Exploiting Mass Murder for Political Gain


I recently learned that I am the target of defamatory remarks published on a Canadian web site. I am accused of a certain degree of complicity in the Quebec City murders. This is my response.

Sommaire en français Je viens d’apprendre que je suis la cible de propos diffamatoires publiés sur un site web canadien. On m’accuse d’un certain degré de complicité dans la récente tuerie à Québec. Voici ma réponse.

In a recent blog The Quebec City Attack: Some Context, I wrote:

It took a very short time for the unscrupulous to begin exploiting this tragedy for political ends. Slanderous and hateful comments have been made, …

When I wrote the above, I did not yet realize how appallingly true it would turn out to be. It has recently come to my attention that I have been accused, on a certain Canadian web site, of a certain degree of complicity in the Quebec City massacre, although it is a little vague (perhaps deliberately so) what that degree is. What was the nature of my complicity in this atrocity? According to my accuser, my criticism of the word “islamophobia” in a recent blog Fools Against “Islamophobia” implies a total—and, in my accuser’s apparent estimation, near-criminal—disregard for anti-Muslim prejudice.

In that blog I criticized gay activists in Ontario and in the U.K. for their inappropriate response to the Orlando shooting in which about 50 were massacred in a gay bar. Instead of concentrating their energies on denouncing religious homophobia, in this case Islamic homophobia, they foolishly chose to demonstrate against “Islamophobia” as if “the possibility of antipathy towards those who practice Islam is worse than murdering gays in the name of Islam.” Furthermore, they chose incorrect language to do so: if they were concerned about the danger of an anti-Muslim backlash, i.e. attacks against real people, they could have denounced anti-Muslim prejudice.

But instead, these gay activists used the term “Islamophobia” which implies a (possibly irrational) fear of the ideology Islam. This is wrong for at least two reasons: (1) there is nothing irrational about fearing Islam; and (2) criticizing an ideology is very different from hatred of real human beings. By confusing the two issues, these activists stigmatized criticism of Islam and its cousin Islamism, thus playing into the hands of Islamist propagandists. Those who control language also control minds. The words we choose are important. Clarity is essential.

…the Quebec City killing of six Muslims was far, far worse than mere “Islamophobia.” It was not an attack on a religion or an idea. On the contrary, it was murderous violence against living, breathing human beings.

What is ironic here is that the Quebec City killing of six Muslims was far, far worse than mere “Islamophobia.” It was not an attack on a religion or an idea. On the contrary, it was murderous violence against living, breathing human beings. It was anti-Muslim terrorism, it was an anti-Muslim massacre. (Some people reject the term “terrorism” in this case. I tend to disagree.) We all have a duty, especially atheists and secularists, to distinguish between ideas and people, i.e. between beliefs and believers. To confuse the two categories only increases the danger of misunderstandings and possibly retribution for past acts of violence.

I also know why my accuser hates me (although we do not even know each other). Based on previous writings, it is clear that my criticism of communitarianism, a.k.a. multiculturalism, and my concomitant support for republican secularism burn his or her butt.

It is not clear whether my accuser is literally insane, or merely a horrific jerk. Maybe both? Fortunately, unlike Donald Trump, my accuser is not the head of a powerful nation with massive nuclear capability, so there is a limit to how much damage the lout can do. Unfortunately he or she is far from alone in this venal practice of exploiting a bloody tragedy for partisan political purposes.

Yesterday I slipped on some ice, fell and hurt my knee. Who or what is to blame? I blame Islamophobia and the Quebec “Charter of Values.” … OK, just kidding.

It has been said (I am unable to locate the source) that the only vice is conformism. Since the Quebec City attack on January 29th, we have seen a lot of vicious conformism. There has been a chorus of unscrupulous individuals claiming that the debate, in 2013-2014, around the Charter of Secularism proposed by the previous Quebec government, was a major cause of the massacre. This is accompanied by lamenting the prevalence of “identity politics” or “nationalisme identitaire” etc., etc. when in reality the Charter would have imposed neutrality on public institutions so that individuals would be prevented from promoting their particular, partisan religious or political identity while being paid from public funds. The Charter would have attenuated identity politics.

One very high profile example of this is the recent media splash by Charles Taylor who was co-president of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, about a decade ago. The Commission was mandated to study the issue of so-called “reasonable accommodation” which to be precise should be called religious accommodation. One of its principal recommendations was that public servants in positions of coercive authority—police, judges, etc.—should not be allowed to wear religious symbols while on duty. I think such symbols should be banned for all public servants while on duty, but the Commission’s recommendation was at least a step in the right direction.

Taylor has exploited the Quebec City massacre as an excuse to repudiate, in a very public fashion, one of the rare constructive positions he has taken in the past.

Very recently, Taylor repudiated his previous position; he now thinks that no such ban should be imposed. His reason? The Quebec City event has changed the situation and, according to Taylor, the debate over the Quebec Charter “stigmatized” some groups. In reality, as ex-MNA Fatima Houda-Pepin has revealed, Taylor has discreetly held his current opinion for years, since long before the recent event. In other words, Taylor has exploited the Quebec City massacre as an excuse to repudiate, in a very public fashion, one of the rare constructive positions he had taken in the past.

But the prize for the most excessive and most egregious behaviour exploiting the Quebec City tragedy goes to Member of Parliament Iqra Khalid who is promoting her motion M-103 condemning “Islamophobia.” According to a CBC news report, she defines that term as “the irrational hate of Muslims that leads to discrimination.” Once again, we see a deliberate confusion of terms in order to justify a dangerous threat to freedom of expression. And once again, both the political centre and the so-called left have completely abandoned all rationality, so that only some members of the Conservative Party oppose the motion, thus allowing its promoters to accuse anyone who disagrees with them of being right-wingers.

My accuser is a petty member of that rogue’s gallery of unprincipled conformists.

You are allowed to disagree with me. But you are not allowed to accuse me of complicity in murder.

Further reading:

Next blog: Islam and Islamism

The Quebec City Attack: Some Context

2017-02-05, last modified 2017-02-06

Some context and background about the attack on a mosque in Quebec City on Sunday, January 29th 2017.

Sommaire en français Quelques informations pertinentes pour contextualiser l’attentat contre une mosquée de la ville de Québec, le dimanche 29 janvier 2017.

As you know, on January 29th 2017, a gunman went on a rampage in a Quebec City mosque, killing six and wounding several others. Here are a few details about this horrific attack and events before and after, gleaned from a variety of sources, details which may have gotten lost in the current highly charged political atmosphere.

