Secularism Betrayed, Part III

How Conformism Trumped Principle and Set Secularism Back Decades in Canada
Part III: An Historic Opportunity Squandered

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This three-part blog was written in January 2015 and intended for an international readership. Its tone is pessimistic. Since then, the Supreme Court of Canada decision of April 15th 2015, banning prayers at municipal council meetings, has major implications for the future of secularism in Canada and has renewed optimism among secularists.

An Historic Opportunity Squandered

Sommaire en français Avec la défaite du gouvernement péquiste dans les élections du 7 avril 2013, la Charte de la laïcité est morte. Une occasion exceptionnelle et historique a été ratée. Cet échec a été, en partie du moins, la conséquence de la sottise de ces prétendus laïques qui, par conformisme écervelé, se sont opposés à la Charte principalement par simple antipathie pour le parti qui l’a proposée. Ils ont ainsi semé la confusion chez les Canadiens au sujet de la laïcité et fait reculer cette cause de façon considérable. Ceux qui ont rejeté la Charte à cause de sa prohibition du port des signes religieux par les fonctionnaires doivent expliquer pourquoi ils n’ont pas appuyé les autres dispositions de Charte. De plus, ils doivent expliquer par quelle logique ils peuvent permettre le port de ces signes religieux sans permettre également les symboles politiques — y compris les plus extrémistes comme les croix gammées. Des analyses démographiques indiquent que, lors de cette défaite électorale, c’est le projet souverainiste du PQ que l’électorat a rejeté, plutot que la Charte. La laïcité, la vraie, la républicaine, demeure bien populaire au Québec, tandis qu’au Canada hors-Québec cette option est dépréciée au point d’être frappée d’anathème. Malgré ce rejet de l’option souverainiste, cette élection a souligné les différences profoundes entre les deux solitudes canadiennes. Les souverainistes qui prônent la laïcité ont l’habitude de dire que la laïcité au Québec serait impossible sans d’abord faire l’indépendance. Durant la campagne électorale, les anti-Charte ont tout fait pour valider cette thèse. Depuis l’échec de la Charte, les anti-laïques, en particulier les islamistes, se comportent avec l’arrogance de la victoire et ont intenté plusieurs poursuites-bâillons contre des militantes et militants laïques. D’ailleurs, la Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ) a récemment proposé un ajout à la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne qui interdirait les propos jugés haineux à l’égard de certains groupes et il est à craindre que cette nouvelle disposition réprime la légitime critique des religions.

The results of the April 7th 2014 Quebec election were a resounding defeat for the Parti Québécois. At the beginning of the election campaign the Charter was the predominant issue of debate and a solid PQ victory appeared plausible. But at mid-campaign the debate was diverted onto the question of independence and the PQ’s rating fell. Analyses of voting demographics suggest that in general it was the PQ’s sovereignty plans and not the Charter which the electorate rejected.

The death of the PQ’s Charter project means that an historic opportunity has been squandered. If those who purport to support secularism had in fact done so, rather than foolishly opposing the Charter, it might not have been enough to change the results. Nevertheless, by behaving like mindless conformists and falling shamefully into line with popular anti-Quebec prejudice, joining their voices to the din of vilification, pseudo-secularists have deepened confusion in the minds of Canadians about the issue of secularism and have set the cause back decades.

Some readers may be of the opinion that I am overstating my criticism of those whom I call pseudo-secularists. Can we not — they might argue — agree to disagree on this one issue, this particular piece of legislation, while emphasizing our common opposition to religious privilege? To this I reply that the situation is far too serious to “agree to disagree.” If anyone thinks that wearing blatant religious symbols on the job in the public service is a right, then they can have no objection to the wearing of political symbols too, up to and including the Nazi swaztika or the insignia of any other political ideology. If one nevertheless continues to insist that the ban is excessive, then the only acceptable position for a secularist to take would be critical support for the Charter — i.e. support on the condition that the ban be moderated. But CFIC and CSA did not even do that. They simply rejected the Charter out of hand.

The proposed Charter was an exceptional opportunity which, if adopted, would have significantly advanced the cause of secularism. At this critical moment, when their support was needed the most, pseudo-secularists betrayed their espoused principles and took a stance in favour of religious privilege. To put it simply, they committed an enormous gaffe. How can they be trusted unless they take serious measures to correct that gaffe as soon as possible by issuing public statements correcting their error?

