Barbara Kay seems not to like open secularism.
Her National Post opinion piece “Religious Symbols Don’t Belong in Public Schools” (May 25, 2009) begins by announcing that last year’s Bouchard-Taylor commission report on reasonable accommodation has backfired: Quebecers today are less willing to reasonably accommodate than before the report came out! Poll responses report an 8% increase in those who consider non-Christian immigrants ‘threats’ to Quebec society. While I wouldn’t tie this directly to the release of the report (correlation, causality, what?), it still points to a curious dynamic in Quebec secularism and culture. The Movement Laique Quebecois (MLQ) recently called for a parliamentary affirmation of the secular character of the province and a “secular charter” ensuring “neutrality around religion in publicly funded fields”. This translates specifically into requesting a ban on ‘religiously symbolic’ clothing for doctors, teachers, and judges.
Kay supports the MLQ and goes further to approve the French model of laïcité, where the ban on what she calls “religious garb” was extended to schoolchildren as well as their teachers. Schoolchildren, she writes, shouldn’t be set apart from their peers by their clothing, because group bonding at school is best encouraged through what she calls “external sameness”. I don’t disagree with her about that – school and military uniforms act similarly to promote “external sameness”. (Prison uniforms too, for that matter.) But the eradication of (external) difference is often less about group bonding than it is about the exercise of social power and the promotion of homogeneity.
Kay then quotes a recent column by Christian Rioux implying that the French policy “put an end to the escalation of fundamentalism” – implying that schoolchildren wearing hijab, for instance, were its “public vehicle” (!). Did Muslim French young women wearing the hijab in school know they were the “public vehicle” of “Islamic fundamentalism”? I think someone should tell them – maybe they missed the memo. The not-so-subtle implication is that the ever-present threat of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ (the big bearded boogeyman) can be countered even in Quebec – but only if we can keep the publicly-employed or the publicly-educated from wearing their religion on their sleeves. (Or, to be more precise, on their heads.) Kay notes that the debate (l’affaire du foulard) in France “fizzled and died”, and declares that this “points to an obvious, welcome fact: Although their voices were shrill and seemed to point to widespread support, Islamic fundamentalists were revealed as a minority in France’s Muslim community.” Right, because only an “Islamic fundamentalist” would wear a hijab to school. The alternative Kay describes, taken by all but the “fundamentalists”, is ‘integrating’ into “France’s heritage culture”. But what is a ‘heritage culture’? Cultures change and adapt; they’re historical; they transform and shift. Does a “heritage culture” do those things too? Can a “heritage culture” go beyond ‘reasonably accommodating’ non-Christian immigrants to, say, letting them participate in and shape that culture? “Heritage culture” seems too often to be used as a euphemism for, well, less pretty ideas of cultural legitimacy.
For example, one of the specific changes recommended by the Bouchard-Taylor report was removing the crucifix from the wall of Quebec’s National Assembly: “Still in keeping with the notion of the separation of Church and State, we believe that the crucifix must be removed from the wall of the National Assembly, which, indeed, is the very place that symbolizes the constitutional state…” (“Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation”, full English edition, p. 20) and “This cross…suggests that a very special closeness exists between legislative power and the religion of the majority. It seems preferable for the very place where elected representatives deliberate and legislate not to be identified with a specific religion. The National Assembly is the assembly of all Quebecers” (p. 152). The report was simply recommending removing the crucifix from its current place to somewhere more appropriate (less symbolically loud, less imbricated in the workings of legislation), but Jean Charest, the Quebec premier, “quickly rejected” this recommendation, saying “we cannot erase our history.” For all the angst over secularism, Quebec politics continue to be conducted under the aegis of the cross! The justification offered by the premier is significant: the crucifix in the National Assembly is not a religious symbol but is a historical artifact. It is part of the “heritage culture”. (By the by, it was installed there in 1936, which really isn’t that long ago. How long does it take for something to become part of the “heritage culture”?) Could one extrapolate this reasoning to the prayers that were still said at municipal council meetings – are those also part of the “heritage culture”, or are they “religious”? Or – perish the thought! – might they be both, requiring a more complicated picture of the intersection of religion and culture?
