Why is the Quebec Charter So Divisive?

Why is the Quebec Charter So Divisive?

Dagmar Gontard-Zelinkova

When we read the incendiary remarks about the draft Charter of Quebec Values which are pouring out from the Rest of Canada, we may be surprised by their vehemence. Being promoted by the Péquistes, who are a minority government but who nevertheless harbour secessionist designs, the Charter has a whiff of sulphur for non-Québécois. They probably believe that there are more shenanigans than good will behind the project. The media jargon does not help either; at some point, some journalist must have mentioned the controversy surrounding the Charter and – eureka! the epithet became inseparable from the Charter. News reports continuously offered on radio and TV and in the newspapers thus become engraved in the minds of Canadians under these two words, now inseparably linked: controversial Charter.

So be it for the Rest of Canada. After all, we can understand hostile reactions coming from there. But how to understand those heated debates among lawyers, humanists, atheists, freethinkers, religious and others within Quebec? Recently, a disagreement has caused a schism within the Quebec feminist movement. But other associations also see their members arguing vehemently. Around what do these debates revolve? Could it not be around poorly defined terms? Let us see.

The term “freedom” comes first, of course. That beloved word which comes from the spirit of the Enlightenment and inspires our democratic societies, that is the freedom threatened by the Charter, claim its opponents. Are we not free to wear the garment we want? A state that would dictate to people what to wear would be a totalitarian state. A dictatorship! they proclaim at the peak of their outrage.

Then comes the turn of “secularism.” A secularism that would prevent people from wearing religious signs would contradict itself, claim critics of the Charter. And they continue: instead of guaranteeing freedom of religion, that Charter seeks to do the very opposite – to remove religion from the people!

Next comes “neutrality of the State.” Unfortunately, again, nobody seems to agree. Critics of the Charter admit that the secular State should be neutral, but according to them, that neutrality does not extend to its agents.

To top it all off, some claim that the Charter is discriminatory. Try then to ask the question: “It discriminates against whom?” and the answer spurts out: “Against Muslims!”

Well, let’s have a look at it a little more closely. Freedom is a precious asset, certainly, but it is not absolute. Who was it that said: “The freedom of one person ends where the freedom of another person begins?” But let’s take an example: a woman who has fled a country where the wearing of the Islamic veil is mandatory, who now lives in Canada and who is picking up her passport at a government agency. Let us imagine that the service clerk is wrapped in a chador. It is her right, she is free to do it. But what about the other woman? The sight of the reviled garment revives memory of weeks of sequestration, of insults from her brothers, of blows struck by her father, of the contempt shown by her mother… yes, she was a girl with a rebellious spirit, who refused to submit and claimed the right to be educated, and eventually fled to escape an arranged marriage. This woman, who now lives in Canada, does she not have the same rights as the other? In this case, that right would be to find a neutral environment, devoid of any religious symbol. If the right of the first woman is guaranteed, the right of the other woman is violated. In other words: the right of the woman wearing the veil supersedes the right of the one who refuses it. Let us see – in any democratic society, is not the restriction of certain freedoms a condition – a sine qua non – for the exercise of freedom by all its citizens?

With regards to secularism – does it deny people the right to practice the religion of their choice? In my opinion, it does not. People are free to worship as much as they want, in temples or in their homes.

When it comes to the neutrality of the State, is that neutrality limited to the physical environment of the place? Does it not extend to the physical aspect of its agents? Consider this: airline agents wear distinctive signs of the company which employs them, do they not? The same is true for those who work for at McDonald’s, for instance, and other such enterprises. Thus, how could a State be neutral if its agents wore, at their discretion, religious symbols or clothing?

Then comes the alleged discrimination against Muslims. Time to pause and reflect. Let us try to place the Charter in the historical context of the Province. We will probably all agree that Quebec was, of all the Canadian provinces, the one which was the most repressed by an organized religion. Then came the sixties and an evolution occurred. It went smoothly, without any killings. The religious learned to store their cassocks and their cones in the closet. No one got offended, things went peacefully. Quebec made its mutation which was referred to as the “quiet revolution.” Then came the seventies and eighties, and in their wake came multiculturalism. And the “accommodations.” They were meant to be reasonable, accommodations of common sense. Their numbers kept growing. From reasonable they became increasingly unreasonable, finally ending up by just being religious accommodations. Let us see: are Quebecers intolerant? They had managed to resist one religion. Their own. But now, increasingly, they have been accommodating another, coming from elsewhere.

So here we are: is the Charter discriminatory against Muslims? The answer is obviously NO, because it aims at eliminating all religious signs in the the public service. That being said, we have to admit that the straw that broke the camel’s back was the veil.

Ah, that veil! It is not unique to the province of Quebec, far from it. All around the world, the veil triggers passionate debates. Is the wearing of the veil a religious obligation? Many Islamic scholars say that it is not. One of them, and not the least, was Sheikh Tantawi, the Grand Mufti of Egypt and the Rector of Al-Azhar University. In 2009, he launched a campaign against the veil. He went even further by condemning female genital mutilation. He said that these practices were tradition-based and not a religious requirement. Alas, under pressure from the Islamic fundamentalists, he had to revise his remarks.

