Quebec embracing secularism to limit Islam’s growing public presence?

Quebec has moved toward a strong form of secularism, known as laïcité, that challenges the growth of religious pluralism and of Islam in the province, reports Michael Higgins in Commonweal magazine (July 9). In June the National Assembly in Quebec City passed Bill 21, a law seeking to address the challenges of religious pluralism. The bill prohibits police, civil servants, teachers, government lawyers, prison guards, and other state employees from wearing any form of religious garment or symbol—the Sikh turban, the Jewish kippa, the Muslim hijab, niqab, and burka, and the Christian cross—while on the job. Those currently under contract will be grandfathered, although any change in their status will require compliance with the new legislation. Among the bill’s supporters are rural residents hostile to the elite urban centers of Montreal and Quebec City; “native Quebeckers uncomfortable with significant immigration in recent years from former French colonies, principally in Africa and the Caribbean; and people increasingly anxious over perceived threats to the linguistic and cultural identity of Quebec by an expanding Muslim population, and what they see as relentless denigration of the old values.” Populist politicians further to the right of Premier François Legault, such as those in the People’s Party, have raised concerns about radical Islam and immigrants, but support for the bill has also come from leftists, including those pressing for democratic socialism in the European mode, as well as some feminist organizations that see religious attire such as the hijab as a prop of the patriarchy.

Among those dissenting from the measure are “the major universities of the province, the Montreal English-speaking school board and teacher unions (both French and English), law firms, journalists and editors of the premier media organs in Quebec, and religious bodies of every stripe, including the Assembly of Quebec Bishops. The Archbishop of Montreal, Christian Lepine, called Bill 21 an erosion of individual freedoms and a diminishment of human dignity. The Fédération des femmes du Québec warned of the damage that will be done to Muslim women through the bill’s discriminatory bias.” The federal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a native of the province, stand vigorously opposed to the bill, although Legault knows that in a national election year revoking the bill will be difficult. “The deal, in effect, is to eradicate the Catholic past in order to limit the public presence of Islam—and it is clearly the Muslim community that is the primary target of the legislation. This is now where the battle is joined. And while its genesis and coloration may be provincial, its larger impact will be national,” Higgins concludes.