Monday, January 18, 2010

Québec solidaire members defend party’s position on secularism, women’s rights


The article below was submitted last week to Socialist Voice.

LeftViews articles by Benoit Renaud and Bernard Rioux
Translated and introduced by Richard Fidler

The January 6 edition of the Montréal daily Le Devoir featured a hard-hitting op-ed defense of Québec solidaire’s position on separation of church and state and its opposition to the imposition of Islamophobic dress codes for civil servants. The left-wing party’s adoption of a “model of secularism” at its November convention, which parallels a similar position taken by the Quebec Women’s Federation (FFQ), has been harshly criticized in Quebec right-wing and nationalist circles campaigning against Muslims and other ethnic minorities who wear “ostentatious symbols” of their faith such as the Muslim hijab or headscarf.

The first article that we reproduce below is by Benoit Renaud, the general secretary of Québec solidaire, who also signs himself as an “antiwar, global solidarity and anti-racist activist”. It responds to an article likewise featured in Le Devoir, on December 30, by Michèle Sirois, who described herself as a “specialist in sociology of religions” and a “founding member of Québec solidaire”. Titled, in translation, “Secularism – Québec solidaire goes astray”, Sirois’ article argued that “our governments are not protecting with sufficient firmness two founding values of Quebec society: state neutrality and the predominance of equality between men and women over religious or cultural particularisms.” She attacked QS for its “unreasonable” accommodation of religious minorities, which she maintained was contrary to its claim to be a feminist party of the left.[1] An earlier version of her article entitled, in translation, “Why I am leaving Québec solidaire”, was published with laudatory support in Presse-toi à gauche, an on-line journal edited by members of Gauche socialiste, a collective within QS and the Quebec section of the Fourth International.

Renaud’s article has proved highly controversial since its publication. In Le Devoir alone, it is by far the most “commented on” article in recent weeks if not longer, registering more than 200 comments, most of them hostile to the position adopted by Québec solidaire. Much of the critics’ language is quite unrestrained. To cite a modest example, Marie-Michelle Poisson, president of the Mouvement laïque québécois, a group that has long been waging verbal warfare on ethnic minorities displaying signs of their religious beliefs, describes Renaud’s article as “a catastrophe”. She signed an open letter to Québec solidaire leaders Françoise David and Amir Khadir identifying the MLQ with the position expressed by Michèle Sirois and urging them to dissociate the party from Renaud’s article. So far, neither David nor Khadir, who are the designated “spokespersons” for the party, has responded or said anything publicly about the article or in response to these attacks. In fact, there is no mention of the controversy on the QS web site. Some QS members have published comments in Le Devoir dissociating themselves from the party position, while those expressing support are a tiny minority of the commentators.

In a “necessary clarification” Renaud posted in Le Devoir January 8 as a “comment” on his article, he explained that he was not “speaking on behalf of Québec solidaire”, that that was the responsibility of Khadir and David “who were not consulted on the content of this article.” Renaud also explained that he “unreservedly supports the position of the Quebec Women’s Federation on the Muslim headscarf: neither obligation nor prohibition”, adding that “The antidote to fundamentalism is dialogue, and if there is to be dialogue it is necessary to avoid excluding or stigmatizing certain beliefs.”

A notable feature of this controversy — the first major test of Québec solidaire’s commitment to a principled position on which there are serious divisions in the Quebec left and nationalist movements — is that it is the two major far-left collectives in QS that have been most prominent in defending the party and its political line. Benoit Renaud, in addition to being Québec solidaire’s general secretary, is a member of the party’s Socialisme International collective.

In the January 12 edition of Presse-toi à gauche, a leader of the Gauche socialiste collective, which until then had stood aside from the controversy, came out strongly in support of the adopted QS position on secularism. The second article reproduced below is a translation of Bernard Rioux’s contribution, which he also published in Le Devoir among the comments on Renaud’s article.

In the following articles the word laïcité (literally, secularity) is translated as secularism, the English term more commonly used now in Canada. Historically, laïcité referred to the concept of equal treatment of all religions — as in Muslim Spain of medieval times, where Islam, Judaism and Christianity coexisted — although more recently it has come to mean separation of church (or religion) and state. This is the sense in which the term is understood in Quebec today.

