Guest post by David Rand
This is a summary of the three-part series of blogs “Secularism Betrayed” available on my website: David Rand’s Blog:
In late 2013, the government of Quebec introduced major draft legislation — a Charter of Secularism — which would have formally and officially declared Quebec to be secular. Unfortunately the proposed legislation died when that government was defeated in an election in April of 2014. One might assume that all those who claim to favour secularism would have supported it, and this is indeed what occurred inside Quebec. But not outside. Indeed, two ostensibly secular organizations even went so far as to oppose the Charter publicly. This is the story of that shameful betrayal.
The Charter or Bill 60 formally declared separation between religion and state including the religious neutrality and secular nature of that state; it imposed on public servants a duty of discretion with regard to religion; it reaffirmed gender equality; and it established guidelines to regulate “reasonable” accommodations which in the past had resulted in granting privileges to religious groups. The bill represented a further step forward in Quebec’s half-century long secularization process and was enthusiastically (but not uncritically) supported by a broad-based coalition of organizations.
The Charter was not perfect: for example, it did not end public funding of private schools and fiscal advantages to religions; nor did it ban prayers at municipal council meetings; nor did it revise the pro-religious Ethics and Religious Culture program taught in Quebec’s public schools. Nevertheless, as a quasi-constitutional document, it established principles which would have greatly facilitated future secular measures such as these.
Secularism is very popular among Quebeckers and this was reflected in strong support for the Charter. The media, however, were often spectacularly hostile. The most vociferous opposition came from multiculturalists and from a small but very vocal gang of Islamists who pretended to speak for all Muslims. In reality, many persons from a Muslim background were sympathetic to the Charter.
The positive-sounding concept “multiculturalism” should more accurately be described as “ethnoreligious determinism” — i.e. religion as destiny — because it is an ideology which gives religious privilege priority over universal values by tightly associating each ethnic community with a particular religious identity and labelling members of that community with the associated belief system.
The most controversial aspect of the Charter was the ban on public servants wearing conspicuous religious symbols while on duty. Yet, there already exist regulations requiring that Quebec public servants refrain from obvious partisan political displays while on the job. The new ban would have been a reasonable extension of that existing rule, given the partisan and often political nature of religious symbols, a modest constraint on freedom of expression for state employees during working hours. Ostentatiously displaying one’s political or religious affiliation while on duty as a public servant must be considered a privilege, not a right, a privilege which may legitimately be restricted in the interest of state neutrality.
Opponents of secularism — giving religion priority over fundamental freedoms and confusing race with religion as multiculturalists regularly do — condemned this ban as a serious threat to freedom of religion and a vehicle to persecute ethnic minorities. Indeed, opposition was so extreme that it sunk into defamatory language, accusing secularists of xenophobia, racism and similar epithets, thus demonizing any support for a republican form of secularism.
Independence and Separatism
The government which proposed the Charter of Secularism was that of the Parti Québécois (PQ), a party which promotes the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada. The PQ is a centre-left formation with social-democratic leanings, one of the more progressive major political parties anywhere in Canada and certainly the most secular. It first came to power in 1976, has been elected government several times and has held and lost two referenda on Quebec sovereignty. Over time the PQ has become rather mainstream, its independence project becoming increasingly hypothetical. Nevertheless, it continues to generate among many Canadians enormous anxiety and hostility which were expressed with a vengeance during the Charter controversy.
The question of Quebec independence is of no relevance for secularism. But in the context of the proposed Charter, secularists were unavoidably confronted with the conflation of the two issues, especially since within Quebec there are many who support both. Even if one considers the idea of Quebec independence to be unrealistic, utopian, dangerous or even reprehensible, it is NOT racist, xenophobic, fascist nor any of a myriad of similar colourful adjectives used rather too often by those too lazy to attempt a rational response. Such fanatical language is simply defamation and ethnic bigotry directed against French-speaking Quebeckers.
Thus, for those who are secularists first and foremost, it was essential to evaluate the Charter on its own merits, regardless of the independence question.
The Left, the Right and Secularism
The waters were further muddied by the disturbing behaviour in recent years of some left-wing organizations which have abandoned the left’s traditional support for secularism in order not to offend “anti-imperialist” elements which are often Islamist. This has created a political vacuum from which some opportunistic right-wing elements, such as the Front National in France, have benefited by adopting a popular pro-secular veneer hiding an anti-immigrant or pro-Christian agenda. The result is not only a gain for the political right, but, even worse, an opportunity for anti-secularists to misrepresent and slander secularists by associating us with a far-right agenda.
This complex question cannot be described by only two positions, when in reality there is a wide diversity including at least the following: (1) traditionalists who oppose secularism and support the dominant religion; (2) multiculturalists, i.e. ethnoreligious determinists or pseudo-secularists who would extend religious privileges to a plurality of religions; and (3) secularists who supported the Charter, oppose religious privilege and promote universal values regardless of religious tenets.
