Once again, no, there are not “two secularisms”; there is secularism, and there is bigotry

Every time someone tries to defend religious accessories bans like Québec’s Bill 21, you can be assured of hearing the claim that there are “two views of secularism”, or some variant thereof. Basically, there is the English/American version that is more “tolerant” or “indulgent” of religion, and the French version that is “stricter”.

This is bullshit.

I could make this argument from a historical basis, showing how the two competing views of “secularism” evolved, and why one is legitimate and the other is not. But I think it would be more effective to look at how the two positions are defended today.

For that, I am going to take advantage of a recent Policy Options article by Mario Polèse: “Quebec’s Bill 21: Is there room for more than one view of religion in Canada?”.

The reason I have chosen this article to focus on is that Polèse makes a valiant attempt to paint the two positions on Bill 21 as equally rational. It’s not that Polèse believes the two positions are equal; in fact, in the article, he explicitly declares that Bill 21 is a mistake, unnecessary, petty and needlessly confrontational. But in the name of faux neutrality, he nevertheless tries his level best to show that the case for Bill 21 has a reasonable basis.

(I should clarify that I do not disagree with the article’s actual thesis: that the Supreme Court is in an difficult and unenviable position with respect to Bill 21. I also agree with his view of the political situation, and his assessment that it’s a “win-win” situation for François Legault. I’m merely focusing on his efforts to portray rhetorical equality between the arguments for and against Bill 21, which have no bearing on the thesis, and—in my opinion—really add nothing to the article at all.)

A history lesson?

So how does Polèse paint support of Bill 21 as anything but intrinsically racist?

Well, here’s how he opens his case:

Why, then, might “right-thinking” Québécois, who see themselves as tolerant, support the bill? A history lesson is in order.

Ooookay.

I don’t think I need to repeat the details of this argument, because we’ve all heard it. Québec had it so bad under the thumb of Catholicism, that today they are so suspicious of even the slightest whiff of religiosity, they want to excise all signs of religion from the public sector.

Now, I hope we all realize this is rank bullshit, on many levels. For starters, it’s a little rich to claim that Québécois are suspicious of all signs of religion in government, when their National Assembly building has a statue celebrating “Religion and Country” literally on top of it (on the left of the steeple, just above the statue of Paul Maisonneuve, who founded Montréal as an outpost for converting the indigenous people to Catholicism and is probably most famous for putting the first cross on top of Mount Royal, and for shooting an Iroquois Chief in the throat while protecting a mob of missionary colonists who had set out to murder the locals, just one of many statues of missionaries on the building). Not to mention the giant crucifix that hung in the Blue Room until 2019. Which, contrary to popular myth, was not removed, but rather merely moved to just outside the door. Seems pretty indisputable that Québécois really only have a problem with signs of non-Catholic religions.

(Also worth mentioning: The survey Polèse linked to as evidence that Québec is the most secular society in North America shows almost the exact opposite. Polèse seems to have misinterpreted the graph. It is not showing religious affiliation, it is showing religious disaffiliation. Lower on the graph means more religious… and Québec is planked out at the bottom.)

But even if it were true that Québec’s history really has made its people more distrustful of religion, that is not an argument in favour of legalized discrimination of religion. It baffles me how often people make this ridiculous non sequitur.

Reasonable intolerance

Let’s put a pin in that argument for now, and move on to the other argument Polèse offers that allegedly right-thinking, totally non-racist Québécois can justify Bill 21 with.

For this, Polèse defers to Boucar Diouf, an astute observer of Quebec society who it would be difficult to accuse of racism or Islamophobia.

Okay, let’s see how difficult it will be.

Here is how Polèse translates Diouf (I have a minor niggle with Polèse’s translation, but I’ll get to that shortly):

How would an immigrant of Palestinian origin, contesting a conviction, feel in front of a judge wearing a kippah? Inversely, how would a young driver wearing a kippah feel faced with a policewoman wearing a hijab who just gave him a ticket?

