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Challenging Quebec’s niqab law: no to Islamophobia, no to Quebec bashing

Chantal Sundaram, Alia Karim and Peter Hogarth

November 2, 2017

Quebec’s Law on Religious Neutrality, formerly Bill 62, which denies a range of public services to women who wear the niqab, is a horrendously racist piece of legislation. Some have even referred to it as Quebec’s version of the Trump “Muslim ban.”

In a sense it goes even further than the PQ’s "Charter of Values," which aimed to ban religious insignia for some working in the public sector. The Quebec Liberals’ law actually denies public services to women wearing the niqab. This includes things like daycare and public transportation.

The government has claimed it is a law focused on “religious neutrality” but it is plain to see that it is a racist bill meant to scapegoat Muslims in the province. The law reduces the idea of secularism to a bizarre notion of religious neutrality that takes direct aim at the tiny population of women in Québec who wear a niqab or any kind of religious face-covering.

But its passing has made possible once again an attack on Quebec as more racist than anywhere in English Canada. While it’s understandable that people both in and outside of Quebec are outraged by this law, a focus on Quebec as the source of racism and Islamophobia risks undermining the collective fight against it.

Canadian Islamophobia

This move fits in with a history of Islamophobia common to the ruling parties of Canada. Since September 11, 2001, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper of the Conservatives have perpetuated Islamophobia and related fear-mongering to justify the Canadian military’s role in wars in the Middle East.

Often, the state’s hunts for so-called “barbaric cultural practices”, and calls for “humanitarian intervention”, are based on cynical appeals for women’s rights. Cultural and religious wear, such as the hijab, niqab, and burka, have been wrongly targeted by Tories, Liberals, Bloc Québécois as examples of sexism in Islam. This is a complete distortion of Islamic women and shuts out the voices of women who wear face-coverings. As Zayneb Mohammed, a Montréal resident who wears a niqab argued, “[Bill 62] will just stop me from going out. I will not have the possibility to go out and do whatever I want to do.” She also said that she frequently receives comments like, “…‘go back to your country, we’re not in Afghanistan’. I also had, you know, like ‘you're a cockroach ... you are just taking over our country’”.

Self-styled ‘champions’ of women’s rights are perfectly fine forcing women who wear face-coverings to choose between their faith and public life. Denying women the right to express their faith while serving the public or accessing public services does nothing to further women’s rights. Excluding women from jobs, denying them services for wearing niqab means barring them from the rights and privileges of others and forcing them into a life that is fearful, solitary, and isolated.

But we do not accept the disgusting anti-Québec bigotry that suggests that they are more racist than English Canada. In every corner of the Canadian state, Islamophobia and xenophobia has reared its ugly head. Take for example, Dalhousie University’s harsh reactions to student union vice-president Masuma Khan’s Facebook posts voicing her opposition to “white fragility” and refusal to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, or Stephen Harper’s Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which has still not repealed by the Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.

We see the true nature of the Liberal party on display here. Trudeau told reporters, “I don’t think a government should be telling a woman what to wear or not wear”, but he refused to come out strongly against the National Assembly’s decision. Trudeau’s actions reveal that despite his attempt to campaign as the candidate who supports intersectionality and ‘diversity’, the Liberals are complicit in Islamophobia and racism, and use it to their advantage to divide the Canadian public. The 1%, whether they are French-speaking or English-speaking, benefit from the racism, anti-Quebec chauvinism, and other forms of oppression that divide the working class.

Quebec: ‘secularism’ and scapegoating

There is no doubt that there is a historical reason for confusion about secularism in Quebec, where the Catholic Church dominated every aspect of life up until the 1960s.

But it’s not the whole story: in Quebec as across the Western world, scapegoating Islam targets religion and masks the fact that Islamophobia, and laws like this one, are not fundamentally about religion but about race. It is precisely the false appeals to secularism that give a progressive cover to racism.

This is a question that has tricked much of the left since 9/11 across Europe, the US, and all of Canada. In the last federal election in 2015, “niqabophobia” infected the debate not only in Quebec but across the country, in the wake of the release of a poll showing a majority of Canadians, across the entire country, in support of requiring the removal of the niqab during Canadian Citizenship ceremonies.