The fundamentalists! Let’s say a few words about them. Fundamentalism is not unique to Islam. As was recently noted by Mrs Fatima Houda-Pépin, it’s also present in ultra-right-wing elements of Christian and Jewish religions. The Tea Party in the United States and the Hassidim in Israel are good examples. Having said that, neither of these two comes remotely close to Islamic fundamentalism. The strategy of Islamic fundamentalism is twofold – on one hand, violence and terror and, on the other, a continuing pressure that pushes authorities to an endless spiral of concessions. The veil is only the tip of an iceberg. In its wake come demands for single-sex schooling, for exemption from physical education of girls, for obtaining special hours for women in swimming pools, prayer rooms and many other such things.

It is in this context that we have to understand the role of the veil: it is not some innocent piece of cloth, it is a banner of a totalitarian ideology – Islamism. In the eyes of Islamic fundamentalists, the veil is a valuable tool because it allows them to mark acquired territories. Wherever the veil is worn, Islamists are at home. Conquest is done by women. The title of the book by Yolande Geadah sums it up: “Veiled women, unmasked fundamentalisms.”

But here I must digress: I see a similarity between the scarf of the Communist pioneers and the headscarf of Muslim women. The similarity brings me back in the past, to the middle of the last century. Europe, barely out of the trauma of war, was splintering. The countries of Eastern Europe were falling, one after another, under the grasp of the Soviets. The ground had been previously prepared when resistance fighters were fleeing Naziism, some heading in the direction of Moscow, others for London. Once the war was over, this would lead naturally to the creation of two opposing blocks which, one day, became separated by the Iron Curtain. On one side, the glorious prospect of a Communist humanity and, on the other, the decadent West.

The story of a teenager which I am going to relate to you belongs to the first block. The girl was too young to understand the taboos that had divided her family with regards to the Jews during the war. Later on, she did not understand either why her family members clashed in debates about the construction of socialism. Over time, these debates faded to be replaced by whispers. Indeed, adults abstained, little by little, from talking to children. The youths, for their part, started to gravitate around houses of pioneers. There was dancing and revolutionary songs were taught in these very joyous places. And countless stories were learnt there, too, about Soviet pioneers wh,o like the greatest hero Pavlik Morozov, denounced their reactionary parents to their country’s authorities.

Our young girl, carried by momentum, eventually created the Pioneer Organization in her school. A trait of her personality being a fighter, she began the work with great enthusiasm. Her first goal? All students should have the red scarf tied around their neck. She, in the role of a leader, would make sure this was enforced by making inspections in classrooms. But she did not stop there. She embarked on the ideological education of her classmates. She started to present reports on the greatness of the Generalissimo Stalin, on the crucial role that the Red Army had played in the liberation of the world from Naziism, on the importance of the Communist Party which began to govern her country in 1948, and many other subjects, aimed at completing the ideological maturity of her classmates. Whenever one of her stories was ready, the classes had to stop, so that she could spread via the school’s speaker system these instructions which were essential for the creation of a Communist Youth. No teacher would have dared to oppose these interruptions as that would have been viewed as a reactionary act. Besides, the director of the school, a hardcore Communist, encouraged the girl in her activism.

That girl’s activism was also well regarded by members of the Party and, one day, she was rewarded by being sent into an international camp. This was part of the strategy: inviting children from behind the Iron Curtain to come and spend a few weeks in the communist paradise. In those international camps, the elite pioneers had the task of enlightening the guests from the West on the benefits of communism. Our girl thus found herself in the company of some thirty young Belgians. But then, the unexpected happened: instead of rallying the Westerners to the cause of communism, it was she who was contaminated by their virus. And this was the beginning of a painful awakening. Over the years, she found herself increasingly at odds with the doctrine of the Party, and eventually she was stripped of her citizenship.

The story does not end here, but what follows has no connection with the subject at hand. What I would like to say, quite simply, is that I am not proud of my past. Yet it has a positive side: it allows me to understand what’s happening today. Just like in the time of communism, we are faced today with a very dangerous totalitarian ideology – that of Islamism. While the Communists were using children to advance their agenda, the Islamists of today have the job done by women.

History repeats itself. During communism, there were courageous voices who dared to oppose the totalitarian steamroller. Those voices were quashed through political trials, or by being sent to the gulag, or even quite simply through physical elimination. Nowadays, Islamists use the same methods – intimidation, assassinations. Today, just as then, courageous voices are speaking up everywhere in the world. Enlightened Muslims are joining their voices to those of non-Muslims in the fight against Islamism. In Canada, last November, Raheel Raza and Salim Mansur launched a plea to the West. “The West must take seriously the war that the Islamists have declared to the Infidels, the Zionists, the Israelis and the Muslims who oppose Islamism,” they warn us.

It’s about time that we heard their voices. It is time, too, to understand that the Charter is not directed against Islam per se. By firmly anchoring secularism, the Charter would help to block the road to Islamism. Some Governments prefer not to address the issue of fundamentalism, whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic. The Quebec Government has the courage to do it. Instead of vilifying them, we should tip our hat to them.

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