Aykol: France and Macron Aren’t Helping Solve Islam’s Crisis. They’re Strengthening Extremists Instead.

Good thoughtful commentary:

“Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today.” That is what the French President Emmanuel Macron said on Oct. 2, while announcing his “anti-radicalism plan.” Just two weeks later, on Oct. 16, a devotee of that radicalism killed and beheaded a high-school teacher, Samuel Paty, in a Paris suburb, merely for showing the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his classroom. And soon after, three worshippers at a church in Nice were savagely murdered by another terrorist who seemed to have the same motivation: to punish blasphemy against the prophet of Islam.

In return, the French authorities initiated a crackdown on anything they deemed to be Islamism, and also projected the controversial cartoons of Prophet Muhammad on government buildings in France—only to provoke mass protests in various parts of the Muslim world.

Macron is doing little to resolve this crisis and could actually be inflaming it, because the sort of freedom he claims to defend is full of painful shortcomings and cynical double standards.

All these events have initiated an ongoing debate about France, Islam, and freedom. Some in the West now see France as the beacon of Enlightenment values against the dark forces of religious fanaticism. Others argue that the main problem is Islamophobia, racism and the colonial arrogance of France in a world where—except for a handful of extremists—Muslims are the real victims.

As a Muslim who has been writing about these issues for about two decades, let me offer a more nuanced view: First, France—like any target of terrorism—deserves sympathy for its fallen and solidarity against the threat. Moreover, Macron is largely correct that Islam is facing a “crisis”—not “all over world,” but certainly in some parts of the world—and we Muslims need an honest conversation about that. Unfortunately, Macron is doing little to resolve this crisis and could actually be inflaming it, because the sort of freedom he claims to defend is full of painful shortcomings and cynical double standards.

Many Muslims would find any talk of Islam facing a crisis unacceptable, if not heretical, for they think of Islam as a divinely ordained, perfect, and eternal truth. Yet one can well believe in the divine core of Islam, as I do, while being critical of the many layers of human interpretation built on top of that. It is this human interpretation that gave us much of the Islamic fiqh, or jurisprudence, which has some harsh verdicts that conflict with what the modern world calls human rights and civil liberties—the notions that people should be free to believe or disbelieve in a religion, and free to evangelize or criticize it.

Let’s take the burning issue at hand: What should Muslims do in the face of blasphemy against the Prophet—or sabb al-rasul, as medieval jurists called it. They all agreed it should be severely punished. According to mainline Shafi and Maliki jurists, the blasphemer would be executed immediately, unless he or she repented. According to the stricter Hanbalis, the blasphemer would be executed even if he or she repented. And according to the milder Hanafis, there was no clear ground for execution, but the blasphemer could be jailed and beaten with sticks.

None of these verdicts had any basis in the Quran—like most similar verdicts in Islamic jurisprudence—but jurists inferred them from some targeted killings that reportedly took place during the Prophet’s battles with the polytheists of his time.

What is less noticed is that medieval Muslim jurists reasoned according to the norms of their time, where the concept of free speech simply didn’t exist. Indeed, their Christian contemporaries weren’t any more lenient to blasphemers or heretics. The Byzantine Empire, under the Justinian Laws of the 6th century, declared, “Men shall not … blaspheme God,” and gave the death penalty for those who did. Later, in Europe, the Catholic Inquisition took blasphemy law a step further by making this capital punishment just more painful with new techniques like auto-da-fé, or burning people alive at the stake.

We Muslims need this reform not to please Westerners, but to save our own societies from the sectarianism, bigotry, misogyny, and oppression that is being justified in the name of Islam

Yet Christianity has changed immensely in the past four centuries—first with the lessons taken from the horrific Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), and then new ideas of tolerance advocated by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. Debates on freedom among Catholics continued well into the 20th century, but ultimately all mainline Christians gave up coercive power in the name of their faith.

However, the same transformation hasn’t yet fully taken place in Islam—and that lies at the core of the crisis, that not just Macron but also critical Muslims are talking about. Medieval Islamic jurisprudence is still there, with some violent and coercive verdicts unrefuted by most contemporary religious scholars. Most Muslims are not interested in these verdicts, let alone eager to implement them, but some are. Their zealotry, in the extreme, leads to vigilante violence and terrorism. In the mainstream, it leads to blasphemy laws that are in place in many Muslim-majority states—Pakistan being one of the most ferocious.

A fairly conservative but thoughtful American Muslim, Yasir Qadi, a popular preacher and a dean at the Al-Maghrib Institute, recently admitted this problem in an interesting post “on the French terrorist attack.” Most mainstream Muslim authorities condemn such terrorist attacks, he noted, but “don’t directly address the fiqh [jurisprudence] texts involved.” Especially on the issue of blasphemy, he added, “There are texts and fiqh issues that need to be discussed frankly—hardly anyone has done that (still!).”

Having such frank discussions on Islamic jurisprudence—and the underlying theological assumptions—could open Islam’s path toward its own authentic Enlightenment, the gist of which should be giving up coercive power in the name of the faith. We Muslims need this reform not to please Westerners, but to save our own societies from the sectarianism, bigotry, misogyny, and oppression that is being justified in the name of Islam, and to better reflect the true values of our faith.

In other words, Islam needs its own Enlightenment, but Macron is advocating the wrong sort of Enlightenment. And that’s a problem deeply rooted in France’s own history.

It is worth recalling that the Enlightenment was not a monolithic movement. As the late great historian Gertrude Himmelfarb explained in Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, there was rather a clear distinction between the French and the Anglo-Saxon paths: In France, Enlightenment often implied a combat between faith and reason. In Britain and America, it often implied a harmony of them. Therefore, the French path has been much more assertive, anti-clerical, and also bloody. The French Revolution, lest we forget, was an extremely violent affair, where hundreds of priests were killed—often by beheading—and the Church’s dominance of the public square was replaced, not by neutrality, but an alternative religion called the Cult of Reason.

Having subdued Catholicism long ago with this aggressive Enlightenment, France seems to be reviving it against Islam, especially under the banner of laïcité, its unmistakably illiberal form of secularism.

The French often say foreigners don’t understand laïcité. I do—because my country, Turkey, imitated the French model for almost a century.

The French often say foreigners don’t understand laïcité. I do—because my country, Turkey, imitated the French model for almost a century.

The main problem of this specific form of secularism is its reliance on preemptive intolerance; assuming that religion and its symbols might become oppressive if they are visible, laïcité suppresses them in the first place. The result of such policies is often a simmering grudge among the religious, and ultimately a backlash, if not revenge—which is precisely how Turkey got its great Islamic avenger, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Although Macron says the target of laïcité is not Islam, but only “Islamism,” the latter term is left quite vague in his rhetoric. In practice, it’s not vague at all. In France it has long been obvious that personal Muslim practices are targeted: For many years, Muslim women in France have been banned from wearing headscarves in public buildings, or so-called burkinis on beaches. Last September, a French politician from Macron’s party protested a young French Muslim woman for merely walking into the National Assembly while wearing a headscarf. And, in October, the French interior minister even took issue with halal food aisles in supermarkets—and kosher ones, too, signaling a threat to the religious freedom of just not Muslims, but other practicing believers as well.

In other words, what France requires from its Muslims is not just accepting the freedom of speech of blasphemers, but also giving up a part of their own freedom of religion. This is not only wrong in principle, but also myopic and counterproductive. It just makes it harder for practicing French Muslims to feel respected, accepted, and therefore fully French—precisely the sort of integration radical Islamists would like to avert.

Source: France and Macron Aren’t Helping Solve Islam’s Crisis. They’re Strengthening Extremists Instead.

The French President vs. the American Media

Of note along with Erna Paris’ critique (A rigid belief in freedom is driving France and the U.S. to tragedy). Universalism is a convenient way to avoid addressing systemic issues and discrimination:

The president has some bones to pick with the American media: about our “bias,” our obsession with racism, our views on terrorism, our reluctance to express solidarity, even for a moment, with his embattled republic.

