Religious Symbols, Liberalism, and Laïcité in Quebec

In December 2021, a Muslim woman in Quebec, Canada lost her teaching position because she refused to remove her hijab in the classroom. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, despite his personal disagreement with the law that cost her a job, would not intervene in this “touchy subject,” as the bill under discussion was voted in democratically. This is the latest from a multi-year saga of the formation of the law aptly titled, An Act respecting the Laicity of the State. [1] It is important to challenge the very premise that laïcité is a force for a just society. 

History of the Law

In 2019, the law known as Bill 21, which banned some civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work, was passed in Quebec, Canada. The Quebec Superior Court upheld this law in April 2021 while exempting English school boards from adhering to this religious symbols ban. This law seemingly violates the freedoms enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, Quebec invoked the notwithstanding clause, which protects the law from being challenged on the grounds of violating section 2 (freedom of religion) or section 15 (equality rights) of the Charter. [2]

Though Catholicism was once central to the identity of French Canadians and the social structure of Quebec society, the state shifted towards secularism during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. This shift intensified with passing decades, although “Catholicism continues to operate as a source of identity for most Québécois”. [3] Another major shift occurred in the early 2000s, when Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh communities sought religious accommodation from Quebec regulations in a series of legal challenges. The Supreme Court of Canada overturned Quebec’s denials of accommodation, eliciting public and political controversy. [4]

In response, Quebec’s Liberal government created the Bouchard-Taylor Commission to investigate minority religious signs and practices in the province. Amongst other recommendations, the Commission proposed that “religious signs be prohibited by individuals whose roles represent the authority of the Quebec state, including judges and police officers”. [5] On the basis of the commission’s report, Quebec has attempted to pass numerous laws that restrict religious symbols and mandate the unveiling of one’s face while giving or receiving state services. However, Bill 21 is the first of these to become law.

Laïcité and Liberalism

Laïcité, as defined by the bill, “is based on four principles: the separation of state and religions, the religious neutrality of the state, the equality of all citizens and freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.” [6] Laïcité differs from secularism in that it is a French homogenizing form of liberalism that was a product of struggle with the Catholic church. Secularism emphasizes preserving religious liberty from state interference (to an extent), while laïcité seeks the absence of religion (freedom “from” religion) in the public sphere. Laïcité separates religion from state within limits of public order. It constructs a single civic identity and bans any state accommodation of religious identity in order to establish religious neutrality. 

Quebec is not an open secular space that allows for the free practice or non-practice of religion to a higher degree, like the rest of Canada. Rather, by enacting a law that bans religious symbols on civil servants, Quebec implements a form of closed secularism in which “the state imposes a particular understanding of the secular space, which is not neutral. It makes certain claims.”

“A Tale of Two Liberalisms”, a study conducted in 2014, found that in the rest of Canada, such restrictions on religious symbols were considered illiberal. Yet among self-identifying liberals themselves there is “significant disagreement…when it comes to the role of the state in the promotion or enforcement of those values.” [7] For example, many intellectuals and social activists articulated support for restrictions on religious expression “explicitly on liberal grounds, arguing that it would preserve the neutrality of the state or that it would preserve respect for gender equality and the rights of LGBTQ+ communities.” [8] Political Scientist Olivier Roy argues such restrictions are rooted in a “ideological laïcité”:

An ideological and philosophical interpretation of lacite that claims to provide a value system common to all citizens by expelling religion into the private sphere…today, it leads the majority of the secular Left to strike an alliance with the Christian Right against Islam. [9]

The study postulates that competing positions on the bill can stem from the same general commitment to liberal values, regardless of one’s position on the political spectrum. In examining what can account for opposite positions on restricting religious symbols in Quebec versus the rest of Canada, despite a similar commitment to liberal values, the researchers examined religiosity, prejudice, and relationship with liberalism. The study found:

The results show the divergent effects of liberal values in Quebec and the rest of Canada under both the police officers and teachers scenarios: in Quebec, the stronger the respondents’ liberal values, the more likely they are to sup- port restrictions for police officers and teachers… In the rest of Canada, the stronger the respondents’ liberal values, the less likely they are to support such restrictions…A single and common indicator of liberal values is related in diametrically opposite ways to support for restrictions on minority religious symbols in Quebec and the rest of Canada. [10]

This may support the argument that two different interpretations/relationships with liberalism dominate in Quebec and the rest of Canada. A limitation of the paper is it does not identify what those interpretations are, only that a “common measure of liberalism” relates to opposing positions on the religious symbols restrictions, further exacerbated antipathy and or prejudice towards Muslim populations. A number of scholars have addressed the division between such “liberalisms” in different ways, some by identifying French and Anglo forms. One commentator argues,

This distinction between the laïcité impulse and the Anglo-American impulse is ultimately the difference between the two different strands of liberalism identified by Jacob Levy … Laïcité is ‘rationalist’, Anglo-American secularism is ‘pluralist’.