  • The police initially reported that there were two shooters, one North-African, the other a Caucasian with an obvious Québécois accent. They then determined that the former was a witness who was fleeing for his life — in fact he was cleaning snow from the mosque steps when the shootings began. The police publicly corrected their error the day after the shootings, but apparently some media, particularly in the US, took their time. During the short period of confusion, before the correction was announced, some speculated about a conflict between rival Muslim sects, but I found that scenario to be implausible. In Iraq or Egypt, maybe, but not in Quebec City.
  • The perpetrator, Alexandre Bissonnette, was apparently not a Quebec nationalist. According to blogger André Gagnon, his Facebook presence (no longer available) was almost entirely in English, whereas Quebec City is almost entirely French-speaking. His political profile is closer to the extreme-right wing of the Canadian Conservative Party (the party of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper), the party of WASP racism and Orangism. (Although the Conservative Party is rather weak in the province of Quebec in general, it paradoxically has stronger support in the Quebec City region.)
  • According to police, their interrogation of Bissonette showed he was influenced, at least to some degree, by the anti-Muslim climate which currently reigns in the USA.
  • Police will probably not recommend terrorism charges, as such charges are more difficult to prove in court, while the perpetrator is already facing 6 counts of premeditated murder and 5 counts of attempted murder, enough to put him away for 25 years with no possibility of parole. But I would call it terrorism.
  • In June of 2016, the severed head of a pig was left on the doorstep of the Quebec City mosque. I wrote about it in a previous blog, Of Pigs and Prayer.
  • The perpretrator gave himself up to police willingly. This is atypical of such attacks.
  • All those killed in the attack were male. This is the result of gender segregation in the mosque. Only men are allowed in the main area of the mosque on the ground floor. Women and children are relegated to other levels.
  • A funeral for three of the dead was held on February 2nd in a major venue, the Maurice-Richard Arena, in Montreal:
    • The funeral was attended by dignitaries including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and the mayors of both Montreal and Quebec City. It was practically a state occasion, broadcast on television.
    • The main level, where the caskets were located, was reserved for men, except for female dignitaries and wives of dignitaries. Other women were excluded from the main level because of gender segregration.
    • During his speech, Premier Couillard repeated the words “Allahou Akbar,” claiming that they are incorrectly associated with violence.
    • Although two of the three deceased are from the Kabyle people of Algeria, their relatives were offended that Arabic and not the Kabyle language was used in the ceremony.
  • Other recent attacks involving Québécois:
    • On January 15th 2016, six Québécois were killed, along with 24 other persons, in an Islamist terror attack on a hotel and restaurant in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. Four of the six were from the Quebec City area. Prime Minister Trudeau made a declaration condemning the attack, but took no other action. Two days later he visited an Ontario mosque which had been vandalized after the terrorist attacks in Paris on 2015-11-13.
    • The most recent terrorist attack in Quebec was in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu on October 20th 2014, by an Islamist radical, causing two deaths: a soldier and the perpetrator.
    • The preceding was an attack by Richard Bain on an event in Montreal, celebrating the victory of the Parti Québécois on the evening of the September 4th 2012 provincial election. Bain’s apparent goal was to assassinate as many separatists as possible, especially party leader and newly elected premier of Quebec, Pauline Marois. He failed, but unfortunately one person, a stage technician, was killed. Bain made anti-French comments during the attack. I would call this incident Anglo terrorism. Hatred directed against French-speaking Québécois and especially against independantists is a major problem in Canada but rarely reaches such extremes.

The Future Looks Very Bleak

The underlying problem is the confusion between an ideology, Islamism (a subset of Islam), and human beings of Muslim culture. Those who refuse to allow full criticism of the former by claiming that it offends the latter are contributing to the very confusion which they claim to oppose.

There is an old proverb which states that to understand is to forgive. This may apply to minor faults, but it certainly does not apply here. We may try to understand the motives of the killer, to explain his behaviour; however, no explanation, no motivation, whether political or other, can possibly justify or excuse this horrific act of mass murder. If Bissonnette thought that he was scoring a victory against Islamism, then in addition to being a contemptible mass-murderer he is also extremely stupid, because, by gunning down innocent Muslims, he has given Islamists a major propaganda victory, something they can exploit for their own ends, just as Donald Trump’s draconian U.S. travel ban on Muslims from some countries also played into the Islamists’ hands.

The lone perpetrator is to blame for this massacre; he alone has blood on his hands. However, there are others to whom lesser blame must be assigned, others who are responsible for creating an atmosphere which made such an attack more likely to occur, which facilitated such an atrocity. And there are others who are completely innocent but have been unfairly targeted.

It took a very short time for the unscrupulous to begin exploiting this tragedy for political ends. Slanderous and hateful comments have been made, condemning secularists and the Québécois in general. The antisecular regressive left (i.e. false left) and cultural relativists were already overbearingly arrogant; this tragedy has only emboldened them, making matters even worse. The underlying problem is the confusion between an ideology, Islamism (a subset of Islam), and human beings of Muslim culture. Those who refuse to allow full criticism of the former by claiming that it offends the latter are contributing to the very confusion which they claim to oppose.

By failing to take aim at the tremendous harm which religions cause, the fake left betrays human rights and drives more and more people towards the far right of the political spectrum where such criticism is contaminated with bigotry and anything but rigorous.

Now, more than ever, rigorous criticism of religion, including Islam, is crucial. By failing to take aim at the tremendous harm which religions cause, the fake left betrays human rights and drives more and more people towards the far right of the political spectrum where such criticism is contaminated with bigotry and anything but rigorous.

It does not take telepathic powers to recognize that this massacre was a form of revenge for Islamist terrorist events. By falsely blaming Québécois in general and by remaining complacent with respect to Islamism, our incompetent political leaders have virtually guaranteed that the cycle will continue unbroken. Islamists are now emboldened and will seek revenge, then another anti-Muslim fanatic will seek revenge for that, and so on, and so on. The future looks very bleak indeed.

I will be exploring some of these issues in future blogs. Unfortunately, I have a lot of material at hand.


Next blog: Charles Taylor est-il compromis avec le Prix Templeton ?

Challenges for Canadian Secularists

2016-09-20, updated 2016-09-21

A (non-exhaustive) list of seven challenges which Canadian secularists must meet in order to promote a state which is truly independent of religious interference.

Sommaire en français

Une liste (non exhaustive) de sept défis que les partisans de la laïcité doivent relever afin de prôner un État véritablement indépendant et libre d’ingérence religieuse. Ces défis sont :

  • Prôner l’abolition de la monarchie
  • Abandonner le multiculturalisme (communautarisme)
  • S’opposer à tous les intégrismes, y compris l’islamique, et pas seulement le chrétien
  • Reconnaître que certains codes vestimentaires sont nécessaires pour la laïcité
  • Respecter le choix du Québec en matière de laïcité
  • Laisser tomber votre puéril engouement pour Saint Justin Trudeau
  • Rejeter l’influence de la gauche régressive



The monarchy is a religious institution, incompatible with fundamental human rights.