So President Emmanuel Macron of France called me on Thursday afternoon from his gilded office in the Élysée Palace to drive home a complaint. He argued that the Anglo-American press, as it’s often referred to in his country, has blamed France instead of those who committed a spate of murderous terrorist attacks that began with the beheading on Oct. 16 of a teacher, Samuel Paty, who, in a lesson on free speech, had shown his class cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” President Macron said, recalling Nov. 13, 2015, when 130 people were killed in coordinated attacks at a concert hall, outside a soccer stadium and in cafes in and around Paris.

“So when I see, in that context, several newspapers which I believe are from countries that share our values — journalists who write in a country that is the heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — when I see them legitimizing this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”

Legitimizing violence — that’s as serious a charge as you can make against the media, and the sort of thing we’ve been more used to hearing, and shrugging off, from the American president. And Americans, understandably distracted by the hallucinatory final days of the Trump presidency, may have missed the intensifying conflict between the French elite and the English-language media.

More than 250 people have died in terror attacks in France since 2015, the most in any Western country. Mr. Macron, a centrist modernizer who has been a bulwark against Europe’s Trumpian right-wing populism, said the English-language — and particularly, American — media were imposing their own values on a different society.

In particular, he argued that the foreign media failed to understand “laïcité,” which translates as “secularism” — an active separation of church and state dating back to the early 20th century, when the state wrested control of the school system from the Catholic Church. The subject has become an increasing focus this year, with the approach of the 2022 election in which Mr. Macron appears likely to face the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Mr. Macron didn’t initially campaign on changing the country’s approach to its Muslim minority, but in a major speech in early October denouncing “Islamist separatism,” he promised action against everything from the foreign training of imams to “imposing menus that accommodate religious restrictions in cafeterias.” He also called for remaking the religion itself into “an Islam of the Enlightenment.” His tough-talking interior minister, meanwhile, is using the inflammatory language of the far right.

When Mr. Paty was murdered, Mr. Macron responded with a crackdown on Muslims accused of extremism, carrying out dozens of raids and vowing to shut down aid groups. He also made a vocal recommitment to secularism. Muslim leaders around the world criticized Mr. Macron’s and his aides’ aggressive response, which they said focused on peaceful Muslim groups. The president of Turkey called for boycotts of French products, as varied as cheese and cosmetics. The next month saw a new wave of attacks, including three murders in a Nice church and an explosion at a French ceremony in Saudi Arabia.

Some French grievances with the U.S. media are familiar from the U.S. culture wars — complaints about short-lived headlines and glib tweets by journalists. But their larger claim is that, after the attacks, English and American outlets immediately focused on failures in France’s policy toward Muslims rather than on the global terror threat. Mr. Macron was particularly enraged by a Financial Times opinion article on Nov. 3, “Macron’s war on Islamic separatism only divides France further,” which argued that he was alienating a Muslim majority that also hates terrorism. The article said he was attacking “Islamic separatism” when, in fact, he had used the word “Islamist.” Mr. Macron’s critics say he conflates religious observance and extremism, and the high-profile misquote — of his attempt to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism — infuriated him.

“I hate being pictured with words which are not mine,” Mr. Macron told me, and after a wave of complaints from readers and an angry call from Mr. Macron’s office, The Financial Times took the article off the internet — something a spokeswoman, Kristina Eriksson, said she couldn’t recall the publication ever having done before. The next day, the newspaper published a letter from Mr. Macron attacking the deleted article.

In late October, Politico Europe also deleted an op-ed article, “The dangerous French religion of secularism,” that it had solicited from a French sociologist. The piece set off a firestorm from critics who said the writer was blaming the victims of terrorism. But the hasty deletion prompted the author to complain of “outright censorship.” Politico Europe’s editor in chief, Stephen Brown, said that the article’s timing after the attack was inappropriate, but that he had apologized to the author for taking it down without explanation. He didn’t cite any specific errors. It was also the first time, he said, that Politico had ever taken down an opinion article.

But French complaints go beyond those opinion articles and to careful journalism that questions government policy. A skeptical Washington Post analysis from its Paris correspondent, James McAuley, “Instead of fighting systemic racism, France wants to ‘reform Islam,’” drew heated objections for its raised eyebrow at the idea that “instead of addressing the alienation of French Muslims,” the French government “aims to influence the practice of a 1,400-year-old faith.” The New York Times drew a contrast between Mr. Macron’s ideological response and the Austrian chancellor’s more “conciliatory” address after a terror attack, and noted that the isolated young men carrying out attacks don’t neatly fit into the government’s focus on extremist networks. In the Times opinion pages, an op-ed asked bluntly, “Is France Fueling Muslim Terrorism by Trying to Prevent It?”

And then, of course, there are the tweets. The Associated Press deleted a tweet that asked why France “incites” anger in the Muslim world, saying it was a poor word choice for an articleexplaining anger at France in the Muslim world. The New York Times was roasted on Twitter and in the pages of Le Monde for a headline — which appeared briefly amid the chaos of the beheading — “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street.” The Times headline quickly changed as French police confirmed details, but the screenshot remained.

“It’s as though we were in the smoking ruins of ground zero and they said we had it coming,” Mr. Macron’s spokeswoman, Anne-Sophie Bradelle, complained to Le Monde.

As any observer of American politics knows, it can be hard to untangle theatrical outrage and Twitter screaming matches from real differences in values. Mr. Macron argues that there are big questions at the heart of the matter.

“There is a sort of misunderstanding about what the European model is, and the French model in particular,” he said. “American society used to be segregationist before it moved to a multiculturalist model, which is essentially about coexistence of different ethnicities and religions next to one another.”

“Our model is universalist, not multiculturalist,” he said, outlining France’s longstanding insistence that its citizens not be categorized by identity. “In our society, I don’t care whether someone is Black, yellow or white, whether they are Catholic or Muslim, a person is first and foremost a citizen.”

Some of the coverage Mr. Macron complains about reflects a genuine difference of values. The French roll their eyes at America’s demonstrative Christianity. And Mr. Macron’s talk of head scarves and menus, along with the interior minister’s complaints about Halal food in supermarkets, clashes with the American emphasis on religious tolerance and the free expression protected by the First Amendment.

Such abstract ideological distinctions can seem distant from the everyday lives of France’s large ethnic minorities, who complain of police abuse, residential segregation and discrimination in the workplace. Mr. Macron’s October speech also acknowledged, unusually for a French leader, the role that the French government’s “ghettoization” of Muslims in the suburbs of Paris and other cities played in creating generations of alienated young Muslims. And some of the coverage that has most offended the French has simply reflected the views of Black and Muslim French people who don’t see the world the way French elites want them to.

Picking fights with American media is also an old sport in France, and it can be hard to know when talk of cultural differences is real and when it is intended to wave away uncomfortable realities. And reactionary French commentators have gone further than Mr. Macron in attacking the U.S. media, drawing energy from the American culture wars. A flame-throwing article in the French magazine Marianne blasted U.S. coverage and then appeared in English in Tablet with an added American flourish denouncing “simplistic woke morality plays.”

But the ideological gaps between French and American points of view can be deceptive. The French commentariat has also harped on the #metoo movement as an example of runaway American ideology. Pascal Bruckner, the well-known public intellectual, called the sexual abuse case against Roman Polanski “neo-feminist McCarthyism.” But perhaps the most prominent American journalism in France this year came from The Times’s Norimitsu Onishi, who played a central role in forcing France to grapple with the well-known pedophilia of a famous writer, Gabriel Matzneff. A recent profile in a French news site described Mr. Onishi and others as “kicking the anthill just by naming things” that had previously gone unspoken. Mr. Matzneff is now facing charges.

