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Opinion As Quebec tables religious-symbol ban, the rest of Canada should stay zen

The most popular movie in France this year is a comedy about a Roman Catholic couple with four daughters, each of whom marries a member of a religious or racial minority. When the daughters announce they and their husbands are leaving France – for Algeria, Israel, China and India – their parents wonder if they are being punished by God.

The film’s French title, Qu’est-ce qu’on a encore fait au Bon Dieu?, roughly means: What did we do to deserve this? It is the top-grossing film of 2019 in France, drawing twice as many moviegoers as any Hollywood movie. It has also been doing a brisk box office in Quebec, and sparking plenty of discussion about the state of la mère patrie, as France is known.

The film’s success may lie in the fact that it allows members of the white Catholic French majority to laugh at the prejudices they hold toward newcomers, rather than feeling ashamed of them. The French aren’t racist. They’re just nostalgic for a simpler time when they didn’t have to deal with interracial marriage, Muslim rites or Afghan refugees. But once they get used to them, they’ll come around and everyone will get along famously. Cue the happy ending.

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Of course, that day hasn’t yet arrived in France. The country remains deeply divided over how to integrate its fast-growing Muslim population, which continues to feel excluded from mainstream French society. Anti-Semitism has been rising again, prompting thousands of French Jews to leave their country, mostly for Israel, the United States and Canada.

To an outsider, it may seem obvious that the French approach to solving the challenges raised by multiculturalism has been a failure. Instead of fostering integration or promoting what the French call le vivre ensemble (“living together”), bans on the Islamic headscarf in public schools and the burka in public spaces have only served to further stigmatize Muslims.

Yet, I have spent enough time in France to know that plenty of its leading thinkers, few of whom could be accused of racism, support such bans in the name of state secularism. No one, much less any foreigner, is going to persuade them otherwise. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who is undeniably progressive on most issues involving immigration and multiculturalism, would not dream of repealing these measures.

For better or worse, the French approach to secularism has coloured the political debate over religious accommodation in Quebec. As in France, many Quebec intellectuals believe that any society that declares secularism to be a fundamental value must prohibit religious symbols in public institutions. For many, freedom from religion is as important as freedom of religion.

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So, while many commentators in English Canada depict Quebec’s seemingly endless debate over religious accommodation as the work of opportunistic politicians seeking to exploit the cultural insecurities of some francophone Quebeckers, such characterizations fail to capture the complexity of the debate and only contribute to a polarization of opinions on the matter.

Make no mistake, as Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government prepares to table legislation to ban state employees in a position of authority (including teachers) from wearing ostentatious religious symbols, politics is its principal motivation. The CAQ’s conservative and nationalist base is not concerned so much about secularism – it supports maintaining the crucifix in the legislature – as it is with the impact Muslim newcomers are having on the face and customs of their province. Mr. Legault campaigned on a promise to do something about it, even if it means going down the dangerous path of trampling on individual rights in the name of a white francophone majority that seeks to assert its supposed collective right to live in a secularist society.

The CAQ government may be making a fateful mistake by proceeding with a discriminatory and patently unconstitutional legislation. At the very least, it is displaying crass insensitivity in tabling its religious-symbol ban in the wake of the massacre of 50 Muslims at mosques in New Zealand, which revived the pain of the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting.

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Yet, those outside the province should refrain from making blanket statements or condemnations. The debate within Quebec is far more nuanced than the rest of Canada seems to understand. Charging racism is the lazy way to go. It perpetuates a situation that only serves the interests of those who like to stir up polemics, rather than foster reconciliation.

As jurist Rim Gtari and sociology professor Rachad Antonius wrote this week in Le Devoir, invoking the recent conviction of an Iranian lawyer who defended women who went veil-less in public: “One cannot reduce the hijab to a simple piece of cloth, the wearing of which is a sign of piety and its interdiction a sign of racism. The historical context removes this restriction from the domain of the violation of rights or from the logic of stereotypes tied to racism.”

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