Laws that limit religious rights emboldens racists, particularly Islamophobia

Not surprising, but useful confirmation from this latest study on the impact of the ongoing toxic religious symbols debates:

Last week, parliamentary hearings began on Quebec’s Bill 21, which would ban public employees in “positions of authority” from wearing religious symbols. In his testimony, the philosopher Charles Taylor stated that he and Gérard Bouchard were wrong to propose restrictions on religious symbols in their 2008 report on reasonable accommodation.

Taylor affirmed he had been “very naïve” for not foreseeing that such proposals would stigmatize religious minorities and feed intolerance. “The very fact that we were talking about this kind of a plan started to stimulate hate incidents, not just in Quebec but all over,” Taylor said. He added: “I really changed my mind when I saw the consequences of such policies.”

Taylor’s remarks summarize rather well the findings of a research project we recently conducted at McGill University. Our research shows that laws like Bill 21 can have much graver consequences for religious minorities than the specific provisions they entail. Such laws also embolden those who harbour deep-seated xenophobia — specifically Islamophobia — and they therefore intensify minorities’ encounters of hostility and mistreatment.

For our research, we conducted dozens of biographical interviews with Muslim Montrealers to learn about their views and experiences. We asked them how their religion matters in everyday life, and how they evaluate their opportunities in Quebec. Muslims are a diverse group, so we included those who are secular and pious, young and old, professional and working-class.

But despite this diversity, our findings were stunningly cohesive. Virtually all of our interviewees emphasized political campaigns seeking to restrict religious rights — the aftermath of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, the Charter of Values debate in 2013-14, and Bill 62 in 2017 — as major turning points in their lives.

For example, young Muslims born and raised in Quebec report growing up without any strong sense of exclusion — until they experienced the controversy over the Charter of Values as adolescents or young adults. As one young woman put it, “The true colours come out. I think people felt like they were entitled to do things that they wouldn’t normally do because the government was supporting it.”

During her work at a bank, she said, “People were openly telling me to go home, to go back to my country, refusing that I help them at the bank, because I was wearing a hijab.”

Many of the people we spoke with reported similar incidents, which left them shocked, confused, and ultimately alienated. Suddenly, these men and women had to re-evaluate their relationships, consider what an angry look on the subway might mean, and what that passing pedestrian might have muttered under his breath. The young woman tersely summed it up: “It kind of left a bitter feeling.”

Such experiences fundamentally change people. We spoke to a woman who stopped wearing the hijab in public after an irate woman told her, “You just know how to bring kids into the world, but you are like cows” as she was out for a walk with her baby daughter.

We spoke to a man who converted to Islam, but who keeps his religion a secret so that it does not endanger his professional career.

Others responded in the opposite fashion — proudly proclaiming their religious identities even in the face of adversity. But their lives, too, were negatively affected insofar as they now felt they had to be ready, at a moment’s notice, to defend their religion.

Just like prior laws that aimed to limit religious rights, Bill 21 emboldens those who hate or fear Muslims. There may not be many such people, but it seems that there are enough to make life miserable for Muslims and sometimes even endanger them.

According to Statistics Canada, this is not an issue confined to Quebec. Latest figures suggest that police-reported hate crimes reached an all-time high across the country in 2017, with those against Muslims demonstrating the greatest increase compared to the previous year.

In this social context, politicians have to recognize that their campaigns and policies, even beyond the letter of the law, have broad and immediate consequences for how religious minorities are viewed and treated. Political campaigns can indeed “create a really frightful climate,” as Taylor cautioned in his parliamentary address.

Source: Laws that limit religious rights emboldens racists, particularly Islamophobia