-- January 14, 2010

The wearing of religious insignia:

Québec solidaire dares to go against the tide

by Benoit Renaud

In her December 30 Le Devoir article, Ms. Michèle Sirois purports to lecture Québec solidaire on method, stating that the position adopted at its November convention concerning religious insignia is lacking in political analysis. But the orientation presented in her article — itself riddled with fallacious arguments, sophisms and problems of method — would lead the left into a totally unacceptable accommodation with the everyday racism that is currently directed against Québécois of Arab origin or Muslim religion. It would also weaken the women’s movement and the antiwar and global solidarity movement by giving in to an ideological offensive that serves the interests of the strongest.

Ms. Sirois assigns great importance to the fact that “the majority of Québécois” think certain accommodations that have been granted recently are “unreasonable”. This is a classic sophism. Using this type of criterion, no political action would be possible other than the basest opportunism. Less than 4 percent of the electorate voted for Québec solidaire in 2007 and 2008. Should we abandon our left-wing political project because the majority continues to vote for the three right-wing parties?

She accuses QS of “softness” on this issue. On the contrary, I think the QS convention showed great political courage and dared to go against the tide of the pervading xenophobia of which the fanatics of secularism constitute the ‘progressive’ branch.

Avoid “wall to wall” thinking

For Québec solidaire, human rights must be taken as a whole, and all are important. You cannot simply deny a group of persons their freedom of speech and religion, for example by prohibiting the wearing of “all” religious symbols by “all” individuals working directly or indirectly for the Quebec government, in the name of the principle of laïcité [roughly, secularism].

What is the interest in prohibiting a civil servant who has no contact with the public the right to wear a Jewish kippa [skull cap] at work? For what reason would we prohibit a woman teaching mathematics in adult education from wearing a headscarf in the classroom? The position adopted by the QS convention establishes a list of criteria that could be used to avoid wall-to-wall solutions and aim to balance the right of government employees to express their religious beliefs with the right of the public and other government employees to interact in a setting that is neutral in terms of beliefs. This is not “softness” but flexibility, an essential quality when the task is to conciliate potentially divergent rights and freedoms.

Ms. Sirois cites as her first argument the droit de réserve [duty of discretion] that applies to political convictions. In the first place, we must be very careful not to push too far the duty of discretion as it applies to politics, or else half a million persons could find themselves prohibited from being politically active in Quebec because their paycheque comes from the government’s budget. Secondly, politics should not be confused with religion. No political conviction requires that its supporters wear a symbol or particular clothing. Prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols by invoking a comparison with politics is therefore an obvious error in method.

More fundamentally, all political currents have some specific and relatively coherent things to say about the government’s orientations. That is the rationale for the duty of discretion: all civil servants must accommodate themselves to the established government whether they voted for or against it. Conversely, persons belonging to the same religious denomination may differ radically in their political beliefs. In Iran today there are imams on both sides of the fierce struggle between the government and the opposition. In Latin America, there are fervent Catholics on both the far left and the far right.

Women’s rights

Ms. Sirois also invites us to “go beyond the diversity of the reasons conveyed in the discourse of individuals to understand the real reasons for their conduct”. This logic should also apply to the supporters of a ‘charte de la laïcité’, a charter of secularism, and the repeated calls to prohibit the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in the Western countries. This debate is in fact unfolding in a context — that of an expanding number of imperialist wars and neocolonial occupations in the Muslim world, from Palestine to Afghanistan.

It is also unfolding at a time when immigration from Muslim-majority countries is an economic necessity for western countries faced with declining demographics. And it is unfolding while the deepening economic crisis is leading to an offensive against the rights of women and the feminist movement.

Ideological offensive

Islamophobic discourse, whether of the right or the left, helps to justify imperialism and colonialism by presenting Muslims as barbarians incapable of governing themselves, incapable of modernity and critical thinking, etc. Muslim women are presented as victims needing an army of Christian men and whites to protect them against their husbands, sons and fathers. They cannot think for themselves, according to some analyses of the wearing of the Islamic scarf such as that of Ms. Sirois.

Secondly, identifying Muslim immigrants as a threat helps to justify discrimination against this population, which allows the authorities to deny it fundamental rights and thus to make it a category of second-class citizens, easily exploitable. The European far right, which has always fought immigration in general, can now assume an air of respectability by targeting the Muslim minority in the name of “secularism” and “values”, the most recent example of this strategy being the Swiss referendum on the minarets. One need only look at the posters used in that campaign to understand that Islamophobia is a major ideological problem.