While the recent electoral defeat of the Parti Québécois marks a major setback for the independence movement, in the short term at least, nevertheless the Charter controversy has underlined and reinforced those qualities which make Quebec unique and distinct from the rest of Canada, in particular, popular support for a republican form of secularism. Quebecers who support both independence and secularism often speculate that secularism can never be achieved in Quebec without first separating from Canada. During the Charter fiasco, Charter opponents (inadvertently) did everything they could to validate that hypothesis. By maligning one of the best ideas to come out of that province because it was proposed by a separatist government, Charter opponents have, in my opinion, strengthened the independence movement in the long term.

Expressing a similar sentiment, writer and broadcaster Tarek Fatah, a secularist from a Muslim background, penned an article entitled “I say ‘Vote PQ to save Canada’!” which appeared in the Toronto Sun during the election campaign.

The Arrogance of Victory

With the defeat of the Charter they hated so intensely and fought so hard to defeat, anti-secularists, including Islamists, are currently displaying the arrogance of victory.

The proposed Charter was an exceptional opportunity which, if adopted, would have significantly advanced the cause of secularism. At this critical moment, when their support was needed the most, pseudo-secularists betrayed their espoused principles and took a stance in favour of religious privilege.

Philosopher Louise Mailloux is a secularism expert who has published several books on the topic and is the 2014 recipient of the Condorcet-Dessaulles Prize for promotion of secularism and freedom of conscience. She ran unsuccessfully for the PQ against a leader of the anti-Charter QS. During the campaign she was vilified for having written in one of her books (La laïcité, ça s’impose ! or Secularism is Essential!, Louise Mailloux, Les Éditions du Renouveau québécois, 2011) that forced circumcision for religious reasons and forced baptism are violations of the freedom of conscience of children. Playing on the ambiguity of the French word “viol” which can mean either rape or violation, sensationalist journalists opposed to the Charter condemned Mailloux as a fanatic.

But Mailloux’s declaration is obviously true and in line with observations secularists have been making for years. Forcing a person, especially a child, to join a particular religion without informed consent is indeed a violation of that individual’s freedom of conscience. In the case of circumcision involving genital mutilation without valid medical justification, the abuse is physical and the word “rape” arguably becomes appropriate. Female genital mutilation is even more serious and must certainly be considered a form of rape.

Islamists have filed several SLAPP-style lawsuits aimed at silencing those who supported secularism. Mme Mailloux and two pro-secular web sites are currently being sued by a veil-wearing Charter opponent, Dalila Awada, for “defamation” because they alleged that Mme Awada promotes a fundamentalist Muslim agenda. In addition, Djemila Benhabib, herself recipient of the 2012 International Prize for Secularism, is being sued by a Muslim school for claiming that their program resembles the indoctrination one might encounter in a military camp. You are invited to contribute to their defense funds.

Perhaps even more disturbing is a recent proposal put forward by the Quebec Human Rights Commission (CDPDJ, Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse) that a new provision be added to the Quebec charter of rights and freedoms prohibiting public incitement of hatred of groups based on a forbidden ground of discrimination. There are several such grounds and religion is one of them, given the same status as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and race. Furthermore, the new provision would allow a member of a targeted group to submit a complaint in the name of the group, even if that individual is not personally a target. There is a very real fear that this would seriously compromise freedom of expression. Article 296 of the Canadian Criminal Code already criminalizes blasphemy and secularists have of course called for its repeal for years. Would the CDPDJ’s proposal effectively institute an anti-blasphemy law at the provincial level? Two weeks later the CDPDJ issued a letter to reassure the population that it does not wish to limit freedom of expression and that “freedom of religion protects persons rather than their beliefs.” This is indeed reassuring, but what is the provision’s exact wording and how will it be interpreted by human rights tribunals? Clearly, continued vigilance is required.

Perhaps no issue illustrates the hypocrisy of Charter opponents more than that of the crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly. The Charter did not mention the crucifix, neither stating that it should remain nor that it must be removed. Almost all Charter supporters insisted on its removal. The PQ wavered on the issue. However, many Charter opponents used this issue to dismiss the Charter as insufficiently secular and gave the false impression that the Charter had specified that it remain. Pseudo-secularists repeated ad nauseam that government buildings must be free of religious symbols but that on-duty public servants have an inalienable “right” to wear such symbols. Yet during the election campaign the Quebec Liberal Party — which vehemently opposed the Charter and defeated the PQ — adopted an explicit policy to maintain the crucifix in the legislature and they did so in order to attract traditionalist voters. Thus, ironically, Quebec now has a government which took an explicitly anti-secular position but was brought to power partly by those who said the Charter was not secular enough, in alliance with those who conflate religion with race.

Nothing has been resolved. The Rassemblement pour la laïcité continues to organise. The future promises to be difficult, tumultuous and fascinating.

Next blog: “Secularism Betrayed, Epilogue and Update

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