Jacob T. Levy, Professor of Political Theory, presents a theoretical approach to identifying different interpretations of liberalism in the form of “rationalist” and “pluralist” strands. [11] The rationalist strand prioritizes state power and allows for greater state intervention into associational life. While this protects people from the authoritative power of local groups, it simultaneously prevents people from using their associations to resist state power. In contrast, he argues that the pluralist strand enables a robust civil society, as groups can flourish and hold greater powers that they can use against state intervention. However, the accumulated power of these groups could hinder the freedom of their members, for example those who voluntarily join the group but may be subject to coercion, thus requiring state intervention. 

Levy makes the following argument regarding people’s freedom to voluntarily become a member of a group (specifically, religion) and adhere to its commands: in what a person may choose to do freely or refrain freely from as an individual, they can join with others and also choose to do freely or refrain freely from as a group, with rules enacted by the group that mandate or prohibit such actions. He uses this principle to highlight a problem with religious symbol bans: a Muslim woman in Quebec, as a private individual, can freely choose to refrain from showing her face, if it’s for the simple reason of Quebec’s cold winters. However, this freedom to refrain from showing her face is called into question when she refrains due to a religious reason, because Quebecers “disapprove of the message [her] covering [her] face for that reason seems to convey”. [12] What she is allowed to do as an individual, she should be allowed to do as part of a group (in this case, Islam), in accordance with group rules that mandate such action. 

The difference between these forms of liberalism could potentially be applied to Quebec’s versus the rest of Canada’s attitudes towards religious symbols. When civil servants are simultaneously in a public position of state authority and hold a religious-based identity, the Quebec government demands that their outward loyalty is only to the state. This also enables the state to maintain control and power over religious communities. As Levy argues, “states don’t like intermediate organizations … they view associations as rival sources of norms that seek to take up more of our lives than state law and shared state citizenship seeks to take up.” [13] 

Under the guise of neutrality, this law is a mechanism for the state to suppress religious sartorial norms and impose its own ideology. This is seen in arguments supporting the restriction on wearing hijab by public symbols, because to them, hijab stems from sexism. One isn’t free to make such a choice, so the state needs to intervene.

In contrast, the rest of Canada, by adopting a more pluralistic approach, allows members of religions to maintain the freedom of their associational lives, even in positions of state authority. This approach allows individuals to maintain loyalties and moral commitments to entities and communities outside and beyond the state. While this might clash with existing citizenship expectations that the state seeks to set, such a pluralistic conception of a public space is more amenable to freedoms. Instead of submitting to state-directed norms and authority, individuals have greater control to join and adhere to the associations of their choosing. In the long run, states that embrace laïcité destroy civil society and wield control over individuals by restricting choices to those which are in accordance with state laws and state-directed ideologies regarding theism. 

Control Over Religion

The debate on hijab vis-à-vis laïcité is not new. During the French occupation of Algeria, public “unveilings” were imperial tools to further subjugate Muslims under the guise of progress. [14] During and after the decolonisation of North Africa from French occupation in the 1960s, a generation of French-born Muslims emerged. Tensions arose in France with their newly veiled populations, and these tensions extended to Quebec, a former colony of France.

In 1989, three students were suspended from a public school in Creil for wearing headscarves. The language of liberalism increasingly called upon the state to regulate hijab and “serve as an agent of religious emancipation.” [15] In 1994, Education Minister Francis Bayrou stated:

We must respect the culture and faith of Muslims, but history and the will of our people was to build a united, secular society … We will continue to accept discreet religious signs, as has always been the case. But we cannot accept ostentatious signs that divide our youth.

This language of “discreet” versus “ostentatious” has persisted since then. In 2012, Parti Quebecois made a list of “ostentatious” religious garb that public workers would be banned from wearing, including hijabs, turbans, kippas, and large crosses, but not small crosses and tiny jewelry. This proposal did not come to fruition at the time. 