The fact that Canada’s head of state must be of a particular religion is bad enough, but it is only a symptom of the underlying problem: the monarchy is essentially a religious institution, in which the king or queen rules by “divine right,” i.e. a mandate from an imaginary divinity. The fact that Canada’s monarchy is constitutional does not change that situation; it simply makes the monarchy non-absolute. Similarly, so-called “moderate” Christian churches avoid some of the worst excesses of fundamentalist churches, but they are still Christian.

Furthermore, hereditary transmission of the title of head of state violates the principle of equality which is fundamental to human rights and secularism. Finally, the bizarre circumstance that Canada’s monarch is a foreigner—and the head of state of a foreign country—tends to favour those whose ethnic background is from that country and to undervalue all others.


Multiculturalism = communitarianism = cultural relativism = ethno-religious determinism = religious essentialism = soft racism = an electoral strategy of unscrupulous politicians

I have criticized multiculturalism in previous blogs and articles and many other writers have pointed out the flaws in this nice-sounding but retrograde concept. In particular the Canadian Multiculturalism Act must be repealed or at least modified substantively so that it can no longer be used to favour the more religious (including fundamentalists and worse) over the less religious and the non-religious.


Christianity is not the only crappy religion. Islam is just as dangerous—and currently it is arguably even worse (which does not imply that we can stop criticizing Christianity for now). Sikh, Hindu, Judaic and other fundamentalisms are also dangerous.

In particular, we must resist the Islamist ploy, so commonly used to manipulate well-meaning fools, of playing the victim, of exaggerating the seriousness of anti-Muslim acts. In Canada, hate crime statistics indicate that the most frequent targets of such acts continue to be blacks and Jews.

Although is it obviously unfair to blame all Muslims for the actions of Islamist terrorism, all Muslims, including so-called moderates, nevertheless have a responsibility to confront the reality of that terrorism—i.e. the fact that the coran and other core documents of Muslim tradition contain much hate propaganda and many calls for deadly violence—and to distance themselves definitively from it. The fact that the torah and the bible also contain similar content does not mitigate Muslims’ responsibility; it simply means that Christians and Jews also have responsibilities.

As the journalist Joseph Facal puts it, not all Muslims are guilty but all are responsible. Adopting the posture of a victim is a strategy for shirking those responsibilities. (“enfermement dans une posture victimaire qui conduit à se défiler devant ses propres responsabilités.”)


Or do you want police and judges to wear collanders and niqabs?

It is unacceptable for public servants—especially those with coercive power such as police, judges and prison guards—to display blatant symbols of religious or political affiliation while on duty. To allow such aberrant behaviour has nothing to do with “rights”—rather it amounts to granting a privilege to the wearers of such symbols and to their religion or ideology, a privilege which compromises everyone else’s freedom of conscience.

Face-coverings are even worse, as they are impediments to security and communication, among other issues. They should be forbidden for all users of public services, not just state employees on duty.


The Québécois have every right to choose laïcité without being vilified for it.

During the debate over Quebec’s proposed Charter of Secularism in 2013-2014, opposition to the Charter from Canada outside Quebec was ferocious and based largely on ethnic bigotry against Quebeckers, bigotry which is often called “racism” (although inaccurate here, because French-speaking Québécois constitute a nation, not a “race”). When the PQ goverment was defeated in the provincial election of April 2014 and the Charter thus died, the defeat was because voters rejected the PQ’s sovereignty option, not secularism. Polls show that secularism remains very popular among Quebeckers, and their secularism is more in line with the modern republican tradition of laïcité which is obviously superior to the lame 17th-century Lockean pseudo-secular tradition which is dominant in English-speaking countries and remains so, largely as a result of anglo-ethnocentrism.

(This tension was also very evident during the recent burkini controversy. More on that in a future blog.)


Justin Trudeau is as anti-secular and as shallow as Pope Franky. Like the pope, his strength is in dishonest self-marketing.

Trudeau opportunistically courts the votes of various religious communities by flirting with very dubious Islamists (with ideological affinities to the Muslim Brotherhood) and with fundamentalist Sikhs.

Trudeau insults gays and women by marching in gay parades and claiming to be a feminist while continuing to be very chummy with religious fanatics who practice gender segregation and oppose gay rights and gender equality.

Trudeau slanders secularists by lumping us all in the same category as a bigoted con-artist like Donald Trump.

To criticize Trudeau does not imply support for his adversaries and enemies. That would be falling into the trap of what I call the “binary fallacy” and which Wikipedia calls “False dilemma”.


Western women who wear the veil contribute to the subservience of women elsewhere in the world for whom wearing the veil is an obligation.

The regressive left uses specious accusations of “intolerance,” “xenophobia,” “islamophobia,” etc. to deflect or silence legitimate criticism of religions and multiculturalism.

Secularists must explicitly reject the odious influence of the regressive left which Wikipedia describes as “a section of left-wing politics which is accused of paradoxically holding reactionary views due to tolerance of illiberal principles and ideologies (such as extremist Islamism) for the sake of multiculturalism and cultural relativism.” This accusation is certainly valid in light of the behaviour of many leftist and centrist Canadian politicians, the most noteworthy being Justin Trudeau who, for electoral advantage, regularly panders to various religious communities (such as Islamist and Sikh) which tend to be of the fundamentalist variety.

It is shameful how Trudeau and his ilk present the wearing of the Islamic veil as some sort of victory for women’s rights when in reality it is precisely the opposite. Remember the admonition of Mona Eltahawy, author of “Headscarves and Hymens”: western women who wear the veil contribute to the subservience of women elsewhere in the world for whom wearing the veil is an obligation.

Next blog: False Memes from the Burkini Wars

Hate Quebec, Hate Secularism


Antipathy towards Quebec and anti-secularism often go hand in hand in Canadian politics. They are, or should be, unrelated issues, but as republican secularism is more popular in Quebec and multiculturalism more popular outside Quebec, they become intertwined. I give some examples of this harmful attitude, from comments on an atheist web site to a Globe and Mail article.

Sommaire en français Une antipathie pour le Québec et une prise de position antilaïque sont deux attitudes souvent confondues dans les débats politiques au Canada. En principe ces deux questions n’ont rien directement en commun, mais deviennent entremêlées puisque la laïcité (républicaine) est plus populaire au Québec et le multiculturalisme plus populaire hors Québec. J’en présente quelques exemples tirés d’un site web athée et d’un article du journal torontois Globe and Mail.

