Political Islam and “Open” Secularism
Bernard La Rivière
In this installment of the AFT blog, Bernard La Rivière describes and comments on two contrasting positions with
respect to political Islam in Quebec: that of author Djemila Benhabib, and that of Françoise David, spokesperson
for the political party Québec solidaire. (Translation: D.R.)
Two opposing positions on secularism and political Islam are put forward by Djemila Benhabib in Les soldats d’Allah à l’assaut de l’Occident (“Soldiers of Islam Storming the West”) and by Françoise David in Le Québec en quête de laïcité (“Quebec in Search of Secularism”) and De colère et d’espoir (“Of Anger and Hope”).
In her first book Françoise David accuses some secularist activists of aggressivity and even hatred. In the second, her starting point is the “gentleness” and “intelligence” of the former spokeswoman of Présence musulmane (“Muslim Presence”). In fact, all the veiled Muslim women whom she has met express little interest in politics, except to denounce those countries where women are subjugated by Islamic law. What guides their thoughts and actions, according to David, is their religious faith, which she finds disarming.
Djemila Benhabib’s approach is less sentimental, yet often very personal. She knows she has a reputation for being “aggressive” and points out that, in Quebec, any debate which becomes the least bit lively is too often considered to be dramatic, counterproductive and offensive. She does not hesitate to accuse several Quebec intellectuals of blathering on about Islam with neither knowledge of the subject nor rational method. As an example, she cites the “grotesque” letter of Benoît Renaud, secretary-general of Québec solidaire, who dismisses secularism as xenophobia and fanaticism. Benhabib tackles the topic of Islamism by describing it precisely as a political current and by meticulously presenting of its history.
Where Benhabib sees the danger of Islamism, Françoise David is much more worried about the danger of Christian fundamentalism. Secularism has, according to David, made great strides in Quebec and will protect us from religious incursions into the political sphere. What is important is that the State provide no public funds for religious schools and institutions. Other than that, religion is a societal reality and we must do what we can to accommodate it. If some immigrant women wearing religious garments seek employment in the civil service, must we, asks David, reject them and ghettoize them in the name of secularism? The correct answer here is “Yes!” because it is secularism which will allow them to break free from their ghetto. What Françoise David has not yet understood is that the women of Présence musulmane are not the only voice of immigrant Muslim women, For example:
We affirm that so-called reasonable accommodations and arrangements negotiated by certain Quebec institutions with religious minorities – sometimes fundamentalist – are contrary to the principal of equality of the sexes and are not representative of the cultural and religious communities to which women belong. (Le Devoir, 26th Feb. 2007)
Indeed, Djemila Benhabib points out that ever since the Bouchard-Taylor commission, there is an effort to paint Quebecers as guilty of victimizing veiled women, pitting aggressive and hateful secularists against gentle and intelligent veiled young women. It is in this context that the FFQ (Fédération des femmes du Québec or Quebec Women’s Federation) came to the defence of these victims by taking a position allowing wearing of the veil by civil servants. Benhabib takes a closer look and detects a certain “coincidence” involving the FFQ slogan, “Neither religious obligation, nor state prohibition.” Benhabib reminds us of a 2007 television interview (Enjeux, Radio-Canada) in which Tariq Ramadan responded to a question about the Islamic veil by declaring, “It is islamically forbidden to force a woman to wear the veil, just as it is forbidden to force her to remove it.” What a coincidence, then, especially given the considerable number of veiled women at the general meeting of the FFQ which adopted this policy.
Françoise David approves of the FFQ’s position on the veil. Further, she points out that religious symbols are already present in the civil service without causing any problems. She doubts (while completely ignoring polls and research on the subject) that citizens could possibly be bothered by such symbols because they have already become accustomed to them — worn, for example, by public school teachers. In sum, the importance of religious symbols in the context of secularism has been exaggerated. Our priority, in David’s view, should be to protect women who might be excluded from the civil service because of this issue – thus, her opposition to prohibition. And by the same token, we must support women and girls who could be forced to submit to religious rules not of their choosing – thus, her opposition to obligation. But no controls either…
On the question of feminism, Djemila Benhabib refutes “abstract” feminism and observes that some women in positions of power have not always supported their more activist “sisters.” She reminds us of Hasina Wajed’s opposition to Taslima Nasreen in Bangladesh, militant Christian Claire Fontana’s opposition to abortion in France, and Benazir Buttho’s support for the Taliban in Pakistan. Thus, on the subject of Françoise David, Benhabib writes:
Among those women whom she considers “sisters” and whom she would never want to offend, there are some who support a totalitarian ideology, responsible for the oppression of millions of women in Arab-Muslim societies, and responsible too, in the West, for the confinement of girls such as Aqsa Parvez [strangled by her father, 10th Dec. 2007]. [More recently, we can also mention the Shafia family murders.]
To illustrate just how far political Islam can go in its oppression of women, Djemila Benhabib recalls the existence of Sharia law and attempts to implement it in Canada. In 2005, the Quebec National Assembly unanimously rejected such a measure. Benhabib also reminds us that, at that time, a spokeswoman for Présence musulmane, Nadia Touami, recommended “collective therapy” for Quebecers in order to cure them of their clichés, taboos and fears. Let us hope that Présence musulmane, with its gentle, intelligent Asmaa, has changed its position on Sharia law and… Quebecers. This is especially important today with the resurgence of the efforts to impose Sharia.
Concerning the refusal to prohibit religious symbols in the civil service, Djemila Benhabib adopts a possibly ironic tone when recalling the disagreement between Louise Beaudoin and Françoise David. The latter repeated that:
If ever a law prohibiting religious symbols in the civil service and in public services were adopted, it would probably be the Catholics of Quebec who would protest because they could no longer wear the visible cross which is a symbol of a very patriarchal Church which has oppressed and dominated women for centuries. There is no way out.
Thus it is not especially, or only, because of the veil that the spokeswoman of QS is against the prohibition of religious symbols for civil servants, but also because she fears opposition from Catholics and little crosses hanging from women’s necks.
So everyone, including secularists and partisans of all religions, is prepared for a gentle, serene and – My God! – joyful debate about secularism.
- Les soldats d’Allah à l’assaut de l’Occident, Djemila Benhabib, vlb éditeur (www.edvlb.com), Montréal, 2011.
- Le Québec en quête de laïcité, Françoise David, Écosociété (www.ecosociete.org), Montréal, 2011.
- De colère et d’espoir, Françoise David, Écosociété (www.ecosociete.org), Montréal, 2011.
- Separating Islam from Political Power, 3rd October 2010, Talk by Djemila Benhabib at the Atheists Without Borders convention, Montréal.
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