Well, shit. That isn’t all that hard to accuse of racism at all!

How would an immigrant of Palestinian origin feel in front of a judge wearing a kippah? Let’s break that into two questions:

  1. How would an immigrant of Palestinian origin who is prejudiced against Jews feel in front of a judge wearing a kippah?
  2. How would an immigrant of Palestinian origin who is not prejudiced against Jews feel in front of a judge wearing a kippah?

Well:

  1. They would be suspicious of the Jew, whether or not the judge would let their faith have any bearing on their decision.
  2. They would be neutral regarding the judge’s personal beliefs which should have no relevance on the proceedings.

Turns out the key factor here is whether the “immigrant of Palestinian origin” is a bigot or not. Quelle surprise.

Here’s the important point that seems to be flying right over the heads of both Diouf and Polèse: history and background may explain a person’s bigotry… but they don’t make it “not bigotry”. Understandable bigotry is still bigotry. And enshrining bigotry in law… whether “understandable bigotry” or not… is not cool.

This ties into the previous argument about Québec’s history as well. While we could certainly understand why Québec’s history—or a Palestinian’s personal experiences with Jewish nationalism—might lead to prejudged distrust of certain religious (or racial, or whatever) groups, or of religiosity in general, it does not follow that we should excuse such prejudice. And it certainly doesn’t follow that we should enshrine it in law.

There’s wrong, and then there’s bizarrely wrong

I take issue with Polèse’s translation of Diouf’s second argument (actually third, but Polèse didn’t want to touch the first one about Richard Henry Bain, and I’m not interested either; I’ve dealt with it elsewhere, and it would be too great a detour here). I think he missed a key word: discutable. Here’s how I would translate it:

Conversely, what would a young driver wearing a kippah think when a given a questionable ticket by a female police officer in a hijab?

This could have been just be a rehash of the previous example, but I think the word « discutable », which I’ve translated as “questionable”, changes the dynamic completely. And, in fact, weakens the pro-Bill 21 position.

First, let’s assume the ticket is actually questionable, because if the ticket is not questionable, then we’re just back to the previous example, where if the (presumably) Jewish driver suspects the (presumably) Muslim cop of anything merely on the basis of her religion… that driver is a straight-up bigot.

If the ticket is questionable, then there are two different cases to consider:

  1. The police officer is biased by their faith.
  2. The police officer is biased for reasons other than their faith, or just incompetent.

Now if the driver can identify the cop as Muslim, then, upon realizing the ticket is questionable, they might suspect the actual motive for the ticket is Islam-based antisemitism (or inter-religious intolerance in general, I suppose). But… why is that a problem? Why would Bill 21 supporters want to prevent the driver from making that assumption?

If the ticket is indeed questionable, then the driver should start considering what the officer’s motivations are. Anything the officer says, does, or reveals in any manner that might reasonably suggest that the officer is unjustly hostile toward the driver is on the table as potential evidence. If the driver is revealing anything about themselves that a certain class of people might take issue with, and the officer reveals they are a member of that class, then it’s perfectly legitimate and reasonable to consider it as a possible basis for discrimination. Obviously if the driver is visibly of one religion, and the cop somehow reveals themselves to be of another religion… well, inter-religious strife is a pretty obvious and even likely cause for discrimination, so it’s no great leap for the driver to consider that possibility.

I see nothing in the above that is problematic. So I don’t understand why Bill 21 supporters have a problem with it.

Let’s take the cases above, and add two more cases on a second axis: whether the officer is wearing a hijab (and thus, displaying her faith) or not… the latter case being the world that Bill 21 supporters want. Let’s see how those four cases shake out:

  1. The cop is not discriminating based on her faith; she is not wearing a hijab.

    In this case, the driver will (presumably) have no reason to suspect the officer’s faith as motive for discrimination, and it really isn’t, so… no problems here.