One day during the campaign leading up to the Quebec provincial election of April 2014, I visited the web site Canadian Atheist and found, to my initial surprise, that the most recent post consisted mainly of a very brief video, only a few seconds, configured to run in an infinite loop, showing Pauline Marois—premier of Quebec at the time—standing before a cluster of microphones at a press conference and, with the palm of one hand, gently but firmly pushing Pierre-Karl Péladeau away from the microphones. Péladeau, a rich businessman and owner of media giant Québecor, had recently become a Parti Québécois (PQ) candidate in that election and has since become leader of the party, replacing Marois after the party’s defeat in that 2014 election.

Clearly the video was meant as a mocking embarrassment to the PQ, showing a conflict between two leaders—current and future—of that separatist party. But why would such a video be posted on an atheist web site? It had no relevance there. What could some alleged power struggle within a provincial political party have to do with atheism? The video sequence was obviously meant to be humorous but succeeded merely in being adolescent and bizarre.

Furthermore, by any reasonable standard, an atheist web site would be expected to adopt a serious, even sympathetic attitude towards that political party. After all, a major aspect of the PQ’s platform in the 2014 election was its Charter of Secularism which, if adopted, would have officially declared the Quebec state to be secular and would have instituted separation of religion and state as official policy in Quebec. All atheists and secularists could be expected to support such a measure enthusiastically and to be favourably disposed towards whoever proposed it.

However this is Canada, and as I have learned to my great chagrin, expecting Canadians—in particular Canadians who claim to be secularists—to behave reasonably and in accordance with their own best interests is a recipe for disappointment. Despite the valiant efforts and the perseverance of my friend and colleague Veronica Abbass, editor-in-chief of Canadian Atheist, the postings and in particular the comments on that site sometimes degenerate into a fetid cesspool of anti-secularism and hatred of Quebec, the two currents being very much intertwined. That, in a nutshell, is the explanation for the video posting described above. For technical reasons it has unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—since disappeared from the site, so I am unable to name the author who posted it.

Indeed, that site is infested by a small but very vocal number of ethnic bigots—the poster of the video just mentioned being one—whose extreme antipathy towards Quebec nationalism greatly exceeds any attachment they might have to secularism. Several of them avoid using a full name. Their comments vary in length, from a simple specious insult like “Islamophobia!” to interminable diatribes thousands of words long. Here is a representative sample from one of those comments:

[…] the pq charter […] had nothing to do with secularism and everything to do with repressive nationalism.


The PQ hates multiculturalism because it implies québécois culture is no more special than any other, and therefore not deserving of special status and protection. True secularism is about not privileging one religion over any others, it is not about bullying religious minorities out of the public sphere/service.

Comment by “Joe”

The author of the above comment needs to pulls his/her head out of his/her gluteal sphincter and recognize a few obvious facts:

  1. The Charter, whether one agreed with it or not, was certainly about secularism.
  2. Quebec nationalism in general has been, for the last half century, resolutely secular in orientation.
  3. Putting Québécois culture on par with a religion, as he/she does, is absurd.
  4. French-language culture in Canada, concentrated in Quebec, is certainly “deserving of special status” and indeed, constitutionally so, as French and English are Canada’s two official languages.

The reality is that the avant-garde of secularism not just in Canada but in all of North America—indeed in the entire western hemisphere—is in Quebec. The crucifixes that used to be omnipresent there are mostly gone, while the crucifix still hanging in the National Assembly is an annoying remnant whose continued presence was formally guaranteed not by the PQ but by the Quebec Liberal Party which vehemently opposed the Quebec Charter of Secularism, in collaboration with Islamists.

The irony of the comments by “Joe” is that he/she correctly identifies the situation—that multiculturalism reduces the French language and culture to a status no greater than any other non-English culture—and then draws precisely the wrong conclusion: that this situation is justified.

Canada was founded as an ostensibly bilingual nation, a partnership between two founding cultures and languages: the English and the French. In practice, it did not quite work out that way, with English having far greater dominance, while French gradually receded almost everywhere. The British imperial power, at its apogee, was notorious for its arrogance, ethnocentrism, paternalism and racism. The fact that the French (and to a lesser extent the Scottish) tended to intermarry with First Nations people a little more than others gave the English yet another excuse to look down their noses at them. In the 1960s, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism studied this linguistic imbalance and proposed policies to attempt to correct it. However, within a few years, the concept of biculturalism had been forgotten and was supplanted by multiculturalism.

Whether intentional or not, this replacement of “bi-” by “multi-” led to further devaluation of French language and culture, already in an inferior position. With multiculturalism, French culture became just another in a mosaic. The dominance of English culture became overwhelming. Multiculturalism thus became a vehicle for Anglo ethnocentrism. An ideology which claims to be a solution to racism (it is not) became a vehicle for devaluing one of Canada’s two founding cultures.

Multiculturalism thus became a vehicle for Anglo ethnocentrism. […] The arrogance and paternalism of British imperialism have been recycled and repackaged as multiculturalism.

And that is one major reason why multiculturalism is so popular in Canada outside Quebec, and less popular in Quebec. It allows Canadians to pretend to be anti-racist, while simultaneously providing a convenient excuse for their ongoing antipathy towards French-speaking Quebecers. The arrogance and paternalism of British imperialism have been recycled and repackaged as multiculturalism.

Anyone who claimed to be a secularist could not in good conscience oppose the PQ Charter unless they were honest about what they were opposing, and on what basis they were opposing it. They were in fact opposing a law inspired by the French tradition of republican secularism, and their opposition was based on a defence of religious privilege as guaranteed by Lockean pseudo-secularism as explained in a previous blog. Charter opponents rejected the Charter because it represented a more coherent form of secularism. They preferred the inferior Lockean form, but rarely had the clarity to say so. However Quebecers prefer the republican form, as is their right.

The tendentious habit of opposing secularism by vilifying those who propose it certainly did not disappear when the party which proposed the Charter was defeated in April of 2014. It continues unabated. We saw it recently during the federal election of October 2015, when anyone who pointed out the foolishness of allowing face-coverings during citizenship hearings risked being accused of “intolerance” or worse. Anti-Quebec memes were freely recycled for this purpose. For example, Sheema Khan, writing in the Globe and Mail during the federal election campaign trotted out that old chestnut of Jacques Parizeau’s “money and ethnic votes” comment as an excuse for supporting wearing the niqab, while comparing the 1995 pro-Canada, anti-separatist rally in Montreal to a “noble” pilgrimage (i.e. the “hajj”). Does this mean that Allah condemns those damn separatists?

