Douglas Todd: How Quebec’s religious restrictions compare to harsh regimes

Not sure of the utility of such comparisons compared to more like countries:

Continuing to prove Quebec is a distinct society in North America, the francophone province’s decision to restrict certain public servants from wearing religious symbols has got the rest of the world buzzing.

Quebec’s government, with firm support from voters, will no longer allow its judges, police officers, teachers and others in positions of “authority” to wear head scarves, turbans or other religious symbols on the job.

Although widely condemned in English-speaking Canada and the U.S., Quebec says Bill 21 protects the religious neutrality of the secular state, similar to France’s laïcité laws. Quebec politicians cemented their secularist approach by removing a large crucifix from the legislative building.

How does Quebec’s ban compare to less-discussed religious restrictions in the rest of North America? And how does it contrast with the world, where constraints on religious minorities often lead to imprisonment, mass detention, job termination, clandestine worship, floggings and even execution?

I attended two conferences in October at which the convolutions of religious freedom were front and centre. You couldn’t have asked more informed scholars, journalists and officials from around the globe for perspective on what is happening in Quebec, which, somewhat like France, emphasizes that diverse religious beliefs are fine, but should be private.

Penn State sociologist Roger Finke, who charts a startling range of global religious-freedom conflicts, is concerned about Quebec’s new law, but knows it pales in comparison to elsewhere.

Theocratic Saudi Arabia, for instance, allows no other religion than Islam to be practised. In Egypt “societal discrimination against non-Muslims is extremely high,” with members of minority faiths frequently thrown into jail. In China, an officially secular state, Christians and others are “forced underground.” About one million Uighurs Muslims have been imprisoned in China’s mass camps.

“When compared to the beheadings in Egypt, the re-education camps in China and the numerous imprisonments and killings around the globe, Quebec’s Bill 21 is mild,” Finke said after speaking at a religion and law conference at Brigham Young University.

“However, it is clearly denying a freedom. This can deny people the ability to openly express their beliefs as well as follow the guidelines of their faith by wearing hijabs, turbans, veils and other dress,” Finke said, expressing a widespread view among English-speaking North Americans.

But it’s not as if the rest of multicultural Canada lacks quarrels of freedom of religion and belief. Diverse religious leaders rebelled when the federal Liberals launched a summer-jobs program that required groups to declare themselves supportive of abortion rights to get funding.

And the Supreme Court of Canada’s refusal of Langley’s Trinity Western University request to open a law school, because it has a Christian code of conduct that restricts LGBQT people, is seen by many in the U.S. as a stark infringement of religious freedom.

Still, such North America battles are relatively minor. After a conference of the International Association of Religion Journalists in Salt Lake City, executive director Endy Bayuni outlined ways religion is restricted in his homeland of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

The biggest threat to religious freedom in Indonesia, population 264 million, is its decades-old blasphemy laws, says Bayuni, a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.

“Hundreds of people have gone to jail under this law, on the pretext that they have insulted religion. A Buddhist woman was given a two-year jail term under the blasphemy law for complaining about the sound of the call to prayer from a mosque near her home,” said Bayuni.

“Her home was attacked and several Buddhist temples in the town were razed by a mob. The perpetrators only received one- to two-month jail terms. The leaders of the Ahmadiyyah and Shia (schools of Islam) have also gone to jail for blasphemy because their faith is considered an affront to Sunni Islam.”

Although Indonesia, like 95 per cent of countries, formally guarantees religious freedom in its constitution, the twist is it only officially recognizes six faiths: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Therefore, people from smaller religions often can’t get birth certificates, marriage licences or hereditary rights because of their beliefs. That’s not to mention, Bayuni said, “anyone going around proclaiming to be an atheist would be attacked.”

Asked about Quebec’s new law, Bayuni said former Indonesian strongman Suharto also banned head scarves, mainly because they were seen as signs of radicalism. Nowadays more Muslim women are wearing them. The only thing banned in Indonesian schools and workplaces is the burqa, which covers the entire body and face (with a mesh over the eyes).

A journalist from Malaysia, Zurairi Abd Rahman, helped explain just how different religious freedom frictions are in each nation. After the International Association of Religion Journalists conference (disclosure: I’m on the board of the organization) Zurairi said the main threat in his country, in which Islam traditionally gets highest official status, is the way non-state organizations are pressing to ensure Muslims dominate the country’s top posts.

“The same lobby is now pushing the narrative that Christians and liberals are trying to take over the government, which would then abolish Islamic institutions,” said the news editor at The Malay Mail, who goes by the pen name Zurairi AR.

Muslims are also being squeezed by “Islamicization,” said Zurairi. “Activist Maryam Lee was recently investigated for allegedly insulting Islam” after writing a book, Unveiling Choice, “detailing the personal experiences of women who have stopped wearing head scarves.” Shariah law, which applies only to Muslims, is becoming increasingly harsh, he said, and broadened to govern such things as “adultery, ‘cross-dressing’ and ‘insulting Islam.’”

Malaysia would not follow the lead of Quebec and attempt to ban displays of faith in the public service, Zurairi said. A key threat to religious freedom in Malaysia is in many ways the opposite of that in Quebec: Some companies and schools are forcing women to wear hijabs.

Elizabeth Clark, professor of law at Brigham Young University, said she understands why Quebec and France have responded to the once-overwhelming political power of the Roman Catholic Church by ensuring schools and government remain “religion-free zones.”

Quebec is attempting to uphold both gender equality and LGBQT rights by emphasizing religious belief should be purely private, Clark said. But she believes it’s going too far “with regards to the impact it has on the religious freedom of those seeking to manifest their beliefs through wearing head scarves.”

Religious freedom dovetails intimately with other human rights, including freedom of opinion, says Finke, making a strong case. Even though Bill 21 will only affect a small number of Canadians, and no freedom is absolute, its implications are worth understanding and questioning.

Source: Douglas Todd: How Quebec’s religious restrictions compare to harsh regimes

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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