In the discourse, or rather the propaganda, of those who oppose the new Quebec Charter of secularism as proposed by Bill 60, a number of recurring themes can be identified. Here are a few of them:
1. Charter opponents elevate religious freedom above other freedoms, giving it priority status.
They may deny this, but it is nevertheless clear that allowing state employees to display obvious religious symbols while on the job means giving freedom of religion a higher status than freedom of expression (which is already somewhat restricted in this context) and higher than freedom of conscience as well. Indeed, the freedom of conscience of both workers and users of public services is thus compromised, because respect for that freedom would require that the public service be free of political and religious partisanship.
2. Charter opponents claim to protect freedom of religion, but in reality they advocate religious privilege.
By opposing the ban on the wearing of religious symbols, they grant believers who are public service employees the privilege of practicing their religion during working hours. This is not “tolerance” as often claimed. Rather, it is indulgence.
3. Charter opponents deliberately confuse race with religion.
We already see this problem with respect to the word “Jew” having two principal meanings which must be distinguished: ethnicity and religion. To be clear, the term “Judaism” should be used rather than the expression “Jewish religion,” especially since many Jews no longer practice Judaism and many are even atheists. But they nonetheless remain Jewish in the ethnic sense. This unfortunate confusion of meaning has the effect that it becomes difficult to criticize Judaism without risking being accused of anti-semitism. Many Muslims, especially fundamentalists, deliberately promote a similar confusion between religious terms such as “Muslim” or “Islam” on the one hand and ethnic identity such as “Arab” on the other. This makes it easier for them to launch false accusations of racism against critics of their religion and against the Charter. That is why they often use the word “islamophobia,” as if criticism of Islam were a form of racism. We must not let Muslims who do this get away with it!
4. Charter opponents emphasize the personal, intimate, even sacred aspect of wearing a symbol of one’s faith and religious affiliation.
This attitude amounts to a negation of freedom of conscience, because religious identity thus becomes an intrinsic and immutable part of the person. The believer thus becomes a prisoner of his or her religious heritage.
5. This emphasis on the intrinsic nature of belief elevates religious identity well above any other identity.
But why should my atheism, for example, be any less important to me than religion is for a believer? Would Charter opponents accept atheists blatantly displaying their unbelief while at work in the public service?
6. Charter opponents emphasize the personal nature of any anxiety that might be caused by the sight of others wearing religious symbols.
To reduce a political issue to personal considerations is an effective way — and often a dishonest one — to avoid debate. So in order to counter pro-Charter arguments, Charter opponents accuse Charter supporters of some kind of personal hang-up, claiming that the problem is personal, so therefore the solution must be personal as well. What they are saying, in short, is, “If religious clothing bothers you so much, it is your attitude which must be changed and not the clothes.” But in reality, the display of religious symbols may not bother me particularly, though it necessarily becomes more bothersome as the frequency of such symbols increases. The point is that I support the ban on religious symbols for political and not personal reasons. Furthermore, as paradoxical as it may seem, as an atheist I may be less sensitive to such symbols because I personally distanced myself long ago from any religious affiliation. However the situation may be very different for a person who is in the process of extricating himself or herself from an oppressive religious milieu; they may be greatly troubled by such symbols, and for very legitimate reasons, because they may feel personally targeted, for example by the misogyny or homophobia of the religion that the garment represents.
7. Charter opponents pretend not to understand the concept of non-verbal proselytism, creating confusion about the issue, then mocking pro-Charter arguments for the very confusion which they have created.
In fact, no one claims that the purpose or effect of wearing a religious symbol is to literally convert others to the religion of the wearer! It is much more subtle — and more insidious — than that. Religious symbolism worn constantly is a message which says, in essence, that my religion is so important to me that I cannot refrain from expressing my membership in that faith community at all times. It is also a message addressed to those of the same religion who do not wear it, saying “I am a better believer than you” and it is a message addressed to non-believers saying “I am a better person than you.”
8. Charter opponents do not recognize the preventive aspect of the Charter.
They insist that Charter provisions are “emergency” measures and thus conclude that the Charter is unnecessary and draconian because, according to them, there is no emergency. Our response must be this: “Bill 60 is concerned with our future in the long term and not the reparation of any immediate problem.” (Henri Brun, speaking for Juristes pour la laïcité et la neutralité religieuse de l’État, February 7th, 2014.) Moreover, there is nothing drastic or draconian about the Charter. For example, the ban on religious symbols in the public service is only one provision of the Charter and this ban constitutes a reasonable and moderate constraint that helps to protect everyone’s freedom of conscience.
9. Charter opponents use and abuse the term “diversity” in an empty-headed way, as if all diversity were necessarily good and of equal value. We must ask them the following question: The introduction of a new religion, especially a new monotheism, into an environment, a religion which previously was largely unknown there, is that always a good thing, is that necessarily a positive contribution to society? We must also remind them that religious diversity is very different from other forms of diversity (for example sexual or ethnic diversity) precisely because religion is not an intrinsic quality of the individual.
10. Charter opponents manipulate hostility towards Quebec separatists in order to increase opposition to the Charter. But these two issues — the Quebec question and secularism — are independent of each other and must be separated, just as the state must be separated from religion, just as ethnicity must be distinguished from religion. At AFT, we obviously take no position on the first question. We are only concerned with the second.