An occasional series in which a religion scholar writes on a topic of their choosing
“The Unintended Consequences of Ideological Secularism: Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values”, Professor Momin Rahman, Trent University
We are all no doubt aware of the intersecting controversies about religion, secularism and multiculturalism across all western societies. The ‘face’ of this debate is often the various forms of veiling practised by some Muslim women. In 2011, France widened its ban of face coverings in school settings to include the whole public realm, joining Belgium’s legal prohibition. UK government figures have recently argued for a debate about doing the same. Many local jurisdictions across Europe have introduced restrictions on either the full face veil or headscarf, both within educational settings and in ‘public’. These debates are uniformly underpinned by a frame that pits western secularism as a bulwark against the threat of the multiculturalism embodied by immigrant religions.
Most recently, the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) government of the French Canadian province of Quebec has proposed a secular ‘Charter of Values’. The five proposals focus on restricting visible signs of religious affiliation in all public servants who work for the provincial government1. The ‘need’ for this legislation is not very clear apart from polling that indicates a majority of rural and suburban Quebeckers favour the Charter2. There have been some hints that Islamophobia lies behind the PQ’s agenda because of Premier Marois’s comments about the Muslim practice of veiling as oppressive to women. However, the Charter proposes to restrict all religious people’s visual presentation, including Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians who wear ‘highly visible’ crosses.
What then, are the likely consequences of this Charter? First, there seems to be an assumption that people who adopt religious dress will be more prone to discriminate against others and less likely to understand human rights principles in the execution of their duties. This implication is in the third and fourth proposals, which seek to establish a duty of ‘neutrality’ for state personnel, primarily by limiting visible religious symbols. You can’t, apparently, act without prejudice if you wear religious garb or, indeed, be perceived to be able to do so. The major religions affected are overwhelmingly mapped onto ethnic immigrant groups and so such approaches will return us to the worst colonial-era assumptions of mental inferiority in non-white races. Internal colonization, in the name of a civilizing secularism, will therefore legitimize racism.
It its fourth proposal the Charter seeks to have the face uncovered when delivering or receiving state services. This will obviously affect Muslim women most directly. Many have argued that gender equality in western countries is a fundamental value that cannot be given up in the pursuit of multiculturalist tolerance and Islam has been centre-stage in these tensions. As a cultural Muslim who is also gay, I am keenly aware of the gender inequalities and homophobia within many different Muslim cultures. I don’t agree with the modesty requirements expected of women in Muslim cultures and I agree that gender equality (and queer rights where they exist) should take precedence over religious rights in the public realm. What worries me is that state bans on patriarchal practices do not move us towards reforms within religious communities, nor do they either acknowledge or enhance the agency of Muslim women.
There is evidence that many Muslim women choose to adopt varieties of covering for affirmative religious and ethnic identifications, but also as tactical negotiations of their agency within patriarchal cultures (Vakulenko, 2012). I am not sure that banning such practices does anything other than create a defensive retrenchment in Muslim cultures, rather than a dialogue which prioritizes women’s voices. Surely making spaces for self-defined Muslim women’s agency is more productive than legislation that will affect women disproportionately within Muslim groups? Similarly, the (admittedly less consistent) use of gay rights as marker of Muslim traditionalism has done nothing to generate a debate about sexual diversity within Muslim communities. Instead, it has too often provoked a defensive reaffirmation of Muslim homophobia and the further invisibilization of queer Muslims (Habib, 2010). Patriarchal and homophobic practices in religions do need to be challenged, but many of us working in these areas have cautioned against the constant public reiterations of Islam versus gender equality and sexual diversity because it does nothing to enhance the possibilities of developing progressive voices within Muslim communities.
I believe that the state must be secular in its treatment of citizens but I am not sure that this can extended as an ideology to the whole of civil society. Secularism is not a sociological identity that we should be attempting to mould people into, it is simply a technique of governance. Secularism has developed in a variety of ways within specific national cultures, none of them strictly ideological. The closest would seem to be the French approach, which provides for the statist incorporation of organized religion and then seeks to privatize religion in civil society (Modood, 2013: 67-71). There is some public commentary that Quebec politicians look more and more towards France as a model for their nationalism but if this proposal is indeed inspired by France, it is also therefore a move towards ideological secularism.
The assumption behind this Charter and much of the related debate in western societies seems to be that either religion runs rampant or culture is secular, but this dialectic is a fundamental mis-characterization of the social realm. Politics and the state must be secular, civil society and individual identities need not be. Indeed, secularism is always symbiotically engaged with religious identity through the need to identify the relevant spheres of influence of both religion and the state. Secularism is not the anti-thesis of religion but rather a technique in managing religious diversity and multiculturalism. Thankfully, many Quebecois secularist politicians such as Justin Trudeau seem to recognise this point and have provided strong resistance to this Charter.
Even if this particular Charter disappears through political resistance, the key issues of multiculturalism, secularism, racism, Islamophobia and gendered and sexual equality will remain for both Anglophone Canada and Quebec and for other western societies. We should resist a model that moves us towards ideological secularism because its consequences will inevitably be racist. Moreover, engaging patriarchal religions in a reformist dialogue is something I support and work towards professionally, but institutionalizing racism through an ideological secularism will, however unintentionally, only make that task more difficult.
It is here that I think past debates in Quebec have a useful lesson for all. The thoughtful and complex report from the Bouchard Taylor Commission was produced as the result of a public consultation on cultural differences within Quebec. It argues for an ‘open’ rather than an ideological secularism as one of many threads that need to exist for a successful integrated and multicultural society:
The second thread is that of open secularism accompanied, once again, by a delicate balance to be maintained between four key constituent principles, i.e. freedom of conscience, the equality of citizens, the reciprocal autonomy between churches and the State, and State neutrality. For compelling reasons that result both from respect for ethnocultural diversity and the protection of basic rights, this equilibrium demands that religious affiliations and practices not be concealed in the private sphere. The most sensible, effective way to become accustomed to cultural differences, including religious affiliations, is not to hide them but to display them. This is also the condition that enables us to promote them and to benefit from them.
(Bouchard and Taylor, 2008: 241)
2 An Angus Reid poll conducted days after the official announcement showed majority support in Quebec (www2.macleans.ca/2013/09/16/poll-raises-questions-about-the-next-stage-of-the-quebec-values-charter-debate/, accessed September 18, 2013) but a more recent poll on Monday, September 16th showed an even split between those Quebecois for and against (see, www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/09/16/quebec_values_charter_no_going_
anywhere_stephen_harper_says.html, accessed September 18, 2013).
Bouchard, Gerard and Taylor, Charles (2008). Building the Future: a Time for Reconciliation. Available at http://www.accommodements-quebec.ca/documentation/rapports/rapport-final-integral-en.pdf, accessed September 19th 2013.
Habib, Samar. (2010). “Introduction” to Habib, Samar. (ed.) Islam and Homosexuality, Vols 1 and 2. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Modood, Tariq. (2013). Multiculturalism. (2nd edition). Cambridge: Polity Press.
Vakulenko, Anastasia. (2012). Islamic Veiling in Legal Discourse. London and New York: Routledge.