It is a tenet of Canadian mythology that Parizeau’s comment was “racist” but in reality he was just being a sore loser, angry that his side lost the referendum by a very narrow margin whereas the federal government had subsidized the rally in violation of Quebec legislation limiting campaign spending. Without such federal overspending, the “Oui” side might have won. As for the “ethnic” part, Parizeau was simply referring to the well-known phenomenon of federalists seeking electoral advantage by encouraging new immigrants in the Montreal area to assimilate to the English-language community rather than the French. Parizeau’s comment, made in the heat of bitter disappointment, was foolish because an intelligent politician such as he should have known that his political enemies would use such a comment to make unfounded but damaging accusations. That is indeed what they did, and continue to do even after his death.

Another irony: Parizeau was among those sovereignists who expressed strong reservations about the Charter of Secularism. But that does not stop enemies of secularism from using his example to denigrate secularists.

The demonization of Quebec nationalism harms all Canadians because it jeopardizes the fight for secularization.

Next blog: The Cult of Impotence

Secularism Betrayed, Epilogue and Update


Sommaire en français Deux développements récents, dont l’un très positif, sont venus modifier la situation suivant la défaite de la Charte péquiste. Premièrement, la décision de la Cour suprême du Canada, rendue le 15 avril 2015, a interdit la prière lors des séances de conseils municipaux, mais a des implications beaucoup plus vastes car elle spécifie que l’État doit protéger la liberté de conscience des incroyants autant que celle des croyants. La Cour prend donc au sérieux la liberté de s’affranchir de la religion, non seulement la liberté de religion. Elle impose ainsi un devoir de neutralité religieuse aux représentants de l’État, c’est-à-dire les fonctionnaires des services publics, durant leurs heures de travail. Cela constitue un appui à la prohibition du port de signes religieux telle que stipulée dans la Charte de la laïcité proposée par le gouvernement péquiste en 2013. Le deuxième développement est beaucoup moins heureux. Le gouvernement Couillard (Parti Libéral du Québec, PLQ) qui a défait le gouvernement péquiste, vient de proposer plusieurs projets de loi et un soi-disant plan d’action pour contrer la radicalisation. Le projet de loi 62 sur la « neutralité religieuse de l’État » ne mentionne ni la laïcité ni la séparation entre religions et État ; il ne fait qu’interdire le port du voile intégral dans la fonction publique. Le projet de loi 59 « contre les discours haineux et les discours incitant à la violence » est carrément liberticide car elle compromet le droit de critiquer les religions. Le plan d’action manque complètement sa cible en visant la soi-disant « islamophobie » au lieu de lutter contre la vraie cause de la radicalisation, soit la propagande islamiste.

The previous three blogs form a series entitled “Secularism Betrayed” recounting the story of the defeat of the Quebec Charter of Secularism, i.e. how mindless conformism led some ostensible secularists, in a shameful betrayal of their espoused principles, to oppose legislation which by any reasonable logic they should have supported, thus squandering an opportunity of historic proportions. That series was written in January of 2015. This current blog is an update dealing with relevant recent developments.

In recent months, two major developments have occurred. One is grounds for great optimism, a major victory for secularism. The other tends to confirm the pessimism expressed in Parts I, II and III. Both developments, in their own way, underline just how important the Charter was, and the enormity of having squandered the opportunity that it represented.

The Supreme Court defends secularism …

On April 15th 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered its decision in the Saguenay prayer case. The Court ruled against the practice of prayer at Saguenay city council meetings and, by extension, implied that all municipalities which engage in this practice are violating the freedom of conscience of anyone who does not adhere to the religion expressed by the prayer. However the decision goes much further than the mere question of prayer and rules clearly on the state’s duty to protect the freedom of conscience of non-believers, not just that of religious believers.

[84] …because of the duty of religious neutrality with which it is required to comply, the state may not profess, adopt or favour one belief to the exclusion of all others. Obviously, the state itself cannot engage in a religious practice, so the practice would be one engaged in by one or more state officials, who would have to be acting in the performance of their functions. Where state officials, in the performance of their functions, profess, adopt or favour one belief to the exclusion of all others, the first two criteria for discrimination mentioned above, namely that there be an exclusion, distinction or preference and that it be based on religion, are met.

The decision thus supports the duty of discretion, imposed on public servants when on the job, included in the PQ’s Charter. The justices also declare that:

[74] …I note that a neutral public space does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space. Neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals…

The distinction between institutions and individuals was used frequently during the Charter debate by Charter opponents who concluded from it that public employees must not be subject to a dress code, even while on duty. However it is crucial to recognize that in the above quote the individuals to whom the justices are referring are “private players,” i.e. NOT on duty. Indeed, later in the decision the judges make this very clear:

[119] …what is at issue here is the state’s adherence, through its officials acting in the performance of their functions, to a religious belief. The state, I should point out, does not have a freedom to believe or to manifest a belief; … it goes without saying that the same restrictions do not apply to the exercise by state officials of their own freedom of conscience and religion when they are not acting in an official capacity. Although they are not entitled to use public powers to profess their beliefs, this does not affect their right to exercise this freedom on a personal basis.

Thus, when individuals are not on duty the state must not restrict their freedom. However, when state officials are on duty, they must be neutral, because they are the state when they are working. The state has no existence except through its agents.

We can draw two major conclusions from this decision by the Supreme Court of Canada:

  1. The Court clearly defends freedom from religion as being just as important as freedom of religion; in other words, the Court takes seriously the rights of atheists and other non-believers, not just the rights of the religious. We can expect this to have widespread positive consequences for the future of secularism, both in the short term and probably for many years to come.
  2. The Court takes a more consistently pro-secular position than either CFIC or CSA.

… while Couillard undermines it.

Unfortunately, another more recent development is decidedly negative. The current government of Quebec — i.e. that of the Quebec Liberal party (PLQ) led by Philippe Couillard — has recently proposed legislation dealing with “religious neutrality” (Bill 62) which constitutes a sort of response to the Charter (Bill 60) proposed by the PQ government defeated by the PLQ in April of 2014. However, this new legislation covers almost nothing that the PQ’s Charter did, having all the shortcomings of the latter and practically none of its advantages. Bill 62 does not even mention secularism or separation between religion and state. It does little more than ban face-coverings in the public service.

Even worse is draft Bill 59, released on the same day, whose declared purpose is to combat “hate speech” and grants new powers to the CDPDJ, powers which, as feared (see Part III), threaten freedom of expression, especially criticism of religion.