And Mr. Macron has his own political context: a desperate fight against a resurgent coronavirus, a weak economy and a political threat from the right. He is also disentangling himself from an early, unsuccessful attempt to build a relationship with President Trump. He had spoken to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. the day before our conversation.

I asked him whether his vocal complaints about the American media weren’t themselves a little Trumpian — advancing his agenda through high-profile attacks on the press.

Mr. Macron said he simply wanted himself and his country to be clearly understood. “My message here is: If you have any question on France, call me,” he said. (He has, in fact, never granted The Times’s Paris bureau an interview, which would be a nice start.)

And he recoiled at the comparison to Mr. Trump.

“I read your newspapers, I’m one of your readers,” he said.

The battle against Quebec’s Bill 21

Good article by Paul Wells:

Sure, the leaders of Canada’s federal political parties didn’t have much to say during the election campaign when reporters asked what they planned to do about Quebec’s Bill 21. The law, which prohibits public servants in the province from wearing religious headgear and other symbols, is so popular politicians are reluctant to challenge it directly.

But that doesn’t mean nobody is challenging the law. Controversial laws usually find their way into a courtroom. One of the most pointed legal cases has been filed by the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), which released the text of its Quebec Superior Court challenge three days after the federal election.

Unfortunately, lately the English Montreal School Board is a bit of a mess. On Wednesday the Quebec government placed the board under trusteeship. Education minister Jean-François Roberge appointed Marlene Jennings, a former federal Liberal Member of Parliament, to take over the board’s management.

As further reaction to “an appalling situation” that included apparent contracting irregularities and the use of taxpayer money to buy alcohol and jewelry, Roberge handed the board’s financial statements over to the anti-corruption unit of the Sûreté du Québec.

This is all a handy reminder that history sometimes rests on unsteady shoulders. But the Quebec government is allowing the board to proceed with its Bill 21 challenge, which these days is just about the most popular thing the EMSB does.

Bill 21, “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,” was one of the first laws passed by the government of Quebec premier François Legault, the founding leader of the popular, centre-right Coalition Action Démocratique (CAQ) party. It sets out a long list of government-affiliated jobs—certain members of the legislature, police, prosecutors, teachers and others—whose holders are henceforth banned from wearing “religious symbols” on the job.

The law defines a “religious symbol” as “any object, including clothing, a symbol, jewellery, an adornment, an accessory or headwear” that is “worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief” or that is “reasonably considered as referring to a religious affiliation.” That’s really broad, but in practice it will most often be a device to keep female Muslim clerks, cops and teachers from wearing headscarves or veils at work.

At the end of October, before the government took most of the board’s powers away, I visited Montreal to discuss the impact of Bill 21 with EMSB officials. Angela Mancini, the board’s chairwoman, met me for breakfast.

Mancini said the board has had to turn down three teacher candidates it would otherwise have hired because Bill 21 doesn’t permit them to teach while wearing a headscarf. She worries about the message the law sends to students.

“When you tell a student that a teacher can’t wear her veil, or his kippa (a Jewish head covering for men) because it’s wrong, it’s almost like you’re telling them that when they wear those religious symbols, it’s a wrong thing. So we risk having a generation of students grow up thinking, if you wear a religious symbol, there’s almost something wrong with it,” she said.

Bill 21 is broadly similar to bills that were introduced by Quebec’s short-lived Parti Québécois government, led by then-premier Pauline Marois, in 2013 and, in milder form, by the Liberal government of Philippe Couillard in 2017. Defenders of such measures say it’s important for the Quebec government to show no religious preference in its relations with citizens. It’s often said to be justified by the fact that, until a half-century ago, Quebec was in many ways a Roman Catholic theocracy. The text of the law says it is “important that the paramountcy of State laicity”—an absence of religious affiliation—“be enshrined in Quebec’s legal order.”

The EMSB’s Mancini isn’t impressed. “I think the separation of state and religion has been going on for a while, regardless of whether teachers wear symbols in a classroom,” she said. “In my mind it goes back to fundamental rights. People are allowed to wear the symbols that they choose to wear.” In a school setting, parents and students should rest easy, she said. Wearing a headscarf or a crucifix “doesn’t mean teachers are going to impart” their religious convictions to their students, she said.

The board has retained the services of Power Law, a prominent Montreal firm, to challenge Bill 21. The lawyers’ argument is novel and promising, as we’ll see. And it’s probably for the best that the file has been turned over to outside experts, because Mancini and her colleagues have a lot of other concerns on their minds these days.

In January the majority on the board voted to cut Mancini’s pay from $38,000 to $10,000 after she missed a series of events in preceding months. She is unapologetic. “I’ve gone on record as saying I feel intimidated and harassed by certain members of the board,” she told Maclean’s.

The board was created in 1998 after a constitutional amendment replaced Catholic and Protestant boards in Quebec with French- and English-language boards. With 42,000 students, the EMSB is the largest English-language board in Quebec. Under Quebec’s language laws, only students whose parents were both educated in English in Canada, or the children of foreign professionals on short-term postings in Quebec, are permitted to receive an English-language education.

The EMSB’s administration has been factious for as long as the board has existed. In 2000 one commissioner attacked another, who had to be carried out on a stretcher and sent to hospital. But the board delivers results despite the fireworks, Mancini said. At 92 per cent, it has the province’s highest share of students who complete high school within seven years of beginning. The province-wide seven-year success rate is 79 per cent, well behind.

That record of school success despite distractions might bolster the board’s case in challenging Bill 21.

The board’s lawyers, Perri Ravon, Mark Power and Giacomo Zucchi, face a substantial obstacle: the law invokes the controversial “notwithstanding” clause of the 1982 Charter of Rights to affirm its effect despite the protections of Sections 2 and 7 through 15 of the Charter. Those are all the big Charter rights. Section 2 lists “fundamental freedoms” including freedom of conscience and religion, thought, belief, opinion and expression, and free association. So you can’t tell a judge the law defies freedom of religion. The Quebec government has already made full use of its ability to say, “We know, but we’re doing this anyway.”

Ravon, Power and Zucchi need to shop further down, in more obscure regions of the Charter that the “notwithstanding” provision can’t reach, for support. They’ve settled on two paragraphs. Section 23 guarantees minority-language educational rights. The EMSB’s lawyers argue that Bill 21 “impermissibly infringes” the delivery of an education under Section 23, because it limits whom the board can hire and promote.

The lawyers’ second line of attack is more novel and promising. They point to Section 28 of the Charter, which demands that rights be delivered equally to both men and women. It’s a short paragraph: “Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.”

In the Charter’s 37 years, very little jurisprudence has built up around Section 28. Most of the action has been around Section 2, the sweeping guarantee of fundamental rights. And when Section 2 isn’t swept aside by the “notwithstanding” provision, which it almost never is, courts don’t need to consider Section 28. But in the case at hand, Section 28’s guarantee of gender equality may prove powerful indeed.

Ravon and her colleagues point out that 88 per cent of preschool and elementary teachers in the EMSB are women and that 53 per cent of all Muslim women in Canada, according to some public-opinion surveys, wear headgear. They further note that Simon Jolin-Barette, the cabinet minister who steered Bill 21 through the National Assembly, specifically restricted the law’s applicability to men when he said facial hair, such as the beards of Jewish or Sikh judges or police officers, is exempt from the law.

The government’s repeated assertion, the board’s lawyers write, is that Muslim women are “subjugated” into wearing religious garb. “No consideration is given to women’s agency and autonomy”—to the possibility that they simply want to dress as they do, the lawyers write.

The first two words of Section 28 are “notwithstanding anything.” Kerri Froc, an assistant law professor at the University of New Brunswick who’s made a career out of studying the parts of the Charter everyone else ignores, wrote her doctoral thesis on Section 28. She notes that it almost certainly trumps Section 33, the “notwithstanding” clause. A 1982 federal government guide to the charter calls Section 28 “one guarantee that cannot be overridden by a legislature or Parliament.”