Moving to the present case, Premier François Legault, who explicitly told reporters that the school board was wrong to hire a hijab-wearing Muslim, had previously defended his decision to keep a crucifix hanging in Quebec’s National Assembly. Though the crucifix was later removed, Legault’s argument at the time was that it served as a reminder of the past and a historical symbol “even though it represents the Christian values of the province’s two colonial ancestors.”

Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette long failed to define what constitutes a religious symbol, only that it should be “obvious.” Multiple people raised the issue of wedding rings, as it’s both a feature of general Western culture and Christian ceremonies, although Premier Legault said they would not be banned. During the court case for Bill 21, Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard asked a professor if a wedding ring constituted a religious symbol, and she responded that it would depend on context. One member of the National Assembly stated of the debate,

If you try to do an objective definition of the religious signs, you will create injustice. You will ban some signs that are not religious, you will not ban signs that are religious and you will create inequality in the application of justice.

This is most clear in the eventual clarification of what constitutes a religious symbol. In the law, religious symbols are defined as

any object, including clothing, a symbol, jewelry, an adornment, an accessory or headwear, that (1) is worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief; or (2) is reasonably considered as referring to a religious affiliation. [16] 

Criteria (1) introduces ambiguity in what constitutes a sufficiently religious belief/conviction and what serves as a purposeful motive for outward adornment. Criteria (2) allows an undefined entity to determine what is “reasonably” a religious symbol, allowing any preconceived idea of what is sufficiently religious regardless of its actuality. In the example Levy gives on niqab, it is not the end-result of covering one’s face that is disallowed, but the beliefs based on which covering one’s face is enacted – i.e. its connection to a religious affiliation that is widely considered oppressive. One journalist postulates on the effect of such a definition, asking: if a Muslim woman is motivated to cover by a desire to make a fashion statement, would she be spared for covering her hair? Furthermore, the question of who may “discover” such a motive remains unclear: the average Quebecer? The government? The vague language of Bill 21 creates a vacuum for majoritarian views on what is sufficiently religious to dominate.

Ultimately, this law is in line with the Province’s interests in enforcing French-Canadian norms disguised as neutrality. Pertinent here is Dr. Saba Mahmood analysis of secularism,

not simply as the doctrinal separation of the church and the state but the rearticulation of religion in a manner that is commensurate with modern sensibilities and modes of governance. [17]

If religion is considered an ideology, then nothing is a neutral symbol i.e. devoid of ideology: “If irreligiosity is just another form of religion, then official state support for irreligion will favour some religious adherents (namely secularists, atheists and agonistics) over others.” [18] Why is the lack of a head-covering ‘secular’? Many countries and civilizations had some form of head-covering, for both men and women – it is now the hegemony of fast fashion and Anglo dress codes that established a default standard of clothing, with little thought as to why rationally it should be the standard. 

Minority religions in Quebec are targeted not through an explicit mention in law, but due to a premise that finds modern Western norms as sufficiently irreligious or only discreetly religious. Researcher Amélie Barras argues that the cornerstone of laïcité is around two elements, “(1) restrictions that affect the religious practices of public servants belonging to minority religions and (2) protections for Christian symbols constructed as ‘cultural’.” [19] The discussion on wedding rings and crucifixes exemplifies this – by creating a demarcation between the cultural/historical and religious, lawmakers capitalize on the desire for neutrality “through the creation of a legal regime that targets specific ways of being religious.” [20] A few researchers, referencing Professor Lori Beaman’s work, write that in identifying Christian symbols as culture and not a religion, “the binary becomes one of ‘us’ having culture and heritage while ‘they’ have religion. In other words, ‘we’ have tamed religion by privatizing and individualizing it and ‘they’ have not.” [21]

Within this context, wedding rings and other majoritarian norms that are derived from religion can still clearly be an expression of faith, but are repackaged as sufficiently common and historical enough to be neutral. This is also a disservice to Christians who are resisting the secularization of their beliefs and practices.

In the context of hijab, between attempts to reduce it to a matter of bodily autonomy and other more acceptable forms of reasoning, the veiling woman serves as a battlefield of modernity. In such a climate, many see arguments premised on choice and autonomy standpoint as the only way to challenge the bill. However, the problem is that the choices that she can make that are acceptable to Quebec society, are heavily regulated on a basis that poses and posits itself as neutral. States can and do regulate various behaviors – after all, few would dispute public indecency laws. Yet, a standard derived from religious injunctions is invalid, or illegitimate. This is their primary hypocrisy: establishing secularly-mandated clothing whilst decrying religiously-mandated clothing. The latter challenges the State’s monopoly on regulation. Rather than regulation itself, the contention is with the authority and basis of regulation. As argued above, Quebec adopts a rationalist form of liberalism in that the state, as a political organization seeking an exclusive and monopolistic claim to power, sets its own standards and regulations at the expense of freely created and joined associations in society who have their own standards. 

