Quebec. The Law on Religious Neutrality Causes Another Outburst of Islamophobia

At the end of April, the Superior Court of Quebec confirmed the section of the law on the religious neutrality of the State which limits the wearing of religious signs by civil servants. Since it took effect in June 2019, it has been criticised for its discriminatory nature, especially with regard to Muslim women.

Montreal, January 21, 2020. Student demonstration against the law 21
Katarina Mladenovicova/Le Délit

After several weeks of hearings, Judge Marc-André Blanchard handed down a decision in favour of maintaining the law on “the religious neutrality of the State,” law No. 21. But for now on, the English-speaking school commissions and the MPs of the Quebec National Assembly are exempted from the ban against wearing religious signs, aimed among others at teachers, police officers, judges and prosecutors.

It is only a partial victory says Nour Farhat, the attorney representing a group of women teachers opposed to law 21: “We are very disappointed with respect to the court’s judgement [the preservation of the law],” she states, “but nonetheless we are very happy about its contents [recitals].” Judge Blanchard recognizes the discriminatory nature of law 21, especially with regard to women wearing the hijab or other types of headscarf.

Indeed, the judgement’s paragraph 67 states in black and white that “the evidence shows that this policy of exclusion, since it must be defined as such, results in disproportionate consequences for Muslim women.” Yet even though the judgement recognizes the law’s discriminatory nature and the fact that it is contrary to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizen, it could not be invalidated. “The judge’s hands were tied,” counsellor Farhat explains, since law 21 was passed by the law-makers thanks to a notwithstanding clause which makes it possible to disregard certain articles of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That very same day, the Quebec government, presided over by the conservative François Legault, announced that it would appeal the court’s judgement.

A case of media harassment

Among those who have lost their jobs on account of law 21’s ban on conspicuous religious signs are a majority of Muslim women; according to counsellor Farhat. “The law as such is meant to apply to everyone equally.”But in effect and in fact, a woman wearing a cross can hide it under her jumper but a woman wearing a headscarf has no way of concealing it “which explains this alarming observation. "

Encountered during a protest organised outside the offices of the Quebec Prime Minister just a few hours after the judgement was made public, Khadija told me she believed that the provisions of Law 21 infringe upon the rights and freedoms of every Quebec citizen. “I do not believe it is fair to say that the law only concerns Muslim women,” the co-president of the McGill Muslim Law Students’ Association maintains, and she points out that in the absence of any hard statistics such an assertion has little value. This law student, who wears the hijab herself, does nevertheless admit that the law “has fuelled an Islamophobic rhetoric which is certainly present in Quebec.”

The Muslim population of the province was estimated in 2020 at 300,000, out of a total 8 million inhabitants. Before it was passed, the polls showed that a majority of public opinion favoured the law on the religious neutrality of the State. A statistical bias that has not prevented the development of a societal debate which, according to counsellor Farhat, was in fact a campaign of media harassment aimed specifically at Muslim women. “There was very little talk of men who wear a turban or a yarmulke,” she told Orient XXI, and went on to add, “for a decade or two now there is no longer any embarrassment or inhibition about bad-mouthing Muslims in public”.

The crusade against multi-culturalism

“The rhetoric dealing with Islam and Muslims in Richard Martineau’s columns […] contribute to the development of Islamophobia” is the conclusion of 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, a French-speaking majority that cannot be trusted and on the other, minority communities which may henceforth have their head in the name of Quebec’s rules 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 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. It is 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 that he justified his refusal to institute a national day of condemnation of Islamophobia every 29 January in memory of the attack on the Mosque of Quebec City. On that day in 2017, 6 worshippers lost their lives, shot down by one Alexandre Bissonnette, a self-proclaimed admirer of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.

An “identitarian” issue

In Quebec, the notion of the religious neutrality of the State (“laïcité” in French) is much more recent than in France. Until the sixties, the whole society was controlled by the Catholic church, which managed the health and education systems besides its key role in the private sphere. 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 and the abuses of the clergy finally put an end to its 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. This period is also that of the nationalisation of public services like hydroelectricity, which was part of the overall sovereignty movement, progressing throughout the province.

The debate over the religious neutrality of the State was revived in 2006, focusing around the question of reasonable accommodation, following demands that emanated from religious groups wishing to be dispensed of certain rules because of the requirements of their faith. The result was the appointment, the following year, of the Bouchard-Taylor consultative committee. 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 the demands for independence, that draft law no. 61 was tabled in parliament, aimed at the establishment of a charter of “valeurs québécoises”. This was a charter of religious neutrality (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.

Increase of hate crimes

The latest instalment in this saga of State neutrality and the judicial challenging of Law 21 is far from over. Besides which, it would appear to be the end result of debates and political manoeuvres that are by no means new.

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 recognize 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.