It’s true that the “new racism” of Islamphobia has had a particular hearing in Quebec. But not all of it has emerged spontaneously: it was stoked by Quebec politicians of all stripes who have needed to deflect a massive movement against austerity in divisive directions over the last ten years.

The PQ tried this with its racist Charter of Values, but failed: they were thrown out of government after only 2 years when this maneuver failed to buy enough support for them to survive tabling an austerity budget. And now the Liberals are trying to boost their somewhat flagging fortunes with the Neutrality Law. They are not only trying to compete with the PQ but with the right-wing populist CAQ one year before the next election.

But it has never been true, nor is it now, that everyone in Quebec is buying in.

Protest and the crucifix

On October 25, shortly after the Religious Neutrality Law was passed, close to 100 people in Montreal got on the Metro together at the same stop as a group and rode together with their faces covered. In scarves, masks, and in some cases full niqab, the protest riders both opposed the racism of the law and demonstrated how impossible it will be to implement. The protest occurred after Liberal Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee’s ridiculous statement: “The obligation to uncover one’s face is not only for veiled women, but let’s also think about others who have covered faces… by balaclavas or shaded glass.”

Quebec solidaire (QS) has been credited as being the only party in Quebec that has stood consistently against this type of racist identity politics that targets racialized communities and especially Muslims. And yet, there are problems with QS’s path of opposition. Although QS members supported and promoted the Metro protest, the party did not officially endorse it. Instead, QS’s major political response to the law was to table a motion in the National Assembly to remove the crucifix that hangs there.

The crucifix was placed there in the 1930s as a symbol of the close relationship that existed between the Catholic Church and the Quebec state right up until the Quiet Revolution. It is the height of hypocrisy that the crucifix survived that moment of secularization and continues to be defended as heritage symbol by the same politicians who will not tolerate the niqab. But still, focusing on its removal is a problematic response to the niqab law. 

Merely pointing out hypocrisy does not get at the racism that is at the bottom of all of this. In fact, it can have the opposite effect of focusing attention back on religion and on false notions of secularism.

The Religious Neutrality law is not about secularism, it is about Islamophobia and racist scapegoating. And anyone in Quebec who doesn’t see this, especially on the left, needs to understand that it is a key issue that is allowing the far right to grow – both within Quebec with fascist groups like La Meute, and outside, allowing anglophones on far-right rallies in English Canada to wave Quebec flags, not because they support Quebec’s right to self-determination but because they support banning the niqab.

Ten years of Liberal failure

Ten years ago the Quebec Liberals commissioned the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Reasonable Accommodation. Ironically, a conference in Montreal convened on the 10-year anniversary of the commission just as the Neutrality Law was passing. Both affirmed that the law would not stand up to a court challenge. They also said it represented a complete lack of will to implement their recommendations.  In the words of Bouchard: “We proposed a true secular regime with all its component parts: neutrality, separation of Church and State, liberty of choice, and equality of religions…we don’t understand why they only took one piece when the four components completed each other.” Said Charles Taylor: “There is too strong a tendency for politicians to opt for electoralism.”

There is also the failure of the Quebec Liberal inquiry into systemic racism: while it can in some measure be blamed on popular pushback, ultimately it too died due to lack of political will. And this is not just a Quebec issue: as Jagmeet Singh said, a similar inquiry on systemic racism should be conducted across Canada.

Despite these disturbing trends in Quebec, the most dangerous lesson to draw is that English Canada deserves a free pass in comparison. It doesn’t.


The International Socialists oppose any restrictions on what women wear or what they do with their bodies. Just as we fully support a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion on demand, we unequivocally oppose Bill 62.

As International Socialists we oppose any attempt by the state to divide the working class based on race, gender, sexual orientation, status, religion, etc. We are working to build multi-racial, multi-gender, working class coalitions, of all faiths, united in common struggle against the capitalist class for a new society based on worker’s power. Less than a year after praying Muslims were gunned down in their place of worship and Bill 62 only gives more confidence to Islamophobes. We need to build solidarity with Muslims who are experiencing Islamophobia and discrimination against their religious and cultural identities. 

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