A new type of warfare - albeit perfectly peaceful - has taken form in Quebec, as intellectuals and academics weigh in on the issue of accommodating religious minorities. Let's call it the Battle of the Manifestos.
The debate has been reignited recently with the " niqab " incident, in which a woman who refused to show her face to her language teacher and disrupted the class with her many demands was finally - after months of attempted compromise - expelled from French classes for immigrants.
On one side are the "pluralists," who call for more openness to immigrants, and for what is called in French a " laïcité ouverte " (a secular regime that allows for some compromise with religious fundamentalists). The initiators of their manifesto, "for a pluralist Quebec," are mostly professors of philosophy.
Some of them, like Daniel Weinstock, a political philosopher from the Université de Montréal, and Georges Leroux, an emeritus philosopher from Université du Québec à Montréal, have worked as experts for the Bouchard-Taylor Commission that held public hearings on these thorny issues two years ago. The group also includes Marie McAndrew, the Université de Montréal's renowned specialist on ethnic relations.
The moderate tone of the commission's report was disliked by many nationalists, and the Parti Québécois has rejected its approach for a more radical one, based on France's rigid concept of secularism. This is the approach of the second manifesto - this one, titled "For a secular and pluralist Quebec," which was published last week as an answer to the first manifesto.
Its initiators, this time, come mostly from sociology departments, but the signatories form an eclectic bunch. They include sociologists of various political persuasions, including federalists, and militant atheists who would like all religious symbols to disappear from public space. The majority of the signatories are associated with the PQ - former premier Bernard Landry is one, as well as some of the thinkers behind the party's new push on identity politics, such as sociologist Jacques Beauchemin and Jean-François Lisée, a writer who's worked as adviser to former premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard.
The authors of this second manifesto, eager to dissociate themselves from those who use the concept of secularism to cover up their dislike of the recent waves of Muslim immigration, argue that " laïcité " has always been part of Quebec history, an argument that is a considerable exaggeration.
That being said, it should be pointed out that this latest manifesto has nothing against Muslims - many Muslims who came to Canada to escape religious tyranny actually support this stand. Still, the regime proposed by this manifesto would most certainly be struck down by the courts. For instance, it calls for a ban of all religious symbols, including Catholic ones, in the civil service, the public administration and the schools - a sharp break from the flexible line advocated by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, which would allow state employees to wear religious symbols except for the representatives of state authority (judges, Crown prosecutors, the police and prison guards). There's a consensus, though, on the fact that face-covering veils like the niqab shouldn't be allowed in the civil service nor for teachers.
While the battle of the academics rages on, the ordinary citizen seems preoccupied with issues other than the (rare) face-covering veil that sometimes appear in Montreal. A reporter from La Presse spent two days walking around Montreal dressed like a fundamentalist Muslim, with a long black robe and a niqab that covered everything but her eyes, but in most places - in the Metro, fast-food restaurants or on the streets - she went rather unnoticed and was not subjected to any aggressive reaction, except a few hard glances.