Secularism at any cost?

In her contribution to our majority nationalism series, Geneviève Nootens of the Université du Québec explores recent arguments over a draft legislation on secularism, introduced in Québec.

One can hardly explain nationalism without understanding how symbols of categorical distinctiveness become mobilized forms of political identity through contentious politics. As sociologist Charles Tilly (as well as others, such as D. McAdam and S. Tarrow) has argued, political identities are public representations of relationships; the negotiation of identities figures centrally in the dynamics of contention; and assertions of identities also are assertions of us/them boundaries. National identities rest on socially organized categories that are built into political structures. This politicization of identities is basic to any explanation of the impact of nationalism in the modern world, as is its close relationship with the consolidation of modern sovereign state.

The last decades have been the scene of a reassertion of a majority nationalism that tends to be more exclusive. Once again, we live in an era in which this process of the politicization of identities and its impact on democracy are peculiarly striking. One example is the recent draft legislation on secularism (laïcité, in French) by the CAQ administration in Quebec. It aims at regulating the wearing of religious symbols by people holding positions of authority in the state apparatus (including teachers). The government argues that the citizens want to put an end to more than a decade of debate about the wearing of religious symbols, and that the position of the draft legislation is perfectly reflects what people want. They also argue that it would of ‘restore social peace’ on that issue. There was a Commission of inquiry (2007-2008) which had made recommendations to the then-Liberal administration, but this report was not incorporated.

Two days before the draft legislation was presented at Assemblée nationale, the debate once again ignited about the intentions of the government, the effect of the legislation on specific groups (particularly Muslim women), and the use of the ‘notwithstanding’ clause to avoid the law being challenged in courts on the basis that it runs contrary to basic rights and freedoms protected both by Canada’s and Quebec’s Charters of Rights and Freedoms. Opponents of the draft legislation have stressed that 1) the burden imposed by the legislation would be heavier for those people whose faith implies wearing visible religious symbols  (so that there clearly is discrimination relatively to the faith of people) 2) that if, as the government claims, integration remains an important social aim, one can doubt the draft legislation would contribute to reach it, since some people would be excluded from holding certain positions (as teacher, police officer, judge, etc), which once again burdens for women and minorities 3) that the notwithstanding clause should not be used by the state to infringe upon such a basic freedom as the ones of conscience and religion.

Far from settling the debate, the draft legislation has brought a clear polarization of opinions with, at one end of a continuum, some claiming that those who oppose the draft can’t be ‘real’ Quebecers and are kind of traitors (eg, as proponents of a Canadian multiculturalism whose real aim is to dilute Quebec’s difference) and at the other end those who readily claim that the legislation is racist and xenophobic.  Between the two extremes, of course, there are well-meaning people trying to debate in respectful terms about the meaning and impact of the legislation.

Nonetheless, by defending the draft legislation, the CAQ administration proposes a very specific vision of identité québécoise, that it intends to see built into political institutions. And one may expect this to radicalize positions of people which are already uncomfortable with or clearly intolerant of specific faiths, bringing to the fore a more exclusivist aspect of national identity. This is so because the way the administration defends the project and relates it to a basic will of a majority of citizens bolster the prejudices of people who believe that some people’s religion is a clear threat to Quebecers’ identity. By blurring the lines between what is acceptable as social discourse towards minorities and what is not acceptable, the current administration may at the end of the day foster intolerance and exclusion, hence contributing to de-democratize Quebec’s society.

Photo Credit: Emmanuel Huybrechts, Downtown is Not Far Away, Flickr, used under CC license.

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