If you're a liberal thinker, you probably know where you stand on Quebec's controversial religious neutrality bill. You hate it. Banning women in face veils from receiving public services (such as, potentially, riding the bus) is cruel, intolerant, unworkable, discriminatory, sexist, divisive, and an attack on religious freedom. The bill has been denounced by Rachel Notley, Kathleen Wynne, human-rights lawyers, Muslim groups, and nearly every opinion writer in English-speaking Canada. "Quebec's niqab ban is a shameful sop to nativist voters," thundered the Toronto Star. (The Globe's editorialists oppose it, too.)
At least a dozen countries have passed similar laws. Some of them might surprise you. Take Norway – widely hailed as one of the most tolerant nations on Earth. The Norwegian government wants to ban face veils in all schools and universities, for students and instructors alike. "Face-covering garments such as the niqab or burka do not belong in Norwegian schools," said the acting minister of immigration and integration. "The ability to communicate is a basic value."
Then there's Germany, whose leader, Angela Merkel, put out the welcome mat for more than a million immigrants and refugees. But that welcome is conditional. Germany should ban face veils "wherever legally possible," she said last year. Why? "We do not want any parallel societies, and where they exist we have to tackle them." France has banned face coverings in public spaces since 2011. In other words, not all countries with these bans are sinkholes of bigotry and oppression.
Can you be a progressive and also favour banning the niqab? Plenty of Quebeckers think so. A whopping 87 per cent of them support the bill, and many say it doesn't go far enough. Despite the views of the Toronto Star, not all are knuckle-dragging xenophobes from Hérouxville. Yet the English-language commentary has been downright hysterical. According to the critics, women wearing veils will be kicked off buses in the dead of winter, denied life-saving medical treatment, and essentially cut off from life. As Warda Naili told CTV, "I will be a prisoner in my own house." (Like some of the most ardent champions of the veil, Ms. Naili is a Western convert to Islam.)
Niqab bans aren't likely to spread to the rest of Canada – at least for now. It's a Quebec thing. It has to do with secularization, the strict separation of church and state, and the obsession with preserving Quebec's distinct identity. If the doctrine in the rest of Canada is diversity, the doctrine of Quebec is maintaining its distinct culture at all costs. As for religious freedom, it's worth noting that even in Canada this freedom is not absolute. (We don't tolerate polygamy, for instance.) Religious rights always compete with others, and even the European Court of Human Rights has agreed that the requirement to show one's face in public is not unreasonable. As Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard put it, "You speak to me, I speak to you, I see your face, you see mine. It's part of communications. It's a question in my mind that is not solely religious, it's human."
What's notable is that the views of the English-language commentariat are out of step not only with Quebeckers but with English Canada as well. Only three in 10 Canadians across the country support the right of women to wear face coverings. Is this proof that anti-Muslim sentiment is dangerously widespread? Or does it simply mean – as I believe – that Canadians want immigrants to fit in?
To be sure, Bill 62 is fraught with politics and hypocrisy. Although it is supposedly aimed at all religions, the only people it will affect are Muslim women. Mr. Couillard would like to be re-elected next year, and this improves his chances. One suspects he wouldn't be too distressed if the whole thing were tossed out by the courts.
For what it's worth, my own view is that you shouldn't pass a law unless you need it – and given the handful of veiled women in Quebec, we don't need it. But I could be wrong. Recently I talked with Roksana Nazneen, a Muslim from Bangladesh, who describes the growing embrace of the niqab in Quebec and elsewhere as an enormously regressive trend. "It fights integration," she says. She argues that guilt-ridden feminists just don't get it. They do not know what the niqab means and they should not be fighting for the right of women to self-oppress. And make no mistake: "The niqab means that men should not hear your voice."
What kind of Muslim community do we want 10 years from now, she asks? And what will be the consequence of the backlash that would almost certainly be unleashed by the spread of Muslim religious conservatism? These are among the many questions raised by Quebec's controversial new law. Some of its opponents might be wise to ponder them.