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Bloc-photo. Patrick LagacÈ. Ph: Alain Roberge. 2012
Bloc-photo. Patrick LagacÈ. Ph: Alain Roberge. 2012


Quebec has a strange view of secularism Add to ...

The Quebec Soccer Federation announced last week that it won’t allow turbans on its soccer pitches because, well, FIFA’s Rule 4 on equipment doesn’t explicitly allow turbans on soccer fields.

FIFA’s Rule 4 also doesn’t “allow” players to wear gloves in freezing late October games. It doesn’t “allow” women to wear headbands for their ponytails. Still, you’ll find players wearing gloves and headbands without the QSF invoking Rule 4 to ban them.

Apparently a recent FIFA ruling that lets Muslim women wear the hijab on the pitch wasn’t enough to convince the QSF that the spirit of the rules is tolerance.

The QSF’s public statements to justify its decision have bordered on the comical. Director-general Brigitte Frot said turbans could be dangerous for players’ safety, although she couldn’t cite a single incident to back that up. If some people are unhappy with the decision, she said, they can take it up with FIFA themselves. (Soccer’s international governing body is a very conservative behemoth – the suggestion is akin to sending a message in a bottle in hopes that it will reach the Pope.)

It stopped being comedic, however, when Ms. Frot said something that probably offered insight into how she and other members of the QSF really feel: “They can play in their backyard. But not with official referees, not in the official rules of soccer.”

What a statement. When I hear, “They can play in their backyard,” I hear the echo of Alabama, circa 1955, when some people said sure, blacks can ride on city buses. In the back.

The turban decision has launched another heated debate in Quebec about religion’s place in the public sphere – a debate that has been simmering for a decade, a debate that led to the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation in 2007-2008.

The turban decision irritates me on two levels, as has often been the case with this debate.

First, there was no problem before turbans came under public scrutiny. Sikh soccer players had been playing with them for more than a decade without a hitch. Then a referee decided to exclude players because of said turbans. Media reports made an issue of it, leading to the QSF decision.

The same thing happened earlier this spring, when a television station reported that Jews in a Montreal borough had preferential treatment during Shavuot, when parking rules are suspended for two days. The commentariat was incensed, many people said it was an unjust accommodation for religious reasons and Bernard Drainville, the cabinet minister who is drafting a “Charter of Quebec values” invited himself into the debate, saying it was a clear case of unreasonable accommodation.

It didn’t matter that the rule was three decades old. It didn’t matter that it had never raised an eyebrow in the borough itself. It didn’t matter that the suspension of parking rules applied to all faiths. It didn’t matter if elsewhere, Christmas warrants the same kind of parking exceptions.

Second, Quebeckers seem to have a strange view of secularism. We collectively reserve our outrage for cases when secularism comes heads on – in a real or perceived manner – against religions other than Catholicism. Hijab, turbans, Shavuot: Accommodating “their” religions is seen as an unfathomable encroachment on the secularism we supposedly cherish. Let “them” observe their religion in private.

When it comes to “our” religion, we are suddenly much more lenient. In the National Assembly, behind the Speaker’s throne, you find a crucifix. If you think it sends a bad message about separation of church and state, too bad – politicians of all stripes will tell you that it’s not a religious object; it’s a symbol of our cultural heritage!

And when the clownish mayor of Saguenay, Jean Tremblay, was making a mockery of our supposedly cherished brand of secularism by launching a legal crusade for the right to say a prayer before city council meetings, no one – repeat, no one – in our brave political class spoke up against him. And in civil society, this crusade was never met with the same level of outrage you’ll find in debates involving “their” religions.

That’s what so discouraging about the QSF’s turban ruling. It’s coherent with Quebec’s distorted view of secularism, best known as Catho-secularism.

Patrick Lagacé is a columnist for Montreal’s La Presse.

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