The Rest Of Canada
In Canada outside Quebec, media hostility to the Charter was even more virulent than within. Building on hatred of Quebec separatists, all-too-familiar accusations of intolerance and identity politics were freely recycled to denounce the bill. Nevertheless, a survey conducted in the summer of 2013 indicated that 43% of Canadians approved of the Quebec Charter and, ahortly before the election, three secular organizations outside Quebec expressed some support for the Charter.
However, two organizations with pretentions of representing secularists across Canada took a very different approach. Both CFI Canada (CFIC) and the Canadian Secular Alliance (CSA) opposed the Charter, foolishly dismissing it as either “anti-religious” or unnecessary, arrogantly ignoring the history and accumulated expertise of Quebec secularists and failing to recognize the Charter’s implications for future secularization.
An Historic Opportunity Squandered
The results of the April 7th 2014 Quebec election were a resounding defeat for the Parti Québécois. Although this spelled death for the Charter of Secularism, analyses of voting demographics indicate that it was the PQ’s sovereignty plans and not the Charter which the electorate rejected.
If those who purport to support secularism had in fact done so, it might not have been enough to change the results. Nevertheless, by behaving like mindless conformists and joining their voices to the din of vilification, pseudo-secularists have deepened confusion in the minds of Canadians about the issue of secularism. An historic opportunity has been squandered. The proposed Charter was an exceptional opportunity which, if adopted, would have significantly advanced the cause of secularism. At this critical moment, when their support was needed the most, pseudo-secularists betrayed their espoused principles and took a stance in favour of religious privilege.
If one thinks that wearing blatant religious symbols on the job in the public service is a right, then one can have no objection to the wearing of political symbols too, up to and including symbols of even the most deadly political ideologies. If one nevertheless continues to insist that the ban was excessive, then the only acceptable position for a secularist to have taken would be one of critical support. But CFIC and CSA did not do even that. They simply rejected the Charter out of hand.
While the recent electoral defeat of the Parti Québécois marks a major setback for the independence movement, in the short term at least, nevertheless the Charter controversy has underlined those qualities which make Quebec unique within Canada, in particular, popular support for a republican form of secularism. During the Charter fiasco, Charter opponents maligned one of the best ideas ever to come out of that province mainly because it was proposed by a separatist government and have thus strengthened the independence movement in the long term.
The Arrogance of Victory
With the defeat of the Charter they hated, anti-secularists, including Islamists, are currently displaying the arrogance of victory.
During the election campaign, philosopher, PQ candidate and award-winning expert on secularism Louise Mailloux was vilified for having written in one of her books that forced circumcision for religious reasons and forced baptism are violations of the freedom of conscience of children. But Mailloux’s declaration is obviously valid and in line with observations secularists have been making for years. Islamists have filed several SLAPP-style lawsuits aimed at silencing secularists. Mme Mailloux and two pro-secular web sites are currently being sued by a veil-wearing Charter opponent, Dalila Awada, for “defamation” because they alleged that Awada promotes fundamentalism. Djemila Benhabib, also an author and award-winning secularist, is being sued by a Muslim school for criticizing their program of indoctrination.
Perhaps even more disturbing is a recent proposal put forward by the Quebec Human and Youth Rights Commission (CDPDJ) that a new provision be added to the Quebec charter of rights and freedoms prohibiting hate speech. This could seriously compromise freedom of expression by effectively instituting an anti-blasphemy law at the provincial level, when what is needed is to repeal the existing federal law.
Quebec now has a government which took an explicitly anti-secular position — opposing the Charter and maintaining the crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly (the PQ wavered on this) — and was brought to power by a dubious alliance of those who said the Charter was not secular enough, those who conflate religion with race, those who promote religious privilege, and even fundamentalists.
Quebec secularists continue to organise. The future promises to be difficult, tumultuous and fascinating.
Since the depressing events described in the above article, there have been two important developments, one of which is cause for great optimism, the other for renewed pessimism.
Firstly, the Supreme Court of Canada decision of April 15, 2015 forbade the practice of prayer at Saguenay city council meetings and, by extension, implies that all municipalities which engage in this practice are violating the freedom of conscience of anyone who does not adhere to the religion expressed by the prayer. Furthermore, it asserts that “state officials, in the performance of their functions” when they “profess, adopt or favour one belief to the exclusion of all others” are unacceptably discriminating on the basis of religion. The decision therefore supports the duty of discretion, imposed on public servants when on the job, included in the PQ’s Charter. It also states that “Neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals” but this applies to individuals who are “private players.” Thus, public employees must be neutral when on duty, because they are the state when they are working. The state has no existence except through its agents.
Secondly, the current Liberal government of Quebec has recently proposed legislation dealing with “religious neutrality” (Bill 62). However, this draft legislation covers almost nothing that the PQ’s Charter did, has all the shortcomings of the latter and practically none of its advantages. Bill 62 does not even mention secularism or separation between religion and state. It does little more than ban face-coverings in the public service. Even worse is draft Bill 59, released on the same day, whose declared purpose is to combat “hate speech” and grants new sweeping powers to the CDPDJ, powers which, as feared, threaten freedom of expression, especially criticism of religion. Finally, an action plan put forward by the government to counter “radicalization” fails to address the problem of Islamist rhetoric which nourishes jihadism.