Bill 21’s Consequences 

A court case in 2020 involved witnesses in support of the law, all immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. Their support of the law was based on viewing hijab as “a symbol of inferiority” and “Islamist proselytizing.” Other supporters of Bill 21 argue that it is beneficial for the state to restrict its civil servants from displaying religious symbols so that people are “assured that civil servants are unprejudiced in their regard”. Some supporters go further, arguing that people, especially children in classrooms, should be protected from proselytization. [22]

These arguments rest on the assumption that public visibility of religious symbols equates to forcing one’s religious views on others. However, in supposedly protecting some people from perceived religious coercion, the state actively coerces people of faith to remove their religious symbols.

Moreover, while religious symbols reflect the wearer’s fundamental beliefs, there is no proof that people of faith are coercing those they interact with to adopt the same symbols or beliefs. As Professor Natasha Bakht states, “the harm of proselytizing usually refers to coercive measures such as the use of threats, financial incentives, or other control techniques to force one’s views on others.” [23] In contrast, the Quebec government does not hire people who abide by their religious beliefs, financially incentivizes people of faith to act against their beliefs by only granting promotions to current civil servants if they remove their religious symbols, and fires civil servants who decide to adopt religious symbols. In other words, it’s a proselytization of secularism.

Supporters of the law make the argument that they want to interact with civil servants who appear unprejudiced. This law then merely becomes about the appearance of neutrality as defined and regulated by the state. Religious or not, all civil servants will continue to hold fundamental beliefs, and people who interact with them trust that they will act professionally and in accordance with provincial laws. 

Today, people of faith must choose between religion and career if applying to civil service jobs. The Quebec government may claim that they are simply banning religious symbols; people are free to wear their symbols before and after hours. However, this is grounded on a fundamental misunderstanding of religion. For a person of faith, their religious beliefs necessitate acting on such beliefs. These beliefs and actions don’t suspend during working hours, and “policies like Bill 21 are a sobering reminder of the tendency of many state actors to treat religious belief as something which can be readily detached from a person’s core identity.” [18] By banning the action, or in this case, the symbol, the Quebec government functionally bans all those who hold such religious beliefs from working as public employees.

Relatedly, the bill’s impact on other religious communities has also gone understated. Due to the visibility of the hijab and niqab, Muslim women are often centered in the discourse and court cases surrounding the law. Violent forms of Islamophobia, such as the Quebec mosque shooting, and laws that specifically target the niqab are evidence that Muslims face a unique strain of anti-religious sentiment that is often tied to anti-immigrant attitudes or bigotry. The hijab, more than other religious symbols, is interrogated and misconstrued as a symbol of sexism.

However, despite the targeting of Muslims, it’s unfair to frame this as solely a Muslim issue rather than a broad issue of religious freedom. Other religious communities, such as Quebec Jews, have spoken out against the law. A Sikh woman was individually affected as she was told that she would be dismissed from her position if she continued to wear her turban. By framing this as a religious freedom issue, faith communities can collectively challenge the faulty premises of neutrality and laïcité behind this law. 

Conclusion

Lawmakers have provided inadequate reasoning to justify the law. Supporters continue to invoke blatantly false in-your-face arguments, or resort to slandering Muslim women as “extremists” engaging in “emotional blackmail,” “indoctrinated,” or representing “sexist values.” Nonetheless, others, despite finding the bill to be a mistake, analyze it as a political move on Premier Legault’s part, perhaps understandable considering Quebec’s history with the Church and women’s liberation. [22]

The dismissal of a Muslim teacher, for wearing her hijab in the classroom, is the first visible casualty of Quebec’s Bill 21. This unjust decision made abstract debates regarding religious symbols much more concrete for Quebecers, whose support for the bill dropped from 64% to 55 %. Through microcosms such as the firing, the practical realities of laïcité and rationalist forms of liberalism become perceptible and open to examination. The veneer of neutrality is also exposed: why is neutrality defined and regulated by the state? Who decides what is or isn’t neutral? Why is irreligiosity favored over a more encompassing form of neutrality that allows for both theistic and atheistic beliefs? Practically, if the teacher chose to wear the same scarf on her head as a fashion statement, would it be considered neutral? 