Finally, and this is the most pernicious aspect of this ideological offensive, identifying Islam and immigrants as the main threat to equality between men and women reinforces the notion that sexist oppression is something that has been overcome in our fine western societies. There is nothing easier than to attack the sexism of “the others”. Ms. Sirois even goes so far as to characterize equality of the sexes as a “founding value” of Quebec! The most minimal study of history should teach us that it is instead Catholic sexism that was a “founding” value against which the feminist movement had to wage a bitter fight.

Common struggle

To respond to the insecurity of identity and the economic insecurities evoked by Ms. Sirois, the left must do something other than repeat in “progressive” language the mantras against accommodation and against minorities. The only solution to the search for scapegoats is the determination of the real sources of economic and cultural dangers weighing on us. It is the comeback of English in the workplace, resulting in large part from our political subordination to the federal authorities, that constitutes the major threat to French and our cultural identity, not the massively Francophone immigration originating from North Africa.

The rational response, therefore, is, as QS proposes, to strengthen forthwith the provisions of Law 101 [the Charter of the French Language] governing the language of work and to make Quebec a country as soon as possible. The main threat to our economic security is not immigration but the present structure of capitalism, which exerts a constant pressure toward the casualization of labour and privatization of public services. We must therefore respond by defending the rights of workers and affirming the responsibility of the government for the protection of these rights and provision of the services that we all require. In short, instead of dividing employees in the public sector with a sterile debate over a charter of secularism, it is necessary to unite them in a common struggle against budget cutbacks and user fees.


Secularism: Productive debates require listening,

exchange and the avoidance of abuse!

by Bernard Rioux[2]

Presse-toi à gauche, January 12, 2010

The 165 contributions (to date) in reply to Benoit Renaud’s article entitled “The wearing of religious insignia: Québec solidaire dares to go against the tide” show how complex the debate on secularism is. But they also reveal the emotional level such a debate can generate. In far too many cases the opinions expressed are accompanied by confrontation, blanket denunciations, and mockery.

This complexity is revealed in the fact that this debate manifests convergences of social forces which, on other questions, are normally lined up in opposite camps. To put it clearly, the debate divides progressive and left forces, forces that must be united if they are to fight together against their common enemy. It would be disastrous to try to sweep this debate under the carpet on the pretext that there are more urgent struggles. What is repressed would quickly reappear, you can be sure. Behind the passion that informs and undermines this debate there are some convergences in the left that should be spelled out if we are to establish clearly the actual scope of the issues.

Given all the allegations being peddled about Québec solidaire’s position on secularism, and all the positions being attributed to it, it is necessary, first of all, to return to the facts, to recall what was adopted.

So what did Québec solidaire adopt concerning secularism?

In the recent debates on Québec solidaire’s positions concerning secularism, a lot of positions and intentions were ascribed to QS. Let us recall here the positions actually adopted at its recent convention.

Decision 1: We want to live in a secular Quebec that sanctions the separation of religious institutions and the state. Accordingly, Québec solidaire proposes a model of secularism that combines the neutrality of public institutions in terms of belief (including skepticism and non-belief) with the freedom of individuals to express their own convictions in a context that favours exchange and dialogue. The process of secularizing Quebec’s institutions is still not ended. The further advance of this process depends on both a clear state policy and a willingness by the society as a whole to establish, without concessions and definitively, the neutrality of the state in terms of religion. Because the state is secular, religious symbols should not be allowed in public institutions.

Decision 2: It is the state that is secular, not individuals. The wearing of religious symbols is allowed for the users of services provided by the state. Agents of the state may wear them provided they are not used as instruments of proselytism and the wearing of them does not in itself breach their droit de réserve [duty of discretion]. The wearing of religious symbols may also be restricted should they impede the performance of the duties or contravene safety standards.

Decision 3: To table this question [the proposal to end the state funding of denominational schools or of any religious activity] pending more extensive debate at a forthcoming convention on education and government subsidization policies.

Those are the only proposals that were adopted. As one can infer, there remains a continuing debate within Québec solidaire, and the vast majority of the members are completely at ease with that perspective. It is a time for continuing the discussion, not for slamming doors.

