I try and be fair when it comes to Québec. I really do. It’s a struggle sometimes, but basically my entire academic career has been me coming to an understanding of the Québécois point of view. For the most part I’m sympathetic.
And I also try and defend Québec when it comes to issues of dealing with minorities and ‘reasonable accomodation’ of cultural/religious difference. But, Jesus, they make it difficult sometimes.
In the last three weeks, the Bloc Québécois has put out this ad on its facebook page (since it doesn’t have money for real ads these days), implying that the NDP is the handmaiden of dogmatic Islam. Meanwhile, a Québec judge refused to hear a case because a woman was wearing a head-scarf. Just the scarf, mind you, not the entire face-covering niqab (the woman has filed a complaint). Finally, the leader of the third place Coalition Avenir Québec, François Legault, called for investigation before allowing for the opening of any new mosques. This isn’t some fringe lunatic party, this is a legitimate party with a former minister as its leader, a party that was considered a possible government contender in previous elections.
And all of this might lead me to say “Hey, good job Québec” with all the sarcasm I can muster and roll my eyes so far back in my head that they come out the other side, but things aren’t so peachy on the other side of the Ottawa river either. Sure, we don’t have party leaders saying anything as outrageous as what François Legault said. Instead, we have the federal government appealing against the right of Muslim women to wear the niqab in citizenship ceremonies, which is purely and truly ceremonial (and affects a tiny number of potential citizens).
There’s a word for this kind of thing: Islamophobia.
I don’t use the term lightly. But in all these cases, the reaction of political parties is based not on any legitimate concern (such as security), but on a reaction against the practices of Islam. “That’s not what it means to be Québécois/Canadian”, these politicians are telling Muslims in Canada.
I’ve spent some time arguing about what freedom of religion isn’t on this blog. I mostly reject arguments that pit freedom of religion against freedom of speech, for instance, because fundamentally, no one has the right to not be offended.
But guess what? That applies in both directions. You don’t have to like the hijab or the niqab. But you don’t get to decide for those people. The fact that you find some Muslim practices offensive is irrelevant. You, in this case, don’t have the right to not be offended by them.
Freedom of religion means the freedom to practice your beliefs so long as you aren’t harming anyone. Even if others think you’re harming yourself. You get to make that decision. That’s what it means. There is no reasonable argument that can find genuine societal or individual harm in an individual wearing a piece of clothing.
Moreover, it implies the freedom to have your beliefs treated sincerely. Telling someone they don’t have to wear a veil, if they do so for religious reasons, is equivalent to telling them that their beliefs are disposable. And that’s not what Canada is about.
It was once upon a time acceptable for the government to basically say that the ideal Canadian was a white person of varying Christian faith. Those days are long gone. Or they should be. But all the stories above are attempts to return to that kind of logic. You want to be a Canadian who wears a veil? I don’t care. But even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. “Canadian” should be a wide category.