Reuters Picture - Crucifix on the wall of the National Assembly
There’s a lesson to be learned from the French ban on conspicuous religious symbolism, Kay says. She doesn’t describe this lesson in detail, but implies that a similar ban on ‘religiously symbolic garb’ in schools as well as in public offices would 1) promote group bonding through accelerated integration; 2) stop dead any rise in “Islamic fundamentalism”; and also 3) stimulate some reactionary alarms about a supposed “curtailment of rights”: there will “doubtless be the usual suspects charging the group with racism”. Whether or not it is racism is another discussion, but I do think it’s fair to suggest that the MLQ’s demand is rooted in a more fundamental discomfort with difference. Only by eradicating religious symbolism on the part of those in the employ of the state, its argument must run, can Quebec secularism be secured. The question then is how far this logic will go. What about religious symbolism in the workplace? Can a car saleswoman wearing hijab be truly neutral as she works in the public sphere?
The obvious and immediate response, of course, is to reassure everybody involved that in fact nothing bad will happen if a teacher is wearing a kippah while teaching history. Essentially, though, this isn’t a debate between those who see an obligation to wear certain things and those who want to avoid contaminating the public sphere with religion. At its more fundamental level, this is a debate between different models of coexistence, and indeed of different models of secularism. Secularism is a fact of Quebec society, as the Bouchard-Taylor report repeats (p. 133), and so doesn’t need to be constantly reaffirmed. Rather, the report recognizes that there are different models of secularism available, just as there exist different (and equally legitimate) kinds of social unity, and so the question remaining is which secularism Quebec will adopt.
The MLQ includes in its demands the “publication of a white paper” or parliamentary commission on the place of religion in public life. Why does this sound familiar? Oh, right, because the Bouchard-Taylor commission report called for a white paper too (pp. 153-154), as a way of contributing to and structuring the debate on Quebec secularism. The difference between the two, however, seems to be that the report takes the time to outline what it means by secularism (see its chapter 7, “The Quebec System of Secularism”, pp. 132-154). It outlines what it views as four key principles (1) the moral equality of persons; 2) freedom of conscience and religion; 3) state neutrality toward all religions; and 4) the separation – or, better yet, the reciprocal autonomy – of religions and the state) and then describes two very different models: “rigid” secularism, adopted by those seeking to erode religious belief and practice in the cause of integration, and “open” secularism, which seeks not to eradicate but to build dialogue across those same differences. The Bouchard-Taylor report strongly advocates an open secularism, which, it says, is the model that Quebec has historically developed.
Barbara Kay, on the other hand, presents arguments for a rigid secularism that refuses public difference in the name of public unity. “Let diversity flourish in our private lives,” she concludes. “Let unity flourish in public.” I would argue, with the Bouchard-Taylor report, that a fuller, deeper sense of community is possible without leveling all religious and ethnic particularities. Coexistence, that is, does not require uniformity. The report has this to say on the topic of ‘religious’ attire in the public sphere:
prohibitinagents of the State from wearing religious signs has a twofold cost, i.e. the restriction of a)
the freedom of conscience and religion of the individuals concerned and, possibly, of b) equality of access to jobs in the
public and parapublic service. If, as we saw in Chapter V, no right is absolute, a liberal democracy must always have compelling
reasons for infringing the basic rights and freedoms of part of the population. Is the appearance of neutrality aimed at by the rule
prohibiting agents of the State from wearing religious signs a compelling reason?
