Amira Elghawaby, the Canadian government’s new Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia, hasn’t been welcomed by everybody. That’s a great shame, because she’s a moderate, intelligent, and necessary voice in the current climate. The opposition has been especially strong in Quebec, and this comes after that province’s Bill 21, introduced in 2019, which forbids public employees from wearing obvious religious symbols. It’s an issue that should be of interest and concern to all people of faith, Anglicans certainly included. It’s wrong for a number of reasons.
First, it’s a solution to a non-problem. Quebec faces all sorts of issues—it needs to increase employment, improve health care, and build roads and houses. But teachers, judges, or police officers wearing what is little more than a headscarf is hardly a pressing issue. Second, whatever the law’s defenders claim, their denial is shameless obfuscation. This debate has been going on for some years, and it always comes back to Muslim women. This, on the other hand, involves a sizable number of Muslim women, who want to combine a lived faith with active citizenship and public duty.
They are now told that they can’t. It’s also worth remembering that some Muslim women wear a hijab not because they’re devout, but because they want to self-identify at a time of increasing anti-Muslim sentiment. How darkly ironic that their statement against bigotry should be met with, well, bigotry.
The law pays lip service to Jews and to a lesser extent Christians, but is focused on Islam. Mind you, Sikhs in Quebec are certain to be harmed by it. It’s interesting that when Sikhs wanted to defend western civilization against Nazism, their turbans were welcomed, but the Quebec government thinks differently.
The strain and stain of Islamophobia runs deep in Canada, and arguably stronger in Quebec than elsewhere. A study from the Canadian Review of Sociology, for example, asked people to give various groups a rating between zero and 100 to indicate how they felt about them. Muslims did the worst in Quebec, at 56. The Montrealbased polling company CROP found in 2017 that 34 percent of Quebecers believed that Muslim immigration should be halted, compared to 23 per cent in the rest of the country.
Third, this plays into the hands of those who insist that Muslims will never be accepted in non-Muslim society, that the west is fundamentally Islamophobic, and that no Muslim should cooperate with non-Muslim governments. The Quebec government argues that the law makes society safer and more unified, when in fact it may achieve the very opposite. It alienates mainstream Muslims, who form the vast majority within Islam.
Fourth, this is not secularism but populism. Secularism is supposed to be about neutrality rather than dominance. Refusing to allow, for example, a Christian or Muslim police officer or teacher to try to proselytize when on duty is fundamentally different from banning that person from wearing a religious head-covering that does not in any way interfere with their work.
Fifth, the Quebec left got this legislation terribly wrong when so many of its adherents supported it. Their enthusiasm for what they see as secularism is misplaced, and the argument that this somehow liberates women and is feministic is startlingly paradoxical. Of course there are women who are oppressed in Islam, just as there sometimes are in other faiths, but it is common for younger Muslim women to adopt the hijab not because of, but rather in spite of, paternal and patriarchal influence. It’s often a sign of independence and defiance, and non-Muslim leftists have no more right than anybody else to impose their views. Politics isn’t linear, and it won’t be the first time that ostensible progressives have allowed populism to infect their ideology.
Sixth, religion does in fact have a place in public life—as the work of food banks, hospitals, activist movements, and the like have shown. William Wilberforce’s fight to end slavery, Lord Shaftesbury’s campaign against child labour, Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle to expose and combat racism, Tommy Douglas and public medicine, down to the night patrols feeding the homeless, the hospices, and addiction drop-in centres that I see every week. Faith should never guarantee a place in the public square, but neither should it disqualify anyone from participation. Good luck Amira, and God bless.