Finally, an action plan put forward by the government to counter “radicalization” fails to address the problem of Islamist rhetoric which nourishes jihadism. In the document of over 30 pages describing the action plan, there is no mention of fundamentalism or Islamism, while Islamists are mentioned only as located in Syria and Iraq. Yet “Islamophobia” is mentioned repeatedly:

La radicalisation peut être renforcée par les préjugés, la discrimination et le racisme, des phénomènes qu’il faut combattre avec autant de fermeté. Les préjugés et la discrimination briment les droits et libertés de la personne auxquels la société québécoise est attachée et peuvent constituer un terreau fertile pour l’émergence de la radicalisation qui, à son tour, renforce des préjugés, dont l’islamophobie.

(Translation: Radicalization may be reinforced by prejudices, discrimination and racism, all phenomena which must be fought with equal determination. Prejudices and discrimination infringe on human rights and freedoms to which Quebec society is committed and may constitute fertile ground for the emergence of radicalization which, in turn, reinforces prejudices such as Islamophobia.)

The following phrases also occur in the document:

  • « la présence de préjugés racistes, parfois islamophobes » (“the presence of racist prejudices, sometimes Islamophobic”)
  • « déconstruire les préjugés, notamment islamophobes » (“deconstruct prejudices, in particular Islamophobic ones”)
  • « contrer les propos haineux et islamophobes » (“combat hateful and Islamophobic speech”)

Clearly the authors of the document are obsessed with “Islamophobia” and tend to confuse it with racism, which is irrational because Islam is a religion, not a race. One can quite legitimately be concerned about the dangerous nature of the religion Islam without being prejudiced against some particular ethnic group. Indeed, the document evidently blames radicalization on “prejudice” in general and “Islamophobia” in particular, while not even mentioning the obvious cause which is the extremist politico-religious ideology of Islamism. This is completely backwards: if prejudice against Muslims exists, it is caused by Islamist radicalism more than the other way around.

Among the measures proposed in the action plan — and codified in Bill 59 — is the addition to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms of a provision against «hate speech and speech inciting violence» based on any of the prohibited grounds of discrimination, of which religion is one. This provision would allow a person to lodge a complaint even though not oneself a target. Furthermore, Bill 59 allows for the suppression of such alleged speech by court order during the investigation period, i.e. before a ruling has been made.

Objectively, the PLQ led by Couillard are not fighting radicalization; rather they are enabling radical Islamism. The traditionalists and multiculturalists of the PLQ allied themselves with Islamists in order to defeat the PQ’s Charter. And now, they continue to facilitate the Islamists by promoting the false theory, so vehemently promoted by Islamists, that any problems are caused by so-called “Islamophobia.” In reality, that term is just a code word used to neutralize any criticism of Islam. And now the PLQ is proposing legislation which would use the power of the Quebec state against such criticism.

Next blog: “The Myth of Religious Obligations

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

Secularism Betrayed, Part II

How Conformism Trumped Principle and Set Secularism Back Decades in Canada
Part II: Independence and Separatism

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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.

Independence and Separatism

Sommaire en français Le débat autour de la Charte de la laïcité proposée par le gouvernement péquiste a été rendu plus difficile par le projet souverainiste de ce parti. Le PQ étant une formation centre-gauche qui a formé des gouvernements plusieurs fois depuis 1976, son souverainisme est devenu de plus en plus hypothétique avec le passage du temps. De tous les principaux partis politique provinciaux et fédéraux au Canada, le PQ est parmi les plus progressistes et est certainement le plus laïque. La laïcité et la souveraineté sont deux questions indépendantes l’une de l’autre, en principe du moins, mais le fait qu’un parti propose les deux à la fois brouillait les cartes. Quoique l’on puisse penser du programme souverainiste, les termes « raciste », « fasciste », etc. employés par ses plus féroces opposants ne sont que diffamation. Des calomnies semblables ont été librement recyclées pour vilipender les pro-Charte aussi. La situation a aussi été compliquée par le fait que plusieurs éléments de la gauche, traditionnellement laïque, trahissent depuis quelques temps leurs propres principes en s’accointant avec les communautés religieuses, surtout la musulmane, même de tendance islamiste. Cela a permis aux anti-Charte d’accuser faussement les pro-Charte de sympathie avec la droite politique. Malgré un appui important pour la Charte parmi la population québécoise, l’opposition des médias était souvent virulente. Au Canada hors-Québec, la réaction a été encore pire, l’angoisse et l’hostilité suscitées par le projet souverainiste du PQ se transformant facilement en haine pour sa Charte et pour les partisans de la laïcité. Deux associations supposément laïques ont pris position contre la Charte, trahissant ainsi le « secularism » qu’il prétendaient prôner.

So far this article has not yet mentioned an issue which should be irrelevant for any debate on secularism but which became unavoidable in the context of the Charter: the question of Quebec independence. The government which proposed the Charter was that of the Parti Québécois (PQ), a party which promotes the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada to form an independent republic.

The PQ can be described as a centre-left formation, with social-democratic leanings. It first came to power in the province in 1976. In the intervening four decades it has been the elected government several times. It has held and lost two referenda on Quebec sovereignty, the second one only narrowly. With the passing years the PQ has become rather mainstream, its independence project pushed ever further onto the back burner, becoming increasingly hypothetical. Nevertheless, this core element of the PQ’s program continues to generate enormous anxiety and hostility among many Canadians. That hostility was expressed with a vengeance during the Charter “debate” although that word is far too refined to describe the caustic uproar which ensued.

Among all parties elected to government at the provincial or federal level in Canada in the last few decades, the PQ is arguably among the most progressive and certainly the most secular. For example, it was a PQ government which, in December 1977, only a year after winning its first election, made Quebec the first jurisdiction in Canada to add “sexual orientation” to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination in its human rights legislation. A more recent example is the low-cost flat-rate day care program instituted by a previous PQ government (and now scrapped by the newly elected Liberal Party government).

As secularists we should not have to deal with a question such as whether Quebec should become independent or remain a member of the Canadian federation. The issue of separating Quebec from Canada is of no direct relevance to the question of separating religion from the state. But in the context of the proposed Charter that distinction quickly proved to be a luxury. Secularists were unavoidably confronted with the conflation of the two issues.

Now, one might consider the idea of Quebec independence to be unrealistic, misguided or utopian. One might consider it to be a dangerous and even reprehensible pipedream because of the political and economic instability that could very well result. However it is not racist, xenophobic, fascist nor any of a myriad of similar colourful adjectives used rather too often by those too lazy to attempt a rational response. Furthermore, anyone who uses such extreme language to denounce Quebec separatists is, in my opinion, a fanatic engaging in hate propaganda against a recognizable ethnic group, a behaviour which, in any other context, many would not hesitate to call “racist.” Indeed, this must be constrasted with the totally inappropriate and dishonest use by Charter opponents of the term “racist” to denigrate secularists.

