Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Secularism – For a broad, open and democratic debate


by Françoise David, President and spokesperson for Québec solidaire

and Amir Khadir, MNA for Mercier and spokesperson for Québec solidaire

This article was published in the Montréal daily Le Devoir, January 18, 2010.

An intense debate has been going for several months, nay several years, on secularism and how we can achieve a fully secular Quebec. The crisis over reasonable accommodation has propelled this issue to the forefront of social debates.

Québec solidaire is in favour of a secular Quebec — both the state and its institutions. At the same time, our members, meeting in convention last November, signified their commitment to fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religious belief.

We maintain that a debate is needed to complete the process of secularizing the Quebec state and its institutions. Like the Mouvement laïque québécois [Movement for a secular Quebec], Québec solidaire has called on the Quebec government to organize a debate on secularism in an effort to achieve the strongest possible consensus, and to enshrine that agreement in documentary form. This debate should include all Québécois of all origins. In our view, the discussion about secularism is not a discussion about immigrants!

A number of questions remain undecided and they affect both the Francophone majority as well as minorities. For example, the crucifix hanging over the head of the Speaker of the National Assembly is considered by some to be a matter of heritage that should remain. For others, it is first and foremost a symbol placed at the heart of a secular institution by Maurice Duplessis to seal the alliance between the Church and the state. This crucifix therefore has to go.

Secularism: mother of an inclusive modernity

Among the supporters of secularism “à la française”, the law of 1905 is often invoked. The law on secularism, introduced in France by the socialist MP [Aristide] Briand, was the product of a great republican movement aimed at decisively carrying out a separation between the state and religious authorities and thus to entrenching the neutrality of the French state in relation to all religions. At the same time, the law put an end to discrimination against Protestants, who had been denied access to positions in the civil service and education.

At the time, France was torn between two visions. The radical current of Émile Combes, a senator of the democratic left and heir to a very assertive anti-clerical tradition, wished to instrumentalize the state and the principle of secularism in order to wage a battle on the terrain of beliefs, which could lead potentially to a limitation on freedom of belief. However, for the moderate current of socialist leader Jean Jaurès and the minister Aristide Briand, themselves non-believers, the ideological battle against the clergy had to be set apart from the responsibility of the state.

The state had to ensure that it was sheltered from religious authority, but “the republic is the right of every man, whatever his religious belief, to have his share of sovereignty,” as Jaurès pointed out. As conceived by Briand and Jaurès, secularism is equally solicitous of the neutrality of state institutions toward beliefs and of the freedom of conscience of each, in accordance with the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

It is this modern conception that eventually prevailed. Freedom of conscience is one of the principal contributions of the Enlightenment to Western civilization and has played an undeniable role in the emergence of modernity. In 1905 it became one of the pillars of French secularism, entailing equality in law of religious and spiritual options and the neutrality of the political authority.

In the opinion of Québec solidaire, to defend the freedom of conscience of others is therefore a founding act of modernity, the purpose of which, in a manner of speaking, is to include and not to exclude.

The veil: Neither obligation nor prohibition

We are often challenged about our position on the subject of the veil worn by a minority of Muslim women in Quebec. We would like to remind people that the wearing of religious insignia by public employees is only one of the questions that we ought to debate in the framework of steps to achieve a fully secular state. However, as our position on the wearing of the veil attracts questions, we will explain it here again.

The veil originated at least 4,000 years ago, among the Sumerians, well before Islam, Christianity, and even Judaism. Under the Judeo-Christian and Muslim religions it became an instrument to control the bodies of women and, unquestionably, a sign of patriarchal oppression. Conceptually, it was imposed by “sacred” texts, written by the hands of men who lived in archaic societies which did not recognize the equality of rights between women and men. A feminist party like Québec solidaire therefore rejects the obligation to wear the veil: there is no ambiguity about it.

We reject just as clearly the attacks on the rights and freedoms of women, any and all attempts to dictate to women how to behave, be they by religious or political powers. Women must be free, autonomous, and full-fledged citizens in all societies. Their bodies belong to them, and they must be free to do what they wish with them.

