A new law passed in Quebec Wednesday is threatening the delicate balance between religion and state in Canada, while furthering Islamophobia through what is, effectively, a wide-ranging ban on the niqab and burqa.
Called "An Act to Foster Adherence to State Religious Neutrality," the law requires Quebec residents to keep their face uncovered while giving or receiving a provincial or municipal service, a requirement that extends to libraries, schools, hospitals, universities and public transit. Some academics are already pushing back, declaring that they will refuse to play along.
The Canadian Jewish community has a role to play too.
This legislation comes on the heels of a 2013 attempt by the Quebec government to ban public sector workers from wearing "conspicuous religious symbols." (That proposal was shelved after the government lost the election.)
It follows the trend of various European countries, including France, Belgium and Austria, banning face coverings, with Denmark apparently poised to follow suit. Many French cities have since banned the 'burkini' (full-body swimsuit) from their beaches.
Ironically, the Quebec bill was passed amidst parliamentary hearings ongoing at the national level stemming from a parliamentary motion aimed at combating, of all things, Islamophobia.
Writing in Tablet at the time, Paul Berman responded to the outcry over France’s so-called burkini ban by arguing that it should be seen as an attempt to resist the bullying of girls and women by Islamists.
But this is a mistake. The answer to suspected harassment should be the strengthening of laws that prevent harassment, not the creation of new laws that infringe on freedom of expression, including decisions by women about how to dress.
Similarly, proponents of the Quebec bill would argue that the target is coercive religious expression in general, and not women’s autonomy. But since no other religion requires face coverage (and none requires face coverage for men), the effect is to target Muslim women. And so, despite the government's Alice-in-Wonderland assurances that people will be able to invoke religious accommodation as a reason not to comply, it’s understandable that critics of the bill see this as a continued attempt to shame, provoke and marginalize Muslims.
These impulses are what motivated MP Iqra Khalid to propose M-103 last December, a parliamentary motion to combat Islamophobia. Now that the motion passed, the government is holding hearings to determine the next steps.
Here’s where the Canadian Jewish community can help. In the Toronto Star earlier this month, Bernie M. Farber and I laid out why we think Jews should be especially supportive of parliamentary efforts to resist Islamophobia. We also pointed to the 2015 parliamentary motion on anti-Semitism as an important and overdue precedent. This new Quebec law sets back the national conversation. And the Jewish community could be doing more.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the national body that sees itself as the representative of the organized Canadian Jewish community (indeed, a portion of all donations to the Jewish Federations across Canada is automatically funnelled to the CIJA) released a mixed statement about M-103 the same day Quebec voted its troublesome bill into law.
With CIJA’s chair, Shimon Koffler Fogel, set to testify at the hearings, CIJA acknowledged the following: that bigotry must be addressed, that the Jewish community’s "experience combatting anti-Semitism is a model for countering hate," but that the term Islamophobia has not yet been clearly defined and thus has become a "lightning rod," and that there are "interpretations of Islam being promoted today that are anti-Semitic and directly contradict human rights and democracy."
But the 2015 parliamentary motion on anti-Semitism didn’t define antisemitism either, though it did nod to the 2010 Ottawa Protocol on anti-Semitism, a set of guidelines that provide an arguably overly expansive definition.) And as I've written before in Haaretz, while the "phobia" ending might make the concept appear too vague, Islamophobia is the term we have in English to connote anti-Muslim animus. Ditto homophobia, where anti-gay bigotry might have been more to the point. But that’s the term we have.
Most importantly, the motion does not affect the legal code. Speech protections (the freedom to criticize tenets of Islam that CIJA apparently doesn’t like) - and existing hate-speech laws (which prohibit the anti-Semitic speech that CIJA is rightly concerned about) - all remain in place. CIJA’s concerns, therefore, are already addressed in Canada’s existing criminal code. Finally, parliamentary motions are non-binding; they are simply the expression of parliamentary will.
Not so this new Quebec law.
The irony is that as residents of one Canadian province must now contend with a legislated expression of Islamophobia, an urgent conversation at the national level is being convened on how to combat it.
Canadians can’t do much, in the short-term at least, about the division of power among federal and provincial authorities. But all Canadians — including the Jewish community — can step forward and be a strong voice against forces of hatred and oppression wherever they occur.
Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Twitter: @sucharov
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