The idea of Quebec going it alone is arguably a natural consequence of the coming-of-age process which began with the Quiet Revolution a half-century ago, a process of which secularization was and remains a key aspect. Thus, within Quebec there are many who support both independence and secularism. It is only natural that they would link the two and indeed that is to their credit because it indicates the progressive nature of their vision of an independent Quebec. Hence the conflation of the two issues.

So how should secularists have responded to this situation? The answer, I think, is obvious: the conflation must be resisted; the two issues must be distinguished. (Indeed, both the Quebec independentist camp and the federalist, i.e. anti-separatist, camp were divided in their opinions of the Charter.) Those who are secularists first and foremost must evaluate the Charter on its own merits, regardless of the independence question.

The Left, the Right and Secularism

Another issue which muddied the waters — and was dishonestly used by Charter opponents — is the disturbing ambivalence to secularism displayed in recent years by some left-wing organizations. Some on the left have abandoned the left’s traditional support for secularism in order not to offend “anti-imperialist” elements which are often Islamist. Two examples of this are Québec Solidaire (QS), a small independentist political party to the left of the PQ, and the Quebec Federation of Women, both of which oppose the ban on religious symbols in the public service.

The left has thus created a political vacuum — i.e. a lack of voices in support of the often popular secular program — which some right-wing political parties, especially in Europe, have opportunistically filled by pretending to support secularism. This has strengthened the far right by providing a pseudo-secularist veneer hiding an anti-immigrant or pro-Christian agenda. Even worse, it has allowed anti-secularists to misrepresent secularism and slander secularists by associating them with that right-wing agenda.

… secularism is a progressive and noble undertaking, … criticism of religion is a necessary and salutory aspect of both freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. Each and every religion must be subject to criticism, whether it be that of the traditional majority or of a minority, immigrant or otherwise.

Clearly, it is the duty of secularists to remind everyone that secularism is a progressive and noble undertaking, to explain that criticism of religion is a necessary and salutory aspect of both freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. Each and every religion must be subject to criticism, whether it be that of the traditional majority or of a minority, immigrant or otherwise.

To associate secularism with the political right is an obvious instance of the binary fallacy (or “either-or” fallacy), i.e. the misconception that a complex political question can be simplistically summed up as a conflict between two and only two camps. There are not two sides to every story; rather there are many “sides,” perhaps an infinite number. The spectrum of political positions with respect to secularism includes at least three principal camps (and even this is a simplification):

  1. Traditionalists who oppose secularism and support the traditionally dominant religion. An example: Mayor Jean Tremblay of Saguenay, a Catholic fundamentalist who insists on starting municipal council meetings with a prayer.
  2. So-called multiculturalists, i.e. ethnoreligious determinists who support extending religious privileges to a plurality of religions. The majority of Charter opponents, including pseudo-secularists who claimed to oppose it as secularists, fall into this camp. Indeed, this is very much the dominant ideology in Canada, especially outside Quebec.
  3. Secularists, such as member groups of the Rassemblement pour la laïcité, who oppose religious privilege and promote principles of universal human rights, including those principles which may conflict with religious tenets.

It must be noted that members of the first two camps, i.e. anti-secularists, sometimes present themselves as favouring some form of secularism. An example from the first camp would be the Front National in France, and, from the second, proponents of what is called in French “laïcité ouverte,” i.e. so-called “open secularism,” where the adjective “open” serves to negate and misrepresent the noun.

The Rest Of Canada

In Canada outside Quebec, media hostility to the Charter was even more virulent than within Quebec. Demonizing the PQ being a long-standing national sport in Canada for the reasons explained above, all-too-familiar accusations of intolerance and identity politics were freely recycled to denounce the bill. Nevertheless, a survey (“4 in 10 Canadians approve of Quebec charter of values, Similar number are uncomfortable with religious symbols”) conducted at the end of the summer of 2013 indicated that 43% of Canadians approved of the Quebec Charter and 64% agreed that “there are circumstances where an employer could restrict the wearing of religious symbols or clothing” as the government of Quebec was planning for its employees. In addition, a few weeks before the election, three secular organizations outside Quebec, including Humanist Canada, expressed some support for the Charter and for the ban.

However, two organizations with pretentions of representing secularists across Canada took a very different approach. In a press release dated September 13th 2013 (but which seems to have since disappeared from their web site), CFI Canada (CFIC) rejected the Charter, claiming that it “has the wrong aim, to take religion away from people” which was apparently their somewhat bizarre way of alleging that the Charter would threaten freedom of religion. Then, two months later, two CFIC spokespersons co-authored an op-ed piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail accusing the Charter of being “anti-religious bigotry” and a “threat” to Muslim veils! They then made the utterly surreal assertion that banning religious symbols and clothing for civil servants on duty would be comparable to discriminating against atheists in advertising. In a fundraising letter at the end of 2013, CFIC voiced its “concerns about the Quebec government’s misinterpretation of the principles of secularism.” Clearly they have things backwards. It is CFIC which misunderstands secularism and needs to learn a few basics from those Quebecers who have been working diligently towards that goal for many years, starting decades before CFIC even existed.

For its part, the very inaptly named Canadian Secular Alliance (CSA) issued a press release in November 2013 opposing the Charter because of the ban on religious symbols, claiming that religious displays by employees on duty are of no significance. CSA also faulted the Charter for not addressing various exemptions and subsidies which benefit religions, thus studiously ignoring the fact that the Charter established principles which would have greatly facilitated such measures in future, indeed setting the stage for the repeal of such privileges.

Next blog: “Secularism Betrayed, Part III

Secularism Betrayed, Part I

How Conformism Trumped Principle and Set Secularism Back Decades in Canada
Part I: The Charter

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Sommaire en français La Charte de la laïcité (projet de loi 60) a été proposée par le gouvernement du Parti Québécois en automne 2013. Cette charte, quoique loin d’être parfaite, aurait fait un pas très important sur le long chemin vers la laïcisation de la société québécoise, un processus déjà entamé par la Révolution Tranquille. Elle jouissait d’une grande popularité et un Rassemblement pour la laïcité s’est organisé pour appuyer le projet. Mais l’opposition était féroce, venant surtout des partisans du soi-disant multiculturalisme qui accorde une priorité à l’appartenance ethno-religieuse — aux dépens des principes universels —, et des islamistes. L’aspect le plus controversé de la Charte était la prohibition du port de signes religieux par les fonctionnaires publics durant leurs heures de travail ; pourtant, une contrainte semblable existe déjà dans la législation québécoise car les fonctionnaires ont un devoir de réserve en ce qui concerne leurs opinions politiques personnelles. Mais les opposants de la Charte ne tenaient pas compte de cela et dénonçaient le projet de loi comme une menace pour la liberté de religion, allant parfois jusqu’à accuser les pro-Charte de racisme et de xénophobie.