What does this mean in Quebec, then? Among us we have women of very different life trajectories and references. They are evolving in a Quebec that, in the last 40 years, has made great strides in achieving equality between women and men. Nevertheless, this is also a Quebec that is not free from sexism and that discriminates in particular against immigrant women, refused jobs by employers under various pretexts.

Domestic space

How then can we protect the rights and freedoms of all women without excluding some of them from the labor market, for example? For what purpose would we deprive the veiled women of the space of participation in active life which comes with work, condemning them to remain prisoners of often conservative communitarian ghettos? Does rejecting the obligation to wear the veil mean the right to deprive Muslim women of the possibility to work for the largest employer in Quebec: the state? The holders of religious power who prescribe the veil would be the first to rejoice in seeing women confined to domestic space, more easily subjected to their control. If we did that, we would be adding a veil of exclusion to the veil of cloth.

In our view, it is important to wage the battle against sartorial and behavioral religious obligations on the terrain of ideas. We should say that these obligations, including the imposition of articles of clothing that cover women — for their bodies might become “an occasion of sin”! — are sexist and retrograde. And we ought to offer assistance and protection to women who wish to resist their imposition by some men or by some communities.

Defend all the rights of all women

Québec solidaire has therefore opted for a solution — we make no claim it is perfect — that consists in accompanying these women who have battles to fight and liberties to conquer. This defense of others, even other women and men who differ with us in ideas or beliefs, is, as we indicated earlier, the very essence of democracy and the republican principle of secularism. It has nothing to do with cultural relativism and multiculturalism.

The neutrality of the state, which secularism demands, is determined by the actions of those who work there and not by their clothes. We have therefore chosen not to prohibit the wearing of religious insignia in the civil service and public services, while agreeing that discussion needs to continue regarding situations in which the wearing of religious signs may prove to be inappropriate.

Here, then, is what we propose: to protect all rights at the same time, without losing sight of the need for complete neutrality of the state toward all religions and the absence of influence of any religion on the decisions of the state.

Secularism is not racism

In conclusion, we would like to dispel any misunderstanding that might leave the impression that Québec solidaire is accusing the secularists of being complicit in racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. Such is not the case. How could we accuse secularism and its defenders when it is one of the central axes of our political project and our raison d’être? We are striving, like many other social and political actors, to complete the secularization of Quebec society. All points of view must be heard, with respect for the fundamental rights of everyone and in the search for the common good.

That said, we note that we are not the only ones who speak of secularism. Some xenophobes also speak of secularism — very selectively — in order to exclude more effectively, to discriminate virtuously. They use secularism as a veneer for their fear of others, of strangers who practice religions other than Christianity, for, in their eyes, that threatens the Québécois identity. They seldom say anything about the Catholic or Protestant religious authority, much less question Catholic doctors who invoke their religious beliefs in order to refuse to perform abortions, or elected officials who open their municipal council sessions with a prayer.

In brief, the defense of Québécois identity, however legitimate it is, is sometimes the pretext, these days, to mask a growing intolerance of others, especially newcomers. Muslim communities in particular bear the brunt of it. That we cannot tolerate, in Québec solidaire.

Secularism as we understand it is inclusive, but it excludes the fear of others or any intolerance with regard to those who arrive in Quebec each year. If these principles are clear and, as we believe, are widely shared by the people of Quebec, irrespective of their origins, pressure must continue to be put on the Charest government to engage in a broad, open, and democratic debate on secularism with the goal of arriving at the most unifying consensus for all Québécois.

The above article, translated from the January 18 issue of the Montréal daily Le Devoir, is preceded by the announcement of a symposium sponsored by the magazine À bâbord! [Portside] to be held on Friday, January 22 at the Université du Québec à Montreal, on the theme of “Québec in Search of Secularism”.  Québec solidaire leader Françoise David is a guest of honor at the event, along with Prof. Guy Rocher.

I translated this for Socialist Voice. Another English translation of this article was published in Mrzine.

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