What judges will do with all this, we’ll have to wait and see. To add to the EMSB’s internal struggles, there’s a government-imposed, potentially existential problem. Bill 40, another proposed law introduced by Legault’s CAQ government and making its way through the legislative process, aims to eliminate school boards in Quebec altogether. It’ll probably be law early in the new year.

Can the EMSB’s challenge to Bill 21 continue past the legal demise of the board that launched it? “Short answer: We don’t know,” an EMSB spokesman said when I asked.

Meanwhile, Bill 21 contains sunset provisions that protect the jobs of public servants who were already in place when the bill became law. In the school-board setting, that means teachers who wear headscarves can’t be hired (or promoted), but they can keep the jobs they already had.

On my visit to Montreal I visited Carlyle Elementary School, a richly multicultural school in the leafy northwestern Montreal suburb of Town of Mount Royal. I met Haniyfa Scott, a kindergarten teacher. She grew up a few kilometres from the school. She and her husband converted to Islam in the 1970s. She has adult daughters who were raised in the faith until they were 18, after which they could make their own choices. They have continued as observant Muslims.

Scott showed me an agenda she uses to keep track of plans and appointments, the sort of richly-decorated spiral-bound thing you see in schools all over. This one contains a note on one page which she read aloud to me. “Canada is multicultural. In 1971 we made a rule to be multicultural. People come here from the whole world. In Canada, we like to respect everyone.”

Scott looked up from the page. “Did the CAQ not read that? Did they not understand that?”

That’s actually the crux of the controversy, I reminded her. Supporters of Bill 21 intend it precisely as a rebuttal to multiculturalism “à la Trudeau,” a reference to the belief, widespread in Quebec nationalist circles, that Pierre Trudeau introduced his multiculturalism policy as a way to contain Quebec nationalism. The state has no religion, the argument goes. Multiculturalism’s prerogatives end, or should, where Quebecers’ collective right to define the terms of their distinct society begin.

Haniyfa Scott is skeptical of such claims. “I’m listening to you,” she said slowly as I repeated these arguments, then paused. “I don’t know. Talk is cheap. I don’t know.” She says she has a daughter with two young children, one of them a four-year-old girl. “She dresses just as I do. She goes on the bus or Métro every day, and she is never offered a seat. Never offered a seat. Doesn’t that strike you as a little strange? And it brings me to tears.”

As an emissary of the Quebec state, shouldn’t she be religiously neutral? “I don’t think I’m going to persuade anybody in my classes to become a Muslim. I don’t think I have that much influence. I might influence them to do better in their math or their language or study science, that’s what I would aspire to, but my job is not to convert anybody.”

I followed Scott into her classroom, where she quizzed a roomful of 5-year-olds on the sound the letter U makes. Some of them were mightily distracted by the presence of a Maclean’s photographer. None remarked on the wardrobe choices of their teacher, whom they’ve never seen dress otherwise. Around them, all unseen, swirled a political, social and legal controversy that won’t end anytime soon. The kids paid all of it no mind. Does the word “cup” have a U sound? Yes, they agreed solemnly, it sure does.

Source: The battle against Quebec’s Bill 21

New row erupts over the wearing of the Islamic hijab in public in France

Sigh… Hopefully Quebec politicians won’t pick up on this, applying a ban to mothers on school field trips:

The debate around women wearing the Islamic headscarf has divided French politicians again, with France’s right wing Senate leader Gérard Larcher calling for President Emmanuel Macron to revise the law when it comes to religious neutrality in schools.

“It’s without a doubt a difficult subject,” Larcher said in an interview with France 2 Televisionon Tuesday night.

“But it is an essential subject, and we expect the President to federate and to make people of Muslim origin and religion feel just as much as part of the Republic as atheists, Catholics and Jews,” he said.

A bill sponsored by Les Republicans on maintaining religious neutrality within staff in the public school sector is up for a vote in the Senate, as early as next week.

“There is a need to discuss neutrality in public schools, without hate, without weakness. The subject has not been dealt with sufficiently,” he stressed.

During question time on Tuesday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe addressed the National Assembly, rejecting accusations that the government had an ambiguous stance when it came to religion in schools.

Philippe said the government preferred to focus on avoiding radicalisation, and school absence because of religious community pressure.

He was attempting to head off a new controversy over the question of secularism and whether or not to allow mothers wearing the Islamic headscarf to accompany their children’s classes on school outings.

Ruling party divided on issue

The French state and church were officially separated by law in 1905 to give form to the concept of secularism rooted in the 1789 French Revolution.

In 2004, the government prohibited the wearing of conspicuous religions symbols in public schools and banned the hijab, a garment that covers a woman’s hair but leaves her face exposed, from classrooms and government offices.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer stressed on Sunday that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children”, referring to a state council ruling from 2013.

But he also indicated that “the headscarf itself is not desirable in our society” because of “what it says about the status of women, what it says about our values.”

Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye also weighed in, saying it was important to allow space for exchanges between women who wear headscarves and those who do not, as this promoted “inclusivity”.

Minister suggests Islamist provocation

Two incidents in the past week have lead to a further revival of this debate.

Last Friday, far-right National Rally (RN) minister Julien Odoul provoked widespread outrage when he posted a video on Twitter of him confronting a woman who accompanied pupils last Friday to the regional parliament in Bourgogne-Franche-Comte in eastern France.

Citing “secular principles” in the wake of the killings in Paris this month of four police staff by a radicalised convert to Islam, he insisted the woman, whose son was among the group, remove her headscarf.

Members of the RN then walked out of the chamber before issuing a press statement denouncing “an Islamist provocation”.

Fatima E., speaking to the press for the first time since the incident told France Info on Tuesday that she thought it was a joke until she saw how the students were reacting.

“They were really shocked and traumatised,” she said, and even though she didn’t want to give in, she eventually realized it was better if she left the room, only to be confronted in the corridor by another former member of the National Rally party.

“I was shaking from head to toe,” she said, going on to say that she now has a bad opinion of “what is called the Republic”.

Regional parliament speaker Marie-Guite Dufay, criticised Odoul’s actions, saying neither the law of the country nor the rules of the chamber prohibited a member of the public wearing a headscarf.

Dufay denounced a “surge of hatred” and what she described as “undignified behaviour” on the part of a lawmaker.

Fire station refuses school visit

Then on Monday, a visit by a group of school students to the main fire station in Creil, north of Paris, was cancelled outright because two of the mothers accompanying the group were wearing an Islamic hijab.

The director of Regional Fire and rescue service (SDIS) said it was a simple case of misinterpretation on behalf of the fire station chief and that it was regrettable that it had happened.

“The women were wearing a simple headscarf, known as hijab,” Eric de Valroger President of the SDIS told AFP.

“I think the chief was just trying to do his job, and apply the law,” he went on.

One of the women made a complaint to the fire service, saying she was “shocked” over their refusal to allow her to enter the building.

Valroger, who is also the vice-president of the Republicans party in the Val d’Oise region later said the woman had since spoken to the fire station chief and he had apologized and things had calmed down.

Source: New row erupts over the wearing of the Islamic hijab in public in France

Why isn’t ‘unthinkable’ Quebec’s religious symbols ban a federal election issue? Selley and Urback

Two very similar columnists raise the same question and criticize the answer. Starting with Chris Selley:

Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans civil servants in certain positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job, passed in the National Assembly in June. And Quebecers are now gradually getting to know the victims of their pseudo-secularist misadventure — and what they intend to do about it.

