The fine line between secularism and racism

Laïcité can easily be misunderstood

The mayor of Calgary had an important piece a while back about racism, blackface, prejudice and Bill 21. It is well worth your time. It was worth mine, for it helped make me change my mind and re-examine a lot of preconceived notions about secularism and tolerance.

Here’s the gist.

Which brings us to Bill 21 in Quebec. We now have a law in this country, in 2019, that restricts what job you can have based on your faith. Exactly the opposite of what I believed growing up. There are those who say that this is about religious neutrality. Make no mistake. It is not. This is a law that targets three groups of people: Muslim women who cover their heads, baptized Sikhs and Jewish men who wear a yarmulke. No other sizable religious groups in the province have to wear anything as part of their religious faith. Those who wear modest dress can simply claim it is their personal style, not a religious garment. Those who have long beards can claim they are simply hipsters. A small cross can be worn under the shirt; a turban cannot.

What this ban says is that people of certain faiths, and only these faiths, can’t be trusted to do their jobs. It tells schools and municipalities that they can’t hire the best people. It says that kids in public schools can’t be exposed to people different than them.

I don’t want to argue about how Bill 21 makes anyone feel, because that would be silly. I take his point, that the law impacts those whose religion requires visible signs more than those whose faith accommodates secular dress codes. That’s obviously true. But it doesn’t necessarily make secularism evil.

I believe in the French concept of laïcité. It’s difficult to express it in English but “public secularism” comes close. It’s the idea that the coercive power of the state should be a-religious. Laws should be made, and enforced, by institutions that represent no faith in particular.

Illegitimate humans

I’m old enough to remember stories in Quebec, right where I grew up, in which religious authorities were working very closely with politicians to enforce religious edicts in laws. Being gay was not always legal, you know, and neither was divorce. On my baptistaire, which we used to have before birth certificates became widespread then mandatory, I am listed as the “legitimate” daughter of my parents. If they hadn’t been married, I would not have been legally considered a legitimate person by the authorities.

Let that sink in for a moment.

I’m in favour of public secularism because it is the only way to respect and protect the rights of all faiths, as well as those of people who believe in the giant pumpkin or nothing at all. I am also in favour of not creating second-class citizens out of innocent babies for what some perceive as carnal sins on the part of their parents.

In a democratic society laws must be enacted, enforced and judged outside of religious influences. We don’t punish murder because it goes against the 10 commandments. We punish it because we believe it’s wrong, and would believe it’s wrong even if no religious text said it.

We more or less have public secularism now. And I’m glad Quebec politicians – finally, decades later than they should have – got rid of that crucifix in the provincial legislature.

When it goes too far

I hesitate to defend Bill 21, however. Because secularism can be taken too far or, more accurately, misunderstood by its own defenders and used as a poor excuse for plain-old disgusting intolerance and racism.

Before Bill 21 became law, I wrote this:

I’m hugely in favour of public secularism. When it comes to the official “face” of the government via the human being who’s in charge of renewing my driver’s licence, I don’t want it to show religious belief. The state has no religion in this country – the Constitution recognizes the primacy of God but in the very same sentence it also recognizes the primacy of the rule of law. Everyone gets treated the same no matter their beliefs. That’s good, proper, and democratically healthy.

If you wish to work for the government as its public face, you should know that in that role you shall treat everyone equally which includes not wearing signs that might be considered hostile, judgmental or threatening by some people, no matter how unreasonable you, personally, think it is to be offended by a hijab. If you can’t stand the thought of tucking your Jesus-on-a-cross inside your clothing while you’re at work representing the state to its citizens, then kindly find a different place to work.

There is no question the Quebec legislature went way too far extending its ban of religious symbols to school teachers. It’s being challenged in court and I hope it gets struck down.

Mayor Nenshi’s piece has forced me to reconsider my earlier stance on other public sector jobs. I don’t want to deal with public servants who wear their religious beliefs ostentatiously. But maybe that’s just me. (And for the record, a giant crucifix makes me a lot more uncomfortable than a turban or a hijab, because my own history is marred by fights with Christian extremists that didn’t end well.)

Does it really matter, though? If I go to renew my driver’s license and the person behind the counter is obviously religious and for some reason denies me my license do I not have recourses? Oh yes. Plenty. What about a cop? He can arrest and detain me for a while, and cause me all kinds of trouble. Sure. But there again I have recourses if I believe the cop’s behaviour was unjustified for any reason, religious or not.

At what price principles?

The thing about theoretical concepts and systems of beliefs, though, is that in the end they fall on and affect individual human beings. You can have all the secularist protection you want, nothing would stop a representative of the state at the passport office to hide his religious beliefs but still treat you in accordance with his religion, not secular law. If he were found out, he would be punished. Laws deter criminal or unlawful actions, but they can’t prevent them altogether.

The battle for secularism in public laws and institutions must take place inside our heads, not around some people’s headgear. As Nenshi wrote, you can easily hide your crucifix. Turbans, not so much. Is the religious person who conforms to Bill 21 in the way she dresses but not in her head less of a menace to public secularism than the bearded Muslim fellow who believes the laws duly voted by his elected representatives come before his own religious beliefs?

The coercive power of the state should always be, and appear to be, a-religious. Not against religions, not in favour of them. That’s why it was a mistake all those years to leave that big giant crucifix in the province’s legislative assembly. Canada should not be seen as a Christian nation. Not in its laws, not in its coercive power.

A lot of Christians in this country fear Canada might one day become a Muslim nation. They’re the ones agitating about Shariah law, or Shariah creep, or whatever it is they call it these days. I’m with them this far: I don’t want my country governed by a religious sect. But unlike many Christian activists, I believe the only efficient defence against Shariah creep is public secularism, not a return to Christian laws.

Laïcité, at least in the theoretical sense as I understand it, has nothing to do with racism or diversity or tolerance. In practice as put forward under Bill 21? Well, that remains to be seen.

Writer | Ottawa. Books include Épître aux tartempions, Le national-syndicalisme, Down the Road Never Travelled, Not Just for Kicks and Le livre Uber.