An area of convergence that needs to be defined

Secularism is essential to any democratic society. State neutrality toward the different religions and convictions, including the right not to believe; the separation of state and religion and therefore the fight against any domination of religion over the state; and respect for freedom of thought and religion are essential dimensions of secularism. The members of Québec solidaire seem to share the understanding that secularism is expressed in three spaces: the private space of the individual and the family; the social space of civil society; and the civic social space of the state. Religion does not pertain only to private space. Secularism likewise recognizes the right to manifest one’s religion or conviction individually or collectively in the public space. This convergence signifies that secularism does not mean either denying users of public institutions the expression of their convictions or restricting them to private space alone. No proposal along the lines of restricting the right of expression of religious or philosophical convictions of users in the public sphere was presented in the context of the debate in Québec solidaire. This is a secular position that rejects the logic that presided in the adoption of the 2004 law in France prohibiting the wearing of the veil by pupils in the schools. This convergence is important.

An area of divergence that requires balanced regulation

There is divergence as to the extent of the civic space of the state. The question is not whether institutions should be neutral, but rather what conditions will effectively implement both neutrality and separation between the institutions and religion. For a significant number of Québec solidaire members, adopting the following proposition represents a definite departure from a thoroughly secular orientation: “... Agents of the state may wear them [religious symbols] provided they are not used as instruments of proselytism and the wearing of them does not in itself breach their droit de réserve. The wearing of religious symbols may also be restricted should they impede the performance of the duties or contravene safety standards.” In fact, what Québec solidaire is saying, over and above the social justification, is that the wearing of religious symbols by civil servants does not itself constitute an instrument of proselytism and may be consistent with respecting the droit de réserve. What it says is that judgments must be based not on the symbols alone but on actual conduct. As Micheline Milot writes (in her book La laïcité, at p. 100):

The state’s neutrality is expressed in the impartiality of the exercise of the duty and the justification for the decisions made.... In most cases, support of a particular belief is not apparent, which does not mean that beliefs do not interfere in the service provided by the individual who holds them or even that they are not offensive to someone else. Freedom of expression would be significantly limited if we were to assume that the noxiousness of an object or a piece of fabric would inevitably affect the judgment of the person wearing it. That could amount, in law, to a rejection of the presumption of innocence, while the person whose convictions are not visible would enjoy a sort of safe-conduct, his or her decisions being presumed neutral.

Secularism, foundation for citizen tolerance

Secularism is founded on citizen tolerance, it should not be an instrument for the ethnicization of citizenship. It should not adopt for its own purposes the discourse on insecurity as to identity. It is the struggles for effective equality of social conditions for all components of the population that will be the central vehicle for integration. It is completely unproductive to call for rallying around common values if those values are not the product of common struggles for genuine social equality. Above all, it is not the struggle to make the members of minority cultures invisible that will enable them to become actively involved as true citizens. The path to their integration into citizenship proceeds through social, economic and political equality.

We must stop playing with words

Equality of men and women in Quebec is far from being a reality; it is an ongoing struggle. We must stop viewing the patriarchy of cultural minorities as the sole and unique danger of women’s continued oppression while patriarchy is still doing very well, unfortunately, within the majority. If we fail to recognize this, we avoid examining how the necessary alliances can be achieved. The secularism of the Quebec state is far from being an accomplished fact; a major part of our youth attend private denominational schools subsidized by the government, and Catholic religious symbols remain in public institutions, justified by heritage considerations. The Charest government’s decision to leave a crucifix hanging in the National Assembly is eloquent in this regard. Where is the sign that will signify the membership of non-Christians and atheists in Quebec society?

The struggle for secularism is central to the fight for true citizen integration. It cannot be reduced to the defence of an abstract universalism or repeated claims about values that most often serve to conceal the reality. In short, the task is to reduce the disparities between citizen equality as proclaimed and the reality of inequality and discrimination. We must refuse to stigmatize entire populations and we must show that it is concrete social struggles that can provide the effective crucible for mutual sharing and a genuine transformation in the habits of everyday life, the concrete sources of new solidarities.

[1] Ironically, the Le Devoir version of Sirois’ article was accompanied by a photo of a Muslim woman clad in a niqab (showing only her eyes) apparently staffing a government telephone hot-line — in other words not visible to her interlocutors. This, to illustrate an article protesting “ostentatious” symbols of religious belief by government agents!

[2] Active in the student and international solidarity movements (Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, etc.) during the 1970s, Bernard Rioux has fought for many years in the teachers’ unions, at the local level in both the CSN and the CEQ. A socialist activist since the early 1970s, he has been involved in the process of unifying the political left. He participated in the founding of the Parti de la démocratie socialiste and later the Union des Forces progressistes. He is a member of Québec solidaire and its policy commission, and participates in the Gauche socialiste collective, where he has long been in charge of its web site, He is a founding member of Presse-toi à gauche [where this note appears with his article].

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