Amrit Kaur, a 28-year-old recent teachers’ college graduate who wears a turban, has been in the news recently after picking up stakes for Surrey, B.C. Chahira Battou, a 29-year-old teacher who wears a hijab, was the subject of a similar news cycle back in April, telling various outlets she would rather be fired than obey the law — “If I submit to the law, and I remove my scarf when I go to teach, that is when I become a submissive woman,” she told the Washington Postand rilingnationalist commentators when she suggested to TVA host Denis Lévesque that Quebec cannot be a country of laïcité, because it isn’t a country at all. Nadia Naqvi, another teacher who wears the hijab, told the Post she wouldn’t take off her hijab out of respect for her students: “We’re supposed to teach them to stand up for their beliefs.” (Already-employed civil servants are not officially affected by Bill 21 unless they are so presumptuous as to want a promotion.)

Most of those affected will be teachers, most women, and most — not by accident — Muslim. But not all. Sondos Lamrhari is reportedly the first hijab-wearing Quebecer to study police tech, and hopes to apply to the Montreal or Laval police force in the near future. Not far behind her is 15-year-old Sukhman Singh Shergill, who has dreamed his whole life of being a police officer. His cousin, Gurvinder Singh, was part of a successful campaign at the New York City Police Department to allow officers to wear turbans and beards on the job, and Shergill has already started his own campaign in Montreal.

We will meet more and more of these people in coming months and years, and it will quickly demonstrate that Premier François Legault’s stated goal in passing Bill 21 — to put the issue to bed — will not be achieved.

In the meantime, every federal party leader has strongly opposed the law. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the restrictions “unthinkable.” “A society based on fundamental freedoms and openness must always protect fundamental individual rights and should not in any way impede people from expressing themselves,” Conservative leader Andrew Scheer told reporters in Quebec City in March. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, a criminal lawyer who could not work as a Crown attorney in Quebec by dint of his turban, has correctly argued that “there are a lot of people in Quebec who don’t feel this is the right way to go,” and is gamely auditioning to “be their champion.”

That being the case, it’s no surprise the issue has been totally absent from federal election discussions. All three major parties agree the ban is wrong; all of them want the votes of people who support the ban; and no one wants the Bloc Québécois to leverage federalist/non-francophone opposition into renewed relevance.

A braver person than me might call this a victory for federalism. As consumed as Quebec has been for 15 years in the reasonable accommodations debate, Éric Grenier’s poll tracker at CBC has the Bloc at just 18.5 per cent, the Conservatives at 23 per cent, and the Liberals — led by Canada’s most ardent multiculturalist, son of the fiend who foisted multiculturalism upon Quebec in the first place — leading at 35 per cent.

The poor NDP, which under Jack Layton squashed the Bloc in 2011, languishes at 11 per cent, not even two points clear of the Greens. But the other parties have in essence adopted the Sherbrooke Declaration principles that helped Layton appeal to soft Quebec nationalists: In exchange for abandoning separatism Quebec gets, if not every single thing it wants, then very asymmetrical treatment indeed — not just in substance, but in political rhetoric.

Bill 21 is stretching that compromise right to the breaking point, however. The idea that Quebec’s restrictions on minority rights are a “provincial issue,” and that this explains their absence from the federal scene, is rather belied by the fact that Trudeau is running his campaign as much against Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his various budget cuts as he is against Scheer. If Alberta had instituted Bill 21 — which it wouldn’t, but if it had — we would be looking at a very different federal campaign. Liberals would hold it up as evidence of shameful, intolerable intolerance, and they would have a point.

Can it really be a purely “provincial issue” when a government uses Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to impose restrictions on minority rights that the prime minister considers “unthinkable”? What’s the point of national unity if it means keeping shtum on such a fundamental question of individual rights and freedoms? Federal leaders utterly deplore the restrictions — fine. Voters should ask them what exactly they intend to do about them.

Source: Chris Selley: Why isn’t ‘unthinkable’ Quebec’s religious symbols ban a federal election issue?

From Urback:

What’s happening in Quebec is a national disgrace.

It’s the type of thing for which a future government will apologize, much in the same way the prime minister of present has taken to apologizing for policy wrongs of the past.

Indeed, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has shown no reservation in apologizing to the LGBT community for discrimination in the civil service decades ago; to Jews for Canada’s refusal to accept German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution; to Indigenous communities for the hanging of chiefs in the 19th century.

Trudeau appropriately called these policies “unfair, unequal treatment” and “state-sponsored, systemic oppression.” Of course, it’s easy to call out injustice when you’ve had no hand in its propagation.

Forced secularism

Discrimination is currently enshrined in law in Quebec. As of June, public servants in the province who work in so-called positions of authority — teachers, judges, police officers and so on — are prohibited from wearing religious symbols. Those who flout the ban are effectively shackled to their spots thanks to a grandfather clause that says they can’t be promoted or moved. Those who wear kippahs, turbans, crosses or hijabs need not apply.

This too is state-sponsored, systemic oppression, an affront to religious freedom that ought to outrage anyone who believes in equal opportunity and freedom from state interference.

It is not merely a “dress code,” as some who have tried to defend the law have insisted; wearing open-toed shoes or spaghetti straps at work is not a deeply held religious conviction. Nor is it simply a “Quebec issue.” When state-sponsored discrimination becomes the law anywhere in Canada, it is everyone’s business, and our national shame.

2015 Niqab controversy

This should be a major election issue. Back in 2015, the question of whether a new Canadian should be allowed to wear the niqab while swearing a citizenship oath was fodder for a national discussion, and the Liberals, to their credit, took the position of freedom and tolerance.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, huffed about the symbolism of taking an oath of citizenship while wearing a niqab, as if feelings should have any bearing on a state’s infringement on an individual’s rights. You don’t have to like the niqab to believe that — except in situations where security and identification are tantamount — a country shouldn’t tell a woman what to wear.

Public opinion polling at the time found that Canadians overwhelmingly supported a niqab ban, just as public opinion polls now show that Quebecers overwhelmingly support a religious symbols ban.

That’s why federal leaders (with the exception of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who pretty much has no prospects in Quebec) have been loath to bring up the topic and tepid in response to questions about it. No one wants to risk alienating Quebecers ahead of the fall election.

But majority opinion in this case is merely that; it certainly doesn’t mean the law is righteous or good. In fact, we have laws that protect individual freedoms and minority rights precisely because the majority can’t be counted on to uphold them — which of course is why Quebec has pre-emptively invoked the notwithstanding clause to avoid a Charter challenge.

But the federal government’s hands are hardly tied just because of the notwithstanding clause. It can put pressure on the Quebec government through economic means. It can support the legal challenge currently underway by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. And it can speak out, forcefully and repeatedly, about an unjust policy that should not be on the books in Canada in 2019.

(Some have claimed this would be “political interference” akin to the SNC-Lavalin affair, which is a laboured and ridiculous comparison. This would not be a prime minister waging a clandestine operation to influence the attorney general to prevent a criminal trial for a major corporation, but a prime minister openly standing up for minority rights against a clearly unconstitutional law.)

Trudeau recently made a campaign-style trip to Quebec, where he made an announcement about transit, talked about protecting the environment, visited small businesses and boasted about the middle class. He did not talk about how the province is discriminating against its own residents.

In fact, all the prime minister has offered by way of critique so far is a few milquetoast comments akin to what he said back in June: “We do not feel it is a government’s responsibility or in a government’s interest to legislate on what people should be wearing.” It’s hardly the full-court press he and his ministers have assembled to speak out against other issues, such as efforts to quash the carbon tax or Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s record on gay marriage or even Canada’s Food Guide.

In another universe, with a different electoral map (or if, say, this was an Ontario law under Premier Doug Ford), Trudeau would be harping on it at every opportunity, with every minister on board, and with the fury this sort of state-sponsored intolerance demands. And Scheer, for whom freedom from religious discrimination is surely a most important priority, would be too. We cannot look down our noses at the societal divisions in the United States while people in Canada can’t get jobs because of what they wear out of faith.