Moreover, the arguments made in support of the bill, particularly drawing from liberal values such as gender equality, are hard to justify when a woman consequently gets fired for adhering to her religious beliefs. While liberalism presents a plethora of issues for people of faith in modern liberal states, laïcité is particularly pernicious in that it aims to expel religion, expressions of faith, and logically, people of faith, from the public sphere. We must challenge the bill by challenging the homogenizing force of laïcité. 

Works Cited:

[1] “Bill n°21 : An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State – National Assembly of Québec.” Bill n°21 : An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State – National Assembly of Québec, http://m.assnat.qc.ca/en/travaux-parlementaires/projets-loi/projet-loi-21-42-1.html.
[2] CBC/Radio Canada. (2021, April 20). Quebec Superior Court upholds most of religious symbols ban, but English-language schools exempt | CBC News. CBCnews. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/bill-21-religious-symbols-ban-quebec-court-ruling-1.5993431
[3] Laxer, Emily. Unveiling the Nation: The Politics of Secularism in France and Quebec. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019. pp. 96.
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at 98.
[6] CBC/Radio Canada. (2019, May 8). What’s in Quebec’s secularism bill: Religious symbols, uncovered faces and a charter workaround | CBC News. CBCnews. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebec-laicity-secularism-bill-1.5075547
[7] Turgeon, Luc, et al. “A Tale of Two Liberalisms? Attitudes toward Minority Religious Symbols in Quebec and Canada.” Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 52, no. 2, 2019, pp. 249.
[8] Id. at 251.
[9] Roy, Olivier. Secularism Confronts Islam. Columbia University Press, 2009. pp. Xii
[10] Turgeon, Luc, et al. “A Tale of Two Liberalisms? Attitudes toward Minority Religious Symbols in Quebec and Canada.” Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 52, no. 2, 2019, pp. 256.
[11] Jacob T. Levy: Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom – Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2YQUdRcVr4. 
[12] Id. at (26:20)
[13] Id. at (47:00)
[14] Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. “Unveil Them to Save Them: France and the Ongoing Colonization of Muslim Women’s Bodies.” Berkley Center Fo Religion, Peace and World Affairs, https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/unveil-them-to-save-them-france-and-the-ongoing-colonization-of-muslim-women-s-bodies.
[15] Turgeon, Luc, et al. “A Tale of Two Liberalisms? Attitudes toward Minority Religious Symbols in Quebec and Canada.” Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 52, no. 2, 2019, pp. 251.
[16] L-0.3 – Act respecting the laicity of the State – Section 6. Légis Québec. (n.d.). Retrieved January 24, 2022, from http://www.legisquebec.gouv.qc.ca/en/version/cs/L-0.3?code=se%3A6&history=20201120 
[17] Mahmood, Saba. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?” Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 4, 2009, pp. 837.
[18] Kinsinger, Kristopher. “Bill 21 and the Search for True Religious Neutrality.” Double Aspect, 16 Jan. 2020, https://doubleaspect.blog/2020/01/16/bill-21-and-the-spectrum-of-religious-neutrality/.
[19] Barras, Amélie. “Formalizing Secularism as a Regime of Restrictions and Protections: The Case of Quebec (Canada) and Geneva (Switzerland).” Canadian Journal of Law and Society / Revue Canadienne Droit Et Société, vol. 36, no. 2, 2021, pp. 283–302.
[20] Bakht, Natasha. In Your Face: Law, Justice, and Niqab-Wearing Women in Canada. IRWIN LAW, 2020. pp. 60.
[21] Patrick, Margaretta & Chan, W. Y. Alice & Tiflati, Hicham & Reid, Erin. (2019). Religion and Secularism: Four myths and Bill 21. 
[22] Mario Polèse. Originally published on Policy Options August 4, 2021. “Quebec’s Bill 21: Is There Room for More than One View of Religion in Canada?” Policy Options, 19 Jan. 2022, https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/august-2021/quebecs-bill-21-is-there-room-for-more-than-one-view-of-religion-in-canada/.
[23] Bakht, Natasha. In Your Face: Law, Justice, and Niqab-Wearing Women in Canada. IRWIN LAW, 2020. pp. 48.

Photo by Tiago Louvize on Unsplash


About the Authors:

Taqwa Muhsina N. completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto in the areas of political science and public policy. She is currently a student of the traditional Islamic sciences. You can follow her on twitter here.

Heraa Hashmi is best known for her project, Muslims Condemn. She is a law student based in the US with a background in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and Linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics. You can follow her on twitter here.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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