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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