David Rand, President of the Atheist Freethinkers of Canada, speaks to Conatus News about secularism and the challenges facing secularists in Quebec.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: David, let us start with definitions, what defines “Quebec secularism?” There was the proposed Bill 60 or, otherwise called, “Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests”. This encouraged some debate statements relevant to the idea of “Quebec secularism.”
David Rand: When I say “Quebec secularism” I simply mean secularism. I refer to Quebec because it is the only jurisdiction in Canada or the USA where a serious attempt at implementing state secularism has been made. The First Amendment of the US Constitution, which established that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” is undoubtedly better than anything in Canadian federal legislation, but it does not implement secularism. As Shadia B. Drury has pointed out (Free Inquiry, vol 32, #3), “The establishment clause is not an endorsement of secularism but of nonsectarianism.”
What Drury calls nonsectarianism, I would call religious neutrality. It means that the state does not favour one religion over others; that there is no state religion. Very good so far. But secularism is much more than that. Secularism starts with religious neutrality and adds separation between religion and state, i.e. rejecting all religious interference in its affairs and legislation. That is, religion’s influence in politics and education is nonexistent. Secularism is universalist: the secular state refuses to recognize religions and treats all citizens equally, regardless of religious affiliation. It does not give religions any privileges and it does not accommodate religious practice.
A simple example will illustrate. Recently a Montreal city councillor suggested that the Montreal police force allow police officers to wear religious symbols such as Sikh turbans and Islamic hijabs while on duty. This is an atrociously bad idea, for many reasons, and Quebec secularists in general immediately stood up and said so. In the vanguard of this opposition was the organisation AQNAL (Quebec Association of North Africans for Secularism) many of whose members lived through the dark days of the 1990s in Algeria. Our organisation, AFT, issued a press release in support of AQNAL.
There are so many reasons why allowing police to wear religious symbols is a bad idea, but the most important is that it violates religion/state separation because police officers are agents of the state and should present a neutral image. Not only would such a measure violate secularism, it would even violate the weaker principle of religious neutrality, unless a similar accommodation were provided for every religion that wants one. If Sikhs and Muslims have their special uniform, why not a special one with a huge crucifix for Christians, or a colander as hat for Pastafarians, or some other accouterment for Hindus, Jews, Scientologists, etc., and why not accommodate Marxists, Friedmanites, and other ideologues too. There is no end to the variants that would be required. But some of these “religions” I have listed are not really religions, you say? Well then, who is to decide which are “true” religions and which are not?
The only reasonable solution is to respect religion/state separation and not to introduce such symbols to be worn by police. They can wear whatever they want when off duty.
But what happened when secularists made this very reasonable point? They were publicly accused of all sorts of sins, just as were those who supported the Charter of Secularism back in 2013-2014. Quebec secularists are regularly demonised. Justin Trudeau and other anti-secularists bring out their usual nonsense vocabulary about “diversity” and “tolerance” – by which they mean exactly the opposite of what those words signify: no diversity of opinion will be tolerated. If you disagree with them then you must be a horrible person. Slander and defamation are the norms because the anti-secularists have no reasonable arguments to support their views.
There is no secular movement in Canada outside Quebec. That probably sounds like an extreme statement, but it is a simple observation. There are some isolated secularists in Canada, and many more who would probably rally to secularism if the subject could be debated openly and fairly, but they are cowed into silence by the very vocal pseudo-secularists who join the chorus of demonization. Secularism in Canada outside Quebec has been neutralized. The only exception I know of is the editorial board of the magazine Humanist Perspectives which dares to publish articles which criticize multiculturalism and discuss related issues. Only in Quebec is there still a truly secular movement, and proponents of cultural relativism (a.k.a. multiculturalism), in an objective alliance with political Islam, are trying to kill it in Quebec too. They have not yet succeeded. The battle is raging.
Has any so-called “secular” organisation in Canada outside Quebec recently (since Bill 60) taken a position against the wearing of religious symbols by public servants while on duty, especially those with coercive power such as police? Did any such organisation outside Quebec criticise the court decision that granted Zunera Ishaq the “right” to wear a niqab during a state ceremony? Did any such organisation criticise Quebec’s Bill 62 for not going far enough (as we at AFT did: Blog 089, Blog 078) in banning face-coverings?
Pseudo-secularists in Canada outside Quebec chose prejudice and conformism over principle. They chose to throw Quebec secularists under the bus.
The final death knell for secularism in Canada federally, as well as definitive proof of the complete incompatibility between secularism and multiculturalism, was marked by the recent publication of the report “Taking Action Against Systemic Racism and Religious Discrimination Including Islamophobia” from the parliamentary committee whose mandate was to study the implications of Motion M-103. This report’s first recommendation is to update anti-racism programs, extending them to include religious discrimination. This conflates religion (a personal choice) with race (an immutable attribute), meaning that criticising religion can henceforth be denounced as racist. Wow.
Did any ostensibly secular organisation in Canada outside Quebec show any opposition to this extremely dangerous recommendation (as we at AFT did)? If they did, I am unaware of it.
Pseudo-secularists in Canada outside Quebec chose prejudice and conformism over principle. They chose to throw Quebec secularists under the bus.
Finally, a clarification about the Quebec Charter of Secularism (Bill 60) which was abandoned when the government which proposed it was defeated in 2014. We at AFT supported it, but critically, because it had one major failing: it did not address the important issue of religions’ economic privileges. Also, it did not mention the crucifix hanging in Quebec’s National Assembly. However, the Quebec Liberal Party (QLP), which ferociously opposed the Charter and won the election, took an explicit position, during the election campaign, to maintain the crucifix where it is, an obvious play for traditionalist voters. If the Charter had been adopted, the crucifix would have had to go eventually, because its continued presence is incompatible with the Charter’s secular principles.
Jacobsen: There were responses to the form of secularism, Quebec secularism, enshrined, in part, in Bill 60. One from what you call multiculturalists. Another from what you call Islamists. What is the problem with multiculturalism and Islamism allied there, against Bill 60? How does this intrude on the many decades-long progress towards further secularisation in Quebec?
Rand: Quebec has been secularising ever since the beginning of the so-called “Quiet Revolution” in the mid 20th century when the right-wing Duplessis government (which put the crucifix in the National Assembly) was definitively defeated. The omnipresence of Catholicism in schools and hospitals was mostly eliminated. A Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms was adopted in 1975, and sexual orientation was added to it in 1977, earlier than any other province in Canada or any state in the USA. The secularisation process is not complete, but major progress has been made.
The Charter of Secularism was a natural next step in this continuing process. The QLP betrayed its liberal principles by opposing the Charter, and it did so with much support from a small number of very vocal proponents of political Islam. Together they have done enormous harm, and they continue to do so. Québécois, in general, are very sympathetic towards secularism. But the QLP has adopted multiculturalism which opposes secularism. This dovetails with the goals of Islamists whose highest priorities include defeating secularism, which is why they particularly target France, for example.
Jacobsen: Can you give an example of how identity politics intrudes on the active work of secularists or impinges on the principle of secularism with the state via, for example, restraint and neutrality?
Rand: There is nothing inherently wrong with having an identity. Valuing identity