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Quebec is not to blame for the niqab debate

Valerie Lannon, Chantal Sundaram and Michelle Robidoux

October 12, 2015

The media and Tories fall over themselves pointing to the polls showing more than 80 per cent of people in English Canada agree that niqab-wearing Muslim women should remove the veil while taking the ceremonial oath of Canadian citizenship, “and an even higher percentage in Quebec.” It seems all too easy to blame Quebec for motivating the Tories to court votes based on bigotry. Once again, with the niqab as with First Nations rights and with immigration, the media and the Tories are portraying Quebec as being more racist than the rest of Canada.

The sad truth is that there is nothing about the bigotry that has been unleashed by the niqab debate that is unique to Quebec, as the poll results from English Canada indicate. Any attempt to blame Quebec for this deplorable “debate” only takes it to a new low, and provides a fig leaf for the Islamophobia that is born and bred in the “old-stock” vision of Canada promoted by the Tories—and the false claim of concern for women’s rights that too many in English Canada have bought into for years now. The niqab debate has brought this into sharp relief, not just in Quebec.

And now Harper is considering a ban on wearing the niqab or the hijab (scarf) to give and obtain public services. This flies in the face of the Federal Court of Appeal decision in September that ruled in favour of Zunera Ishaq, an immigrant from Pakistan who was fighting for the right to wear the niqab during the ceremonial swearing in for Canadian citizenship. And in early October the same court rejected a government request to put that decision on hold while Ottawa seeks a hearing in the Supreme Court of Canada. The level of Tory hysteria also flies in the face of the fact that all of two Muslim women have been unwilling to remove their niqab in order to participate in the ceremonial oath-taking.

Two questions arise: Why are the Tories and media dedicating so much time to the niqab “question”? Why is there apparently a higher level of support for banning the niqab in Quebec than English Canada?

Quebec history

Islamophobia is by no means a Quebec creation, whether by those who continue to support Quebec’s sovereignty or by federalists within Quebec. But there are unique historical factors that colour the debate in Quebec.

One of these factors dates back to the struggle against the historic predominance of the Catholic church over all aspects of life in Quebec. This predominance flowed from British colonial policies after the Conquest of New France that enhanced the power of the clergy as a way of cementing their loyalty and ensuring social control.

The church used this control to channel desires for national self-determination and defense of the French language and cultural identity into a conservative nationalism. The revolt against both the Catholic church and the birth of a new secular nationalism came together in the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, a rapid process of modernization and secularization. The State took over the functions of the Church in education, healthcare and social services.

Uprooting the power of the church was not easy. The period known as the Grande Noirceur (great darkness), under Maurice Duplessis’ Union Nationale government, saw a clash between growing urbanization and industrialisation, and the Conservative (Catholic) nationalists’ attempt to maintain the old structures of power. By 1960, at the end of Duplessis’ regime, only 54 per cent of adults 25 years of age had attained a grade 6 education.

Every aspect of society had been shaped by the Church’s dominance. For example, the Confédération des travailleurs catholiques du Canada (Canadian Confederation of Catholic Workers) became the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN); the Corporation des instituteurs catholiques was transformed into the Centrale des enseignants du Québec (CEQ). The Union catholique des cultivateurs (Catholic Farmers Union) became the Union des producteurs agricoles (UPA).

The struggle for women’s equality—from the battle for birth control and abortion to the fight for legal equality—was fierce in this period of the Quiet Revolution. These battles are still fresh in the minds of many who fought hard to break the hold of religion on their lives.

The debate

One can sympathize with the visceral feeling of those who had to battle the church even about what books you could read—the Index of prohibited books was in place into the 1960s. This depth and breadth of religious control did not have a parallel in English Canada (although large sections of Toronto were “dry” (alcohol-free) until recent years), nor is there much awareness outside Quebec of why the Quiet Revolution took place, and the central role of the fight against the Church’s influence.

Understanding how this struggle to uproot the Catholic church from state structures—and to free people from state-imposed religion—informs and shapes the current debate on the niqab is important for several reasons.

First, it helps to clarify the difference between that struggle and the situation today of a vulnerable minority in Quebec—Muslims—being forced by the state not to do something (wear the niqab or hijab). This understanding can show how targeting Muslims under the guise of “secularism” turns on its head the historically progressive nature of the fight for a secular Quebec, the fight to get what was effectively a Catholic state off people’s backs. To equate that fight to shaming and silencing Muslim women who for whatever reason wear the niqab goes against the crucial freedoms that were won through the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s in Quebec, including the concept of a woman’s right to choose, and the idea of self-determination.

The debate over secularism in Quebec has not escaped the hypocrisy that infects the West. While debate rages over the hijab and niqab, a crucifix hangs in the Quebec National Assembly. And in the Saguenay region last April, a Quebec citizen had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to get a ruling against prayer at city council meetings, in defiance of a mayor who argued that reciting prayer at city council respects Quebec's Catholic heritage.

