended ​by ​something. ​But ​in ​cases ​where ​being ​not ​offended ​is ​either ​impossible ​to ​avoid ​through ​different ​behavioral ​choices, ​or ​inconvenient ​enough ​that ​an ​individual ​has ​to ​choose ​between ​their ​beliefs ​and ​a ​substantial ​burden ​being ​placed ​upon ​them, ​I ​think ​we ​have ​a ​responsibility ​to ​make ​at ​least ​the ​concessions ​that ​are ​possible ​to ​make. ​You ​can’t ​change ​your ​skin ​color, ​so ​a ​racist ​who ​is ​offended ​by ​you ​serving ​them ​can ​just ​swallow ​their ​disgust ​and ​move ​on. ​But ​you ​CAN ​change ​the ​way ​you ​present ​yourself ​and ​your ​beliefs. ​On ​your ​private ​time, ​you ​can ​do ​so ​however ​you ​want. ​On ​the ​public’s ​dime ​though, ​your ​right ​to ​self-expression ​just ​HAS ​to ​be ​limited ​(and ​it’s ​important ​to ​note ​that ​it’s ​not ​just ​religious ​symbols ​that ​are ​being ​limited ​here ​- ​historically, ​dress ​codes, ​and ​standards ​of ​hygiene ​are ​a ​common ​feature ​at ​many ​places ​of ​employment, ​including ​in ​government ​departments…we’ve ​already ​decided ​to ​curtail ​the ​right ​to ​self-expression, ​so ​I ​don’t ​see ​why ​including ​religious ​beliefs ​should ​be ​a ​step ​too ​far).