There’s no question that any sort of intervention would be abysmally received by Quebec and within Quebec, and could very well decide the election. But it would also be a true demonstration of putting principles above political interest — which is probably too much to ask. Doing the right thing often comes with an enormous cost, and it’s quite evident that whoever becomes our next prime minister will not be willing to pay it.

Source: Quebec’s secularism law is a national disgrace — and yet barely an election issue: Robyn Urback

After Quebec’s secularism law, Muslim women gather to figure out, ‘What can we do now?’

Interesting vignettes:

The women hold one hand to their chest and the other to their stomach as they’re told to breathe in and then out.

The workshop started with a guided meditation and a short discussion about how to cope emotionally with Quebec’s new secularism law, which bars them from wearing religious symbols at certain jobs. But it’s clear the 20 or so Muslim women here aren’t ready to relax.

A short time later, they’re at the edge of their seats shooting questions at lawyer William Korbatly about the law’s ins and outs.

What they really want to know is how to fight it.

“What is this law? What can we do now?” one woman lets out, shaking her head. “It’s ridiculous. I want us to end this law. It’s unjust.”

Considering social media campaigns — or self-defence

The women begin pitching ideas. Can they go around the law? Are there different ways they can hide their hair, perhaps?

“You put a wig on top of your hijab,” says Mejda Mouaffak, an elementary school teacher, with a laugh.

A social media campaign uniting different faiths (Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity) in solidarity against the law is pitched. Another campaign, to make fun of the law, is suggested. Self-defence workshops are another idea, ones that also touch on verbal attacks and how to react.

The workshop in an empty community centre in a northwestern Montreal neighbourhood ends up lasting nearly two hours longer than planned. The discussions are as nuanced and diverse as its participants, who hail from different backgrounds and ages and practice a range of professions.

Most of them wear a hijab.

‘We can be Muslim and feminist’

The gathering was organized for Muslim women to regroup after Quebec’s new CAQ government pushed through two key pieces of legislation, both affecting people of colour in the province, during a marathon weekend in the National Assembly the week before.

The new secularism law forbids certain groups of public servants — including teachers, police officers and government lawyers — from wearing religious symbols on the job. Critics say it impedes people’s right to practice their religion, and disproportionately targets Muslim women who wear a headscarf.

Participant Sara Hassanien wants to connect with Quebec feminists, a group that has been vocal in favour of the law, particularly in French media.

“I’m trying to tell them that unlike what you’ve always thought … we can be Muslim and feminist,” she said, noting there are about as many reasons women wear the hijab as there are women who do.

‘I totally understand what Quebec has been through’

Hassanien says, on the other hand, it’s important for her community to know the history of Quebec’s difficult relationship with the Catholic church.

“I totally empathize with you,” Hassanien told CBC later, as if addressing Quebec feminists.

“I totally understand what Quebec has been through. I understand that your mothers, your grandmothers, fought so hard for women’s liberation and I support that. I am here to comfort them, to reassure them that we are not ever going to call for going back.”

At the same time, Hassanien says she is tired of feeling like she has to speak for her entire community in spaces where it is under-represented.

‘The consquences can only be absurd’

Korbatly agreed with the women pointing out contradictions they see in the law: that the definition of “religious symbol” is vague and applies more to the Christian cross than the hijab, which they say is more of a practice.

He explained how disrespecting the law could lead to people being fired.

“When you have an absurd law, the consequences can only be absurd,” Korbatly told the group.

He hopes the legal challenge to the law launched last week, which argues Quebec can’t bypass Canadians’ right to religious freedom, will be successful.

Law effectively prevents a teacher’s promotion

Afterward, he told CBC News though the law does not affect him directly — he is Muslim, but does not wear religious garb — he felt it was his duty “to be there, present and give moral and legal support to the community.”

During the discussion he called himself a feminist “through and through.”

Amina B., who wished to withhold her last name because of fear it would affect her employment, is a substitute teacher.

The law effectively prevents her from being promoted to any other public education role in the province. It includes a grandfather clause that protects people hired before March 28, but as soon as they are promoted or access another position covered by the law, it applies.

‘This is shaking me to the core’

Amina had signed up for a two-year online teacher program at the University of Ottawa, but she’s not sure she’ll complete it now.

“If that means I will always have to be a substitute teacher, and that I can’t evolve, what’s the point?”

She came to the workshop because “when you get involved, maybe, you can make things change.”

Hassanien is an ESL teacher for a private company. She says it was important for her to join, too, because “I started to feel helpless about what’s happening on a daily basis to me as a veiled woman in Montreal.”

She says her trips on public transit now fill her with anxiety and fear that she will be harassed. Even strange looks are a cause of stress.

“This is shaking me to the core,” she said.

Spike in public harassment

The event was organized by Hanadi Saad, who founded Justice Femme after the first attempt by a Quebec government to legislate religious garb, when it was led by the Parti Québécois in 2013, to offer legal and psychological support to Muslim women who face harassment.

Since Bill 21, the current law, was introduced in May, her group has seen a spike in the public harassment of Muslim women in Quebec.

“It’s like we opened the door: ‘Now, you can go ahead and discriminate,'” Saad said, calling the law “violent.”‘I feel like they are taking a part of me’

Saad immigrated to Canada with her family 30 years ago during the Lebanese Civil War and has lived in Quebec for 18 years. She says Quebec has been her true home ever since.

But she’ll be visiting Lebanon for the second time in those years this summer and wonders if it’ll feel more like home this time.

“I feel like they are taking a part of me, of my existence,” said Saad, who no longer wears a headscarf. She said it was a decision that took her months.

“To ask these women to take their hijab off, it’s like asking you to take your T-shirt off.”

Saad sees a silver lining, though.

“Now what has to be done, it’s to stand up for our rights as women. We are appropriating our cause; it’s women’s cause. So I will thank this government for what he’s creating, because he’s forcing us to come together.”

Source: After Quebec’s secularism law, Muslim women gather to figure out, ‘What can we do now?’

Chris Selley: The debate over Quebec’s religious symbols bill nears its wretched end

Pointed commentary:

Better late than never, one supposes: Three days before Premier François Legault’s self-imposed deadline for passing Bill 21, which would prohibit certain civil servants from wearing religious symbols on the job, his government proposed an amendment that would actually define “religious symbol.” (It had hitherto argued none was necessary.) If the amendment is adopted, teachers, police officers, Crown prosecutors and others deemed to be in positions of authority would be forbidden to display any “clothing, symbol, jewellery, ornament, accessory or headgear that is worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief and can reasonably be considered as referring to a religious affiliation.”

Kudos to whichever reporter thought on Wednesday to ask whether wedding rings count. The question utterly stymied both Legault and his Diversity and Inclusiveness Minister — you read that correctly — Simon Jolin-Barrette, who’s in charge of this project. “The person who wears an object that for her constitutes a religious symbol, that constitutes a religious symbol,” Jolin-Barrette explained. “And the person who wears an object that in the eyes of a reasonable person represents a religious symbol, that constitutes a religious symbol.”

Many scoffed at the question. Reporters were just playing silly buggers, they said —  “f—ing the dog,” in Quebec parlance. The government quickly clarified that wedding rings would not be covered.

And indeed, there are many 100-per-cent non-religious wedding bands in the Quebec civil service. But many wedding rings are unambiguously religious symbols to the people wearing them. The standard Catholic marriage script suggests priests ask “the Lord (to) bless these rings” before giving them to the bride and groom. Each will ask the other to “receive this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, who’s to know? The religious rings don’t glow a special colour. So long as devoutly religious police officers and public-school teachers do their jobs properly and professionally, without fear or favour, everything will be fine. Only that’s precisely what Bill 21’s opponents have been saying forever: A kippa or hijab is no evidence of a partial or biased civil servant, and the lack of a kippa or hijab is no evidence of an impartial or unbiased one. By definition, a law about religious symbols can’t do anything that’s not symbolic — only in this case, the symbolism involves trampling all over minority rights.

