Quebec: Secularism and Islamophobia: Part II

Quebec: How secularism stokes Islamophobia: Part II
5 min read
09 Jun, 2021
Opinion: The Superior Court of Quebec confirmed the section of the secularist law that limits the wearing of religious signs by civil servants. It has been heavily criticised, writes Adèle Surprenant.
A Muslim woman holds a Canadian flag during the multicultural Canada Day celebration in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on 1 July, 2019. [Getty]

This is Part II. Read Part I here.

The crusade against multiculturalism

"The rhetoric dealing with Islam and Muslims in Richard Martineau's columns […] contribute to the development of Islamophobia," concluded a sociological study of one of the star columnists of the Journal de Montréal, the province's most widely read daily. 

Sociologist Mathieu Bock-Côté, another high-profile media personality, campaigns against Canadian multiculturalism which he sees as a threat to the Quebec nation. He reacted to the Superior Court's judgement by proclaiming that it "has undertaken to dismantle Law 21" and that Judge Blanchard "has decided to subject Quebec to a regime of ethnic partitioning."

"On the one hand, there is a French-speaking majority that cannot be trusted and on the other, minority communities which may henceforth take control in the name of Quebec's rule of law," he has written in his Journal de Montreal column. "Identitarian" issues, often crystallised around the Muslim community, are increasingly present in the rhetoric of the nationalist parties, campaigning in favour of the independence of Quebec.

"The current Prime Minister, François Legault, refuses to admit to the existence of systemic racism and declared, in 2019, 'There is no Islamophobia in Quebec'"

The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), though it defends the unity of the Canadian Confederation, is often accused by a part of the opposition of expressing views and enacting measures considered xenophobic and even racist and Islamophobic. Its leader, the current Prime Minister, François Legault, refuses to admit to the existence of systemic racism and declared, in 2019, "There is no Islamophobia in Quebec."

This statement was made public at the same time as he justified his refusal to institute a national day of condemnation of Islamophobia every 29 January in memory of the attack on the Quebec City Mosque. On 29 January, 2017, six worshippers lost their lives, shot down by Alexandre Bissonnette, a self-proclaimed admirer of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after a meeting with the Muslim community at the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec in Quebec City, Canada on 25 January, 2019. [Getty]
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after a meeting with the Muslim community at the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec in Quebec City, Canada on 25 January, 2019. [Getty]

An 'Identitarian' issue

In Quebec, the notion of secularism ("laïcité" in French) is much more recent than in France. Until the sixties, the whole society was controlled by the Catholic church, which, on top of its key role in the private sphere, managed the province's health and education systems. Montreal, the economic and cultural centre of the province is still today known as the "city of a hundred steeples."

The revelations of the Parent Commission on Education (1963-1966) caused a shock wave throughout society. The abuses of the clergy finally put an end to the church's stranglehold on public institutions. This was the beginning of "La Révolution Tranquille," a decade of political and institutional reforms which ultimately enabled Quebec to bring about a clear separation of church and state. The same period witnessed the nationalisation of public services like hydroelectricity, as part of the Quebec sovereignty movement throughout the province.

The debate over secularism was revived in 2006, focusing on the question of reasonable accommodation, following demands that emanated from religious groups wishing to be exempt from certain rules because of the requirements of their faith. The debate resulted in the appointment, in 2007, of the Bouchard-Taylor Consultation Commission. The ban on the wearing of conspicuous religious signs by civil servants was one of the main recommendations contained in the committee's report.

In 2013, it was at the initiative of the Parti Québécois, which had for several decades spearheaded demands for independence, that draft Law 61 was tabled in Parliament, aimed at the establishment of a charter of "valeurs québécoises," (Quebec values). This was a charter of secularism (similar to the one published that same year in France by the Minister of National Education, Vincent Peillon) launching once again the public debate over the issue of conspicuous religious signs and hence the issue of the hijab. Sparking great controversy, the project cost the PQ the 2014 election and was abandoned.

An increase of hate crimes

The latest instalment in this saga of secularism and the judicial challenging of Law 21 is far from over. The debates and political manoeuvres surrounding the issue are by no means new.

"But when the government denies the evidence, then it becomes the problem"

Statistique Canada has observed a pronounced rise in the number of hate crimes committed between 2015 and 2019. Can it, therefore, be said that the Belle Province is increasingly hostile to Muslims?

Yusuf Faqiri is Director of Public Affairs for Quebec with the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). He believes it is time to admit that Law 21 condemns Muslims to a status of "second-class citizens."

"I am not claiming that Quebec society as a whole is racist. But when the government denies the evidence, then it becomes the problem," he argues, referring to Premier Legault's refusal to recognise the existence of Islamophobia. Far from giving up, Faqiri says he intends to go on fighting the law on the religious neutrality of the state and fighting Islamophobia despite the disappointment experienced last 20 April. "Men and women alike, we are proud to be citizens of Quebec. This is our home," he insists.

Adèle Surprenant is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, who is interested in workers' rights and women in North Africa and the Middle East.

This article was originally by our partners at OrientXXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.