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The veil of secularism
September 2, 2012
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While questions of separatism and sovereignty are perennial in la belle province, there is a growing tendency to mark out an identity that is not only separate from the rest of Canada, but even from other minorities in Quebec – including those that were once mobilized by the separatist movement.
The new form of identity politics makes capital out of defining a narrow circle of insiders, then using aggressive polemics to defend the rules of exclusion. Quebec has long chafed against the incursions of Anglo Canada, but recently it has been preoccupied with non-Anglophone migrants – especially Muslims. This time, language isn’t really the core issue: it is the politics of religion.
Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Quebecois, is proposing a ‘secularism charter’ which, in the name of a ‘neutral’ state, would ban the wearing of religious symbols among civil service employees. Hijabs would be forbidden, along with turbans and yarmulkes. Crucifixes, strangely, are permitted. PQ candidate Djamila Benhabib made the mistake of attempting to apply the secularism principle evenly by suggesting that the cross hanging in the National Assembly be removed. C’est l’etat neutre, non?
Her suggestion was actually made in 2008 by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Accommodation appointed by the government. Its findings on the integration and accommodation responsibilities of old and new Quebecers have largely been ignored. Not only was Benhabib forced by members of her own party to recant, she was castigated as a foreigner with alien values and an unpronounceable name by Saguenay mayor Jean Tremblay. Her crime? Not having enough cultural Catholicism to know that the principle of secularism only applies to other religions.
Making political capital out of attacking immigrants is hardly new to Quebec. There was the tempest-in-the-pea-soup pot back in 2007, when a restaurant served the soup without pork, to accommodate the dietary preferences of Muslim (and perhaps Jewish or vegetarian) customers. Quelle outrage! Then there was Bill 94, enacted by Jean Charest’s Liberals in 2010, that requires women in niqabs (full face covering) to show their faces at polling booths and in classrooms. There are only about two dozen such women in the province, and no record of any request to avoid showing their faces while voting.
Quebecois politicians seem to be taking their cue from France. In 2011, when then-president Nicolas Sarkozy began to worry about his election prospects he organised a conference on secularism and the problem of dealing with Muslims in France. In 2012, his strategy degenerated when he was into competing with Marie Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front, who made headlines for comparing Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation.
The availability of halal meat in fast food chains and vegetarian menus in schools is even seen by some in France as the insidious destruction of French identity by Muslim communities.
With his campaign trailing in the polls, Sarkozy made the remarkable claim that he would halve immigration if re-elected, because there were ‘too many foreigners in France.’ This outburst from a man of Hungarian ancestry failed to distract the French electorate from the economic and social issues they deemed more relevant.
Yet the PQ seems determined to take a leaf out of Sarkozy’s playbook. As part of their identity talk, they propose to create language requirements for new citizens that would not apply
to existing Anglophone or First Nations residents. Marois’ selective secularism and Premier Jean Charest’s Muslim-targeted legislation are attempts to elicit support based on xenophobia rather than through innovative policies for the future of Quebec.
Exclusive versions of identity are not new to Canada, where French-speaking, Catholic Quebecois formerly found themselves on the outside. White Anglo Canada not only excluded fellow British subjects – like the South Asian passengers of the infamous Komagata Maru – it also had preferred versions of whiteness. Ukrainians, for instance, failed to qualify, and southern Europeans in general were routinely treated with disdain.
While framing civic belonging in terms of religion or ethnicity has waned in the rest of Canada, it seems to be on the rise in Quebec. Will the trend in Quebec again follow events in France – where the identity politics of Sarkozy were rejected in favour of politicians with more pragmatic policies? Younger Quebecois, one suspects, are far more cosmopolitan than some of their elders, who persist in defending a parochial identity under the veil of secularism.
Eva Sajoo is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. She has a graduate degree in International Development and Education from the University of London. Her published academic writing focuses on the rights of women and minorities. She has contributed widely to publications on Islam and the Muslim world. Eva has taught at the University of British Columbia, and the Beijing University of Science and Technology. She currently teaches at SFU. Website: http://www.ccsmsc.sfu.ca/about_us/faculty/eva_sajoo. Follow Eva on Twitter @esajoo
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