Legault has never shown any particular enthusiasm for this project; rather, he defends it on grounds that it has majority support and that it’s time to put the whole issue to bed. As Bill 21 nears passage, more and more voices have made it clear that won’t happen.

On Saturday Le Devoir ran a huge spread about how much religion is costing Quebecers in terms of tax breaks for churches and faith-based organizations. It gave ample voice to the view that faith itself, separated from the charitable works of faithful people, has no intrinsic value to society (or is even a net detriment). “It is difficult to understand how we can enshrine the secular status of the Québécois state in the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, reaffirm the separation of the state and religion and the equality of all citizens, and give away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue every year,” an editorial argued.

In fact it’s perfectly easy to understand: The government demonstrates its neutrality, and its respect for the equality of all citizens, by treating people the same way regardless of their private faith or lack thereof. If laïcité were incompatible with respecting religious faith and its contributions to society, it’s unlikely the French state would own and maintain so many churches.

Outright anti-religious sentiment is one thing Bill 21 won’t get rid of. It also won’t quiet people who think it should apply to daycare workers and teachers at state-subsidized religious schools — or indeed to the entire civil service, as was contemplated by Pauline Marois’ popular Values Charter. And Bill 21 certainly won’t dissuade bigots from taking out their inadequacies on Quebec’s minority populations. This week a Montreal woman who wears a niqab tracked down the driver of a bus that blew past her at a stop — deliberately, she alleges, based on anti-niqab sentiments the driver had previously expressed on Facebook. When the woman complained in the same medium, CBC reported, respondents included a Société de Transport de Montréal union rep who suggested “a normal Quebecer would have waited for the next bus.”

It’s one of many alarming incidents that Muslim Quebecers in particular insist have become more and more frequent as this interminable debate drags on. The government has proposed no solutions except to make the majority more comfortable — perhaps by banning women wearing niqabs from riding public buses. That particular question will have to wait for a while, tied up as it is in the courts. But Bill 21 will pass before MNAs break for the summer.

At least those affected will finally know where they stand (pending further restrictions). At least greener pastures await elsewhere in Canada if they decide, not unreasonably, that they are no long welcome.

Source: Chris Selley: The debate over Quebec’s religious symbols bill nears its wretched end

Québec définit ce qu’est un «signe religieux»

I have pity for the public servants who were tasked with the drafting what appears to be a fairly restrictive definition, given no mention of size (e.g., small pendants of the Cross, Star of David):

Le gouvernement Legault fait volte-face et consent finalement à définir ce que représente à ses yeux un « signe religieux » dans son projet de loi 21 sur la laïcité de l’État.

Depuis le dépôt du projet de loi controversé, le ministre responsable, Simon Jolin-Barrette, avait toujours refusé jusqu’à maintenant, malgré les pressions venant de toutes parts, de définir ce qu’il entendait par l’expression « signe religieux », qui est au coeur du document.

Mardi, en soirée, coup de théâtre à l’Assemblée nationale où son projet de loi est passé au peigne fin : le ministre Jolin-Barrette a déposé un amendement précisant aux nombreux employés de l’État visés par la loi ce qu’ils n’auront plus le droit de porter dans l’exercice de leurs fonctions.

Le libellé de l’amendement à l’article 6 démontre l’intention du gouvernement de ratisser large.

Ainsi, aux yeux du gouvernement, « tout objet, notamment un vêtement, un symbole, un bijou, une parure, un accessoire ou un couvre-chef » sera considéré comme étant un « signe religieux », s’il est porté « en lien avec une conviction ou une croyance religieuse » ou s’il est « raisonnablement considéré comme référant à une appartenance religieuse ».

Il n’y a aucune mention visant la taille de l’objet en question : minuscule ou ostentatoire, le signe religieux sera donc prohibé.

Le gouvernement Legault tient mordicus à faire adopter deux de ses projets de loi avant l’ajournement des travaux, prévu ce vendredi 14 juin : le projet de loi 9 sur l’immigration et le projet de loi 21 sur la laïcité de l’État.

Les deux législations sont pilotées par le ministre Jolin-Barrette.

Le projet de loi 21 en est rendu à l’étape de l’étude détaillée article par article.

Il prévoit interdire à plusieurs catégories d’employés de l’État – policiers, gardiens de prison, procureurs de la Couronne, enseignants et directeurs d’école des niveaux primaire et secondaire du secteur public, notamment – de porter tout signe religieux dans l’exercice de leurs fonctions.

Les employés actuels auraient un droit acquis (« clause grand-père »).

Durant la consultation menée sur le projet de loi, certains des témoins entendus avaient fait valoir que le document était beaucoup trop vague, sans définition précise de ce qui serait interdit ou pas, donc difficile à appliquer.

Source: Québec définit ce qu’est un «signe religieux»

UN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill

While I agree with the concerns, not sure how credible it will appear given the significant UN members who do not respect religious freedoms and have rigid dress codes that apply to women in particular:

High-ranking human rights monitors with the United Nations are concerned the Quebec government will violate fundamental freedoms if it moves ahead with legislation to limit where religious symbols can be worn.

Three UN legal experts, known as rapporteurs, signed and sent a letter written in French last week to the Canadian mission in Geneva. They asked the diplomats to share the letter with Quebec’s Legislature.

The letter says the province’s so-called secularism bill, which the Coalition Avenir Québec government is rushing to pass by next month, threatens freedoms protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“We are particularly concerned … about consequences for those people susceptible to being disadvantaged or excluded from a job or public position because of the potential effects of the proposed law,” the letter reads.

Tabled in March, Bill 21 will bar public teachers, government lawyers and police officers from wearing religious symbols at work. It will also require government services to be received without religious garments covering the face.)

The bill has already attracted widespread criticism from minority groups and anti-racism advocates in Quebec, who fear it will, among other things, significantly limit work opportunities for Muslim women.

The Quebec government maintains the legislation is moderate and represents the desires of a majority in the province.

But according to the UN observers, if passed, the bill could violate rights to freedom of conscience and religion, as well as a number of equality guarantees contained in the covenant.

‘Extremely inappropriate’

The letter also notes the bill doesn’t define what a religious symbol is, adding that it would be “extremely inappropriate” for a government to decide whether a symbol is religious or not.

Critics of the bill, including several teachers unions, highlighted this point repeatedly during the six days of legislative hearings that wrapped up last week.

It is unclear, for instance, whether the Star of David is a religious or political symbol.)

The letter goes on to take issue with the requirement that government services be received with an uncovered face, a measure that singles out Muslim women who wear the niqab.

“The bill constitutes a restriction, or limitation, of the freedom to express religion or belief,” the letter reads.

At multiple points, the letter reminds the Canadian government that it is bound by various human rights instruments, including the covenant on civil and political rights, which it signed in 1976. Quebec is also bound by these agreements.

The letter is signed by the rapporteur for minority relations, Fernand de Varennes; the rapporteur for racism, E. Tendayi Achiume; and the rapporteur for religious freedom, Ahmed Shaheed.

It closes with a series of questions about how minority rights will be protected once the legislation is passed. The rapporteur also wants to know how minority groups will be consulted in the legislative process.

Of the 36 groups and individuals who were invited by the Quebec government to take part in the legislative hearings for the bill, only two represented religious communities in the province.

Rules broken, lawyer says

Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal human rights lawyer with extensive experience working with the UN, said it is noteworthy the letter was written in French.

“The United Nations is signalling … that majority will is constrained or bound by or limited by rules about how you treat minorities,” she told CBC News after consulting the letter.

“And those rules have been broken in this case. They have manifestly been broken in this case.”)

Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, the bill’s sponsor, has received the letter and is “analyzing it in detail,” a spokesperson for the minister said in a brief written statement Tuesday.

“The government of Quebec is proud of Bill 21,” the statement said. “It is pragmatic, applicable and moderate. It reflects the consensus of the majority of Quebecers.”

But Hélène David, the provincial Liberal critic for secularism issues, says the UN letter “underscores once again the attack on fundamental rights and the lack of justification for such a measure.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Minister Pablo Rodriguez did not comment on the UN letter but said the federal government’s position is clear: “It’s not up to politicians to tell people what to wear or what not to wear. Canada is a secular and neutral state, and that is reflected in our institutions.”

“The Quebec government’s bill has raised numerous questions. We will continue to follow it very closely.”

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has criticized the bill (as have the federal NDP and Conservatives), he hasn’t indicated whether the federal government will intervene if it is passed.

The letter itself carries no legal weight. But it could provide ammunition to groups who will seek to challenge the law before the UN’s Human Rights Committee, Eliadis said.

Such challenges can take several years before the committee offers a decision (known as a “view”). When they are delivered, though, the federal government comes under considerable pressure to comply.

But beyond its possible legal ramifications, the UN letter indicates that what is at stake with Bill 21 is Quebec’s reputation as a tolerant society, Eliadis said.

“I think the average person should care,” she added.

“I think many people in Quebec do care because they understand that what the Quebec government is setting aside are our most fundamental values as a nation.”

Source: UN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill

Laïcité: «On est en train de légiférer un plafond de verre», dénonce la FFQ

Bill 21 gender based analysis concerns:

La Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ) dénonce le caractère « sexiste » du projet de loi sur la laïcité de l’État, qui est selon elle « une forme d’oppression envers les femmes » qui se traduit par l’instauration d’un « plafond de verre ».

« On est en train de légiférer un nouveau plafond de verre qui empêcheront [certaines] femmes musulmanes d’atteindre des postes d’autorité ou d’enseignantes », a dénoncé jeudi Idil Issa, une jeune Québécoise noire de confession musulmane qui porte le voile.

« J’ai l’intention de briser ce plafond de verre que vous êtes en train de construire. […] J’aurai une position d’autorité et je serai plus juste que vous. Je ne nuirai pas aux intérêts d’une minorité déjà vulnérable dans l’exercice de mes fonctions », a-t-elle ajouté en regardant le ministre Simon Jolin-Barrette.

Mme Issa était accompagnée jeudi de la présidente de la FFQ, Gabrielle Bouchard, en cette dernière journée de consultations du projet de loi 21 à l’Assemblée nationale. Dans son mémoire, publié sur son site internet, la Fédération affirme que le projet de loi du gouvernement Legault est « discriminatoire » et qu’il repose sur « une série de confusions ».

Selon la FFQ, « l’État n’a pas à émanciper de force les femmes ».

« Au Québec, il y a des féministes croyantes, tout comme il y a des athées réactionnaires. Combien de féministes croyantes ont activement participé aux mouvements féministes au Québec ? Pensons par exemple à ces féministes chrétiennes qui luttent pour le droit à l’avortement libre et gratuit. Pensons à toutes ces féministes musulmanes qui, en tant que membres de la FFQ, se battent avec nous pour les droits de toutes les femmes au quotidien », affirme la Fédération des femmes.

« Il n’y a aucune raison de croire que de réprimer une femme croyante est un acte féministe et émancipatoire », poursuit-on.

Beaucoup d’autres batailles

Pour la FFQ, « il reste beaucoup de batailles à mener pour garantir l’égalité entre les femmes et les hommes » au Québec, bien avant les restrictions prévues par le projet de loi 21 pour interdire le port de signes religieux à certaines catégories d’emploi.

« Salaire minimum à 15  $, accès aux services obstétricaux, réinvestissement massif dans les services publics, lutte au racisme systémique, accès au logement, accueil des femmes migrantes, lutte contre les violences sexuelles et domestiques, proximité des services en régions rurales et dans les petits centres, fin du temps supplémentaire obligatoire, conditions de travail des aides domestiques, enjeux socio-économiques liés à un capitalisme sauvage : voilà quelques-unes des batailles qui touchent les femmes dans leur quotidien », écrit notamment la Fédération dans son mémoire.

Les consultations du projet de loi 21 sur la laïcité de l’État prendront fin jeudi après deux semaines de travaux. En plus de la FFQ, la Coalition Inclusion Québec, la Ligue des droits et libertés de même que le Rassemblement pour la laïcité seront entendus en cours de journée par les parlementaires.

Québec utilisera-t-il le bâillon ?

Le gouvernement Legault procédera ensuite à l’étude détaillée du projet de loi en commission parlementaire au cours des prochaines semaines. Depuis son dépôt au Salon bleu, Québec a toujours répété qu’il souhaitait l’adopter avant l’ajournement des travaux parlementaires, le vendredi 14 juin prochain.

Lors de la période des questions, jeudi, le Parti libéral a dénoncé que le gouvernement de la Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ) utiliserait le bâillon pour adopter son projet de loi avant la fin de la session, même si l’étude celui-ci n’est pas terminé.

« Je crois qu’on est arrivé à une situation de consensus », a répondu le ministre Simon Jolin-Barrette.

Le député libéral Marc Tanguay a pour sa part lancé un « avis de recherche » afin que la ministre de la Justice, Sonia LeBel, se prononce sur l’utilisation d’une clause de dérogation pour protéger le projet de loi 21 de certaines contestations judiciaires.

Lorsqu’elle était questionnée en chambre, jeudi, c’est plutôt Simon Jolin-Barrette qui se levait pour répondre aux questions.

Source: Laïcité: «On est en train de légiférer un plafond de verre», dénonce la FFQ

Le Conseil du statut de la femme (CSF) demande au gouvernement Legault de réaliser des études afin de « convenir collectivement de la pertinence [d’interdire le port de signes religieux aux] personnes qui participent à l’éducation des enfants » dans le cadre du projet de loi sur la laïcité de l’État.

Contrairement à la Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ), qui a dénoncé jeudi que Québec créait « un plafond de verre » aux femmes mulsumanes qui portent le voile, le CSF appuie sans réserve l’interdiction du port de signes religieux pour les employés de l’État ayant un pouvoir coercitif (comme le recommandait en 2008 le rapport Bouchard-Taylor).

Mais le Conseil – dont le mandat est de conseiller le gouvernement « sur tout sujet lié à l’égalité, au respect des droits et au statut de la femme » – considère qu’il manque de données pour appuyer avec le même enthousiasme les dispositions du projet de loi 21 qui visent les enseignantes.

« Aux yeux du Conseil, s’il s’avérait que le port d’un signe religieux par le personnel enseignant véhicule une conception des femmes comme étant inférieures ou soumises aux hommes, son interdiction serait impérieuse. Il en irait de même s’il s’avérait que ce port brime la liberté de conscience des élèves et nuit à leur épanouissement ou encore porte atteinte au respect des convictions des parents », écrit le CSF dans son mémoire qui a été remis aux députés.

« Par souci de cohérence, l’interdiction devrait alors être étendue à toutes les catégories de personnel que côtoient les enfants à l’école », ajoute-t-on.

« Il [est donc] impératif que soient menées des études et consultations afin de mieux comprendre les effets du port de signes religieux par le personnel scolaire. De tels travaux permettraient […] de convenir collectivement de la pertinence de l’interdire ou non pour l’ensemble des personnes qui participent à l’éducation des enfants au sein des écoles ou dans d’autres milieux éducatifs », poursuit enfin le Conseil.

Plus tôt en journée, la Ligue des droits et libertés a pour sa part dénoncé le projet de loi 21 en affirmant que l’argumentaire élaboré par le ministre Simon Jolin-Barrette était basé sur des préjugés. Les consultations du projet de loi 21 se terminent jeudi.