The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A Quebec bill to ban some from wearing ‘religious symbols’ is fueled by Islamophobia

A demonstration opposing the Quebec government's proposed Bill 21 in Montreal on April 14. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP)

Nora Loreto is a Canadian freelance writer and author of “From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement.”

Fatima Ahmad was attacked in mid-May on a street in Montreal. A man hit Ahmad, 22, and pulled on her niqab. She told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News that she chased the attacker to confront him: “I don’t want this to happen again to any woman, and if I just let it go, he may gain more courage.”

The same week in Quebec City, Bill 21 was discussed in the National Assembly of Quebec. Bill 21 would ban certain public-sector workers — including teachers, judges, Crown prosecutors, police and prison guards — in Quebec from wearing religious symbols such as niqabs, hijabs and turbans. While the bill doesn’t target Muslim women explicitly, the impact of the legislation would likely be borne by them the most. The bill is expected to pass before the end of the current session on Friday.

Surveys show that Bill 21 is buoyed by anti-Islam sentiment. The problem is that it’s also a popular piece of legislation, according to polls, and the governing Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) relies on polls to guide its policy priorities.

With the far right in Quebec mobilized across social media platforms, this small group of intensely racist activists has helped broaden support for the bill, especially in regions of the province where the population of people who wear religious symbols is likely close to zero. Muslims represent just 3.2 percent of the population of Quebec. With about 90 percent of all immigrants to Quebec settling in the Montreal area, it’s more likely than not that Quebecers who live in the regions outside of major cities have no regular contact at all with someone who wears a religious symbol.

Montreal and school boards have condemned the bill. But excluding a religious minority from some public sector employment will have broader implications, marginalizing an already-discriminated-against population.

Hate crimes against Muslims in Quebec have been rising. Islamophobic incidents almost tripled in 2017, the same year six men were murdered and more than a dozen wounded by a right-wing terrorist while they were praying at the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec City. Amid this rising wave, Bill 21 has given white nationalists another reason to organize and take action. On the day the parliamentary commission started, a far-right group demonstrated its support for the bill at the National Assembly. There have also been two demonstrations at the National Assembly opposing Bill 21 in the past month.

Shaheen Ashraf, from the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, said that since Bill 21 was introduced, Islamophobic incidents have increased. She told CBC: “People are having open season on the Muslims, especially Muslim women who identify with what they wear. They’re the targets.”

If Bill 21 passes, it will be used to justify widening the scope of who is not allowed to wear a religious symbol at work. Bill supporters argue that the legislation needs to go even further by adding more public-sector positions to the list, a position supported by the Parti Quebecois.

Quebec’s minister of the status of women, Isabelle Charest, considers women who wear a hijab to be oppressed. But it is the bill that will marginalize many Quebecers, actively excluding many from Quebec society.

France has been a world leader in finding ways to exclude veils from public life, and many activists in Quebec look to France as a guide. In May, France’s Senate voted in favor of banning mothers who wear a hijab from accompanying children on school trips.

As hijab bans push women more and more out of public spaces, the very existence of a veiled Muslim woman becomes controversial.

If the CAQ refuses to listen to Quebecers who object to state-sanctioned discrimination, perhaps it should listen to the United Nations. Three legal experts at the U.N. Human Rights Council have written to Canada’s mission office expressing their concerns about Bill 21.

There’s little doubt that the law will pass, but whether it will ever be implemented is up to citizen pressure, civil disobedience and the courts. The right-wing activists who want Bill 21 to go further will be much more confident after scoring this win. If Islamophobia underpins their activism, combating Islamophobia is the only way forward. If Quebec wants to have a conversation about secularism, it must be pushed away from the current terms of debate.

There are deep fault lines in Quebec society that threaten social solidarity. We need leaders who can engage with the issues rather than exploit fault lines for political gain — leaders who can bridge our divides, bring people together and build a society where promising to ban people from employment based solely on how they practice their religion would never be popular.

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