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.

In late 2013, the government of the Canadian province of Quebec introduced major draft legislation — a Charter of Secularism — which would have formally and officially declared Quebec to be secular. Unfortunately the proposed legislation died when that government was defeated in a provincial election in April of 2014.

One could be forgiven for assuming that all those who claim to favour secularism would have supported the bill wholeheartedly and worked hard to ensure its adoption, and this is indeed what occurred inside the province. But such was not the case outside Quebec. Indeed, two ostensibly secular organizations even went so far as to oppose the Charter publicly. This is the story of that shameful betrayal.

The Charter

The Charter or Bill 60 carried the unwieldy title “Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests” and contained provisions which:

  • formally declared separation between religion and state, the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of its institutions;
  • imposed on public servants a duty of discretion and neutrality with regard to religion, prohibiting religious symbols in the public service;
  • reaffirmed gender equality; and
  • established clear guidelines to regulate so-called “reasonable” accommodations which in the past had resulted in granting certain privileges to various religious groups and should instead be called religious accommodations.

All of these measures would have formalized the secular nature of the state and ensured its autonomy and independence from religion.

The Charter, if adopted, would have been a natural next step in Quebec’s remarkable progression over the last half-century from a priest-ridden backwater of Roman Catholic obscurantism to a modern, open and secular society, a process which is known as the Quiet Revolution. Virtually every secularist, humanist, atheist and/or freethought group in Quebec supported it enthusiastically (but not uncritically) and rallied to form a coalition, the Rassemblement pour la laïcité (RPL or Alliance for Secularism) which held various events including a march in October 2013 when some 26000 individuals braved the cold and rain in Montreal to declare their earnest desire for state secularism. Several member-organizations of the Rassemblement, for example Atheist Freethinkers (AFT), submitted briefs to public hearings on the proposed legislation in early 2014. The Charter should have inspired other provinces to consider similar legislation.

The Charter was not perfect. It failed to mention several important issues such as the following.

  • It did not end the current 60% public funding of private schools, many of which are religious.
  • It did not end tax advantages for the religious and for religious organizations.
  • It addressed neither the issue of cruelty to animals resulting from ritual slaughter nor the related issue of the wide distribution of religiously certified merchandise.
  • It did not explicitly prohibit religious ceremonies and manifestations in government buildings, such as prayers at municipal council.
  • It did not replace the Ethics and Religious Culture programme currently taught in primary and secondary schools and which violates secularism in that it is mandatory, fails to address atheism and other forms of non-belief adequately and implicitly teaches that religious belief is a prerequisite for ethics.
  • It did not address the issue of the crucifix which has hung above the speaker’s chair in the legislative chamber (the National Assembly) in Quebec City since it was installed there in the 1930s to symbolize the alliance of the government of the day with the Roman Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, the Charter set the stage for continuing secularisation. As a quasi-constitutional document its role was to establish general principles rather than specify implementation details, and those principles would have greatly facilitated future secular measures, including those listed above.

The Reaction

The proposed Charter enjoyed widespread popular support and yet opposition to it was fierce. The most vociferous opposition came from so-called multiculturalists who place religious privilege above universal human rights and thus empower religious community leaders, and from a small but very vocal gang of Islamists — in particular the Collectif québécois contre l’islamophobie (Quebec Collective Against Islamophobia) and the Muslim Council of Montreal — who pretended to speak for all Muslims. In reality, many persons from a Muslim background were sympathetic to the Charter, for example the Quebec Association of North-Africans for Secularism which is a member group of the Rassemblement pour la laïcité.

The term “multiculturalism” must be deconstructed. It sounds warm and fuzzy, and its proponents present it as a synonym for cultural diversity and a solution to racism. However it is more fairly described as a close cousin of racism. Well-known Quebec author and secularist Djemila Benhabib describes it as “multiracism.” An accurate replacement of the term “multiculturalism” would be “ethnoreligious determinism” — i.e. religion as destiny — because it is an ideology which tightly associates each ethnic community with a particular religious identity and labels members of that community with the associated belief system. It is thus a denial of freedom of conscience because it insists on assigning individuals to the religion of the community into which they were born. By conflating an innate characteristic (ethnicity) with a question of choice (belief), the latter is made to appear as if it were innate as well.

The most controversial aspect of the Charter was undoubtedly the prohibition on public servants wearing conspicuous religious symbols while on duty. Yet, there already exist regulations requiring that Quebec public servants refrain from obvious partisan political displays while on the job. Indeed, articles 10 and 11 of the Public Service Act (PSA) state that “A public servant shall be politically neutral in performing his duties” and “shall act with reserve in any public display of his political opinions.”

Ostentatiously displaying one’s political or religious affiliation while on duty as a public servant must be considered a privilege, not a right, a privilege which may legitimately be restricted in the interest of state neutrality.

In practice this means, for example, that if you go to the motor-vehicule bureau to renew your driver’s license, the agent at the counter may not wear a t-shirt emblazoned with “Vivre le Québec libre !” (a classic separatist slogan) or “Vote Liberal!” The new ban proposed in the Charter would have been a reasonable extension of that existing rule, given the partisan and often political nature of religious symbols, a modest constraint on freedom of expression for state employees during working hours. Ostentatiously displaying one’s political or religious affiliation while on duty as a public servant must be considered a privilege, not a right, a privilege which may legitimately be restricted in the interest of state neutrality.

Unfortunately, rather than concentrating the debate on this all-important job-related principle of restraint and neutrality, the government proposing the Charter made the mistake of allowing the discussion on this issue to slide into implementation details such a specific religious symbols, their size, etc., thus allowing Charter opponents to set the tone and open the door to portraying believers as victims of repressive legislation. Opponents of secularism alleged that this rule would constitute a serious threat to freedom of religion and a vehicle to persecute ethnic minorities. Indeed, opposition was so extreme that it sunk into defamatory language, accusing secularists of xenophobia, racism and similar epithets (as if race and religion were synonymous, a confusion in which multiculturalists regularly indulge), thus demonizing any support for a republican form of secularism.

It must be understood that, although the Charter was undoubtably inspired by the French tradition of laïcité, it nevertheless did not go nearly as far as current legislation in France: the Charter’s ban on ostentatious religious symbols applied neither to students nor to the public in general, but only to public employees and only while on duty.

Surveys indicated that the population of Quebec was largely sympathetic to the proposed legislation, which led some Charter opponents to denigrate Quebecers in general, accusing them of being inbred fools obsessed with identity politics.

Next blog: “Secularism Betrayed, Part II