  2. The cop is not discriminating based on her faith; she is wearing a hijab.

    In this case, the driver may mistakenly assume the officer’s faith is biasing her judgment, and he can make that accusation. He’s wrong, but of course, the officer will have to defend herself, and justify the ticket… which should happen anyway. If the ticket is bullshit, then it doesn’t really matter if the driver guesses the wrong reason for why it was bullshit; the ticket should be revoked. If the officer has a pattern of giving bullshit tickets, it doesn’t really matter that the cause of that isn’t her faith; she should be fired in any case.

    So while it would probably suck for the officer to be wrongly accused of religious hatred, it doesn’t really matter materially.

  3. The cop is discriminating based on her faith; she is not wearing a hijab.

    Now, this is a case where Bill 21 is in effect. If a cop is inclined to discriminate against Jews, one can presume they will do so whether they are allowed to wear their religious headgear or not. But in this case… how would the driver know?

    In fact, if the driver can find no other reason to justify their accusation of bias, the cop may get away with it. And they may continue in a pattern of faith-based discrimination that no one ever recognizes, or at best, recognizes far too late. If no one realizes the cop is Muslim, no one may clue into the fact that she gives tickets disproportionately to non-Muslims. This is the worst-case scenario, where religious bias is happening… but we can’t tell, because we’ve eliminated the clues.

  4. The cop is discriminating based on her faith; she is wearing a hijab.

    There are no problems here. The fact that the cop is visibly Muslim and discriminating by virtue of her religion makes her discrimination—and its root—much easier to diagnose.

Or in table form:

Cop’s religion is hidden
(Bill 21 is in effect)
No Yes
Cop’s religion is causing bias No Not a serious problem.
Driver may mistakenly assume faith-based bias, but the cop was in the wrong in any case; getting the actual cause wrong is a minor problem.
No problem.
The driver will have to guess at the cop’s motivations, but her religion rightly won’t be a factor because he won’t know it.
Yes No problem.
Cop is a religious bigot, but the driver has a good clue that could lead them to suspect it.
Worst case scenario!
Cop is a religious bigot, but driver can’t tell.

So there’s only one really bad outcome here, and that’s when Bill 21 is in effect, and someone’s religious biases are hidden. Not gone. Hidden. This is the most bizarre thing about the argument that stripping people of their religious accessories makes for an unbiased public service. Merely wearing a religious accessory does not, of course, lead to religious biases… but stripping someone of their religious accessory also does not make those biases go away; it merely removes the best indicator of potential biases. If you really care about detecting and eliminating biases, then the best thing you can do is let people display their true beliefs. The worst thing you can do is give bigots an excuse to hide their hatred.

So banning religious accessories isn’t just racist… it’s also dumb.

One secularism

And as always, we come back to the same thing. Despite the desperate efforts of people who want to paint both sides as equally legitimate, we have one side arguing for true government neutrality in matters of faith… and a bunch of racist arguments on the other side.

There are not “two secularisms”. There are not two ways of viewing the proper relationship between government and religion. There is only one secularism. And then there is racism masquerading as “secularism”.

I don’t believe Mario Polèse actually believes that the two sides of the Bill 21 debate are both equally valid; his own words are a contraindication of that. But he’s fallen into the trap so many journalists have: In their admirable desire to give fair coverage to both sides, they are elevating the ignorant, bigoted, incoherent, and… frankly, dumb… arguments of one side to a “view”, and then further pretending that “view” has some equivalence to the other side’s view.

What Bill 21 supporters have is not a “view”. It lacks the coherence to be a view. It is nothing more than a collection of racist tropes and xenophobic talking points. It is not a cogent argument; it is throwing everything at the wall in the hopes that something will stick. It is not based on reason or empathy; it is trying its damnedest to appeal to your fear of the other—in particular, of non-Christian nations—or to your sense of national identity—in its appeals to Québec history. It has no real sensible arguments to make. If it did, Bill 21 wouldn’t need the protection of the notwithstanding clause.

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