It is clear there needs to be a discussion that the expression of religion by the monolithic oppressive Catholic church in Quebec is not the same thing as the expression of religion exhibited by a member of a targeted oppressed group, i.e. Muslims. It is like saying that the nationalism of an oppressed nation (such as Quebec or a First Nation) is the same as the nationalism of an oppressing, imperialist power. The historic control used by the Catholic church, on behalf of British imperialism, can never be replicated by the small number of Muslims in this country, particularly the minute number of women who wear the niqab!

The danger to all of us

It needs to be emphasized that Harper’s whipping up of Islamophobia (and “niqab-ophobia”) is being done in the election to play on Quebecers’ rejection of religious dominance, to capture votes from the NDP. Outside the election, Harper uses Islamophobia to support western military interventions in the Middle East and huge restrictions on civil liberties at home. Consequently, opposing the wearing of the niqab plays right into Harper’s hands.

And far from just being a “distraction” from the real threats posed by austerity measures and anti-terrorism laws, rejection of the niqab has dangerous consequences for Muslims.  Right after the televised leaders’ debate in Quebec that highlighted the niqab, a pregnant Muslim woman in Montreal had her hijab forcibly removed by two teens. This divisiveness, whether based on religious intolerance or “old stock” Canadian nationalism, not only endangers Muslims but seriously weakens the working class in Quebec and English Canada.

There are similarities with the “Je suis Charlie” rallies that took place in France earlier this year after the attacks on staff of the Charlie Hebdo magazine for portraying cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.  The slogan “Je suis Charlie” may have been the creation of surviving Charlie Hebdo staff and loved ones of those who had been murdered, but it was quickly seized upon by the forces of the state. The government organized mass rallies that featured French politicians (down in the polls) praising the magazine’s “satire” for representing the values of the French republic, namely, in the words of Hollande, “freedom of expression,” and “pluralism and democracy.”  A wave of hate crimes against Muslims followed on the heels of these rallies—including fire bombings, gunshots, a grenade attack and the throwing of pigs’ heads into mosques.

As the British commentator Mark Brown observed, “It should hardly need to be said that the secularism of the French revolutionary state in the late 18th century, aimed at curbing the power of the monarchist Catholic church is a far cry from the secularism of the French state today. In the more than two centuries since the 1789 Revolution, the French state has become a reactionary, bourgeois, imperialist state.

Resistance to Islamophobia and austerity

In spite of poll results and of the role of the Catholic church in Quebec’s history, there is a strong anti-racist sentiment in Quebec. In fact, on October 2, Francoise David, MNA and spokesperson for Quebec Solidaire, introduced a motion condemning Islamophobia, which was unanimously adopted in the Quebec National Assembly.

The Liberals tried to change the motion to condemn racism more generally, but David told reporters she insisted the word “Islamophobia” be included, and that the main focus was to defend Muslims against attacks. She said “The incidents that have been multiplying over the past few weeks particularly affect Quebec’s Muslims.” She also suggested that her federal counterparts quit focusing on the niqab in their debates. “We have many other things to debate. We have two weeks more (in the campaign). Please debate on the environment, on social justice, on refugees…. The issue of the niqab will be resolved in the Supreme Court, but the question of relations between the majority in Quebec and its minorities, including the Muslim minority, must be settled in Quebec outside an election campaign.”

While the media in English Canada has been eager to focus attention on the backlash against the niqab in Quebec, little attention has been paid to the fact that this extremely dangerous divide and conquer issue has not succeeded in dividing or deterring a broad-based movement against austerity.

In Montreal on October 3, over 100,000 people from all over Quebec marched in the streets of Montreal chanting, “Les plus pauvres à l’enfer pour l’équilibre budgétaire” (the poorest to hell for a balanced budget).” It was organized by the Front commun (Common Front), an alliance of Quebec’s five major trade union federations. 

In defiance of a provincial public-sector wage freeze they are seeking salary hikes of 13.5 per cent over three years, and two of the federations—the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) and the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN)—already have strike mandates. Daniel Boyer, president of the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec (FTQ), also part of the Common Front, warned, “I’m not going to say that this will be the last peaceful demonstration, but we’re moving towards more muscular tactics.” Françoise David, marched with the unions and urged the government to negotiate in good faith and stop discrediting the unions.

This massive show of public sector resistance came just two days after the second “human chain” of parents who plan to surround public schools across Quebec with their bodies at the beginning of each month to stop the cuts to their kids’ education.

It gives the lie to the argument that Quebec is stuck in the dark ages while the rest of Canada is more enlightened. Quebec is struggling with many issues of national identity, ethnicity, and secularism that need to be worked out. But the best arena for this is one of collective resistance to the austerity measures that affect and can potentially unite people across those divides—like the rejection of the PQ and their racist “charter of values” last year. The other sad truth for English Canada is that we have yet to see anything near that same level of sustained resistance.

Anger and frustration against cuts and austerity can be turned towards scapegoating, and Quebec is no exception to the use of racism and Islamophobia for this purpose. But the people of Quebec are more than capable of deciding their future based not on social or ethnic exclusion but on resistance to austerity and the possibility of a Quebec, and a world, beyond capitalism.

Join the discussion After the election: the fight against austerity and climate change, October 22 in Toronto.

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