The appearance of neutrality is important but we do not believe that it warrants a general rule that would prohibit agents of the
State from wearing religious signs. If such a prohibition is better justified, as we will see later, in the case of certain specific
functions, what is important, above all, generally speaking, is that agents of the State display impartiality in the performance of their
duties. A State employee must seek to accomplish the mission attributed by legislators to the institution that he serves. His acts
must neither be dictated by his faith nor his philosophical beliefs but by the desire to achieve the purposes inherent in the position
that he occupies. Why should we think that the person who wears a religious sign would be less likely to display impartiality,
professionalism and loyalty to the institution than the person who does not wear such a sign? Why, therefore, dwell on external
displays of faith? Should we not also demand of State employees that they relinquish any conviction of conscience?34 It would
obviously be absurd to do so. Why think a priori that people who display their religious affiliation are less likely to take things into
consideration than those who do not externalize their convictions of conscience or who externalize them in a much less visible
manner (the wearing of the Catholic cross comes to mind)? Why refuse one person the presumption of impartiality and grant it to
prohibiting agents of the State from wearing religious signs has a twofold cost, i.e. the restriction of a) the freedom of conscience and religion of the individuals concerned and, possibly, of b) equality of access to jobs in the public and parapublic service. (…) The appearance of neutrality is important but we do not believe that it warrants a general rule that would prohibit agents of the State from wearing religious signs. (…) [A State employee’s] acts must neither be dictated by his faith nor his philosophical beliefs but by the desire to achieve the purposes inherent in the position that he occupies. Why should we think that the person who wears a religious sign would be less likely to display impartiality, professionalism and loyalty to the institution than the person who does not wear such a sign? Why, therefore, dwell on external displays of faith? Should we not also demand of State employees that they relinquish any conviction of conscience? It would obviously be absurd to do so. Why think a priori that people who display their religious affiliation are less likely to take things into consideration than those who do not externalize their convictions of conscience or who externalize them in a much less visible manner[?] Why refuse one person the presumption of impartiality and grant it to the other one? (p. 149)
The Bouchard-Taylor report isn’t without its problems, but it – and the position of the Federation de Femmes du Quebec, as covered here by Krista two weeks ago – seems far more aligned with the spirit of ‘reasonable accommodation’ than Barbara Kay. Rigid secularism, on the other hand, promotes a curious attitude toward religion: ‘Want to follow a non-Christian religion?’ it seems to ask. ‘Well, okay, as long as it doesn’t show itself publicly.’
There’s another side to this whole question, though, and that has to do less with rigid secularist anxieties than it does about the way the debate is framed. Why are these material items (pieces of cloth, for example) considered religious symbols (as in the title of Kay’s op-ed)? A symbol, according to certain semiotic theories, is a ‘conventional sign’: something socially recognized to stand for something else. Because it stands in for something else, it is in a sense displaceable: signs can approximate each other, so it shouldn’t really matter that much to you if you wear a large crucifix or a small one. By calling the offending articles ‘symbols’, the debate is blindsiding and completely excluding those – like many Muslim women – who consider their adoption the fulfillment of a duty rather than symbolic expression.
If symbols are conventional signs, is there consensus on what the public presence of the kippah represents? Do we agree on what a hijab represents? The debate centers on signes religieux ostensibles – and seems to imply that, collectively, the presence of large crosses, hijabs, kippahs, and other supposed evidences of religious practice signals the incursion of religion into the public sphere. Public officials, the MLQ and Barbara Kay argue, compromise the neutrality of the state as soon as they metaphorically represent religion.
The ironic thing is, though, that throughout all this discussion, the state takes on itself the right – and the mandate – of carefully defining the purpose, function, and form of ‘religious symbols’. (The crucifix is “historical” but the hijab is “religious.” It’s like a game of symbols, but the state is making up the rules…) It dedicates itself to marking the limits of religion, the site of religion, the proper domain of religion. It defines what is correct religious practice. And, finally, it outlines the proper expression of religiosity. The state, that is, engages itself in theological reflection!
So much for the separation of religion and politics.
Talal Asad, “Trying to Understand French Secularism,” in Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World, ed. Hent de Vries and Lawrence Sullivan (Fordham UP, 2006) (pdf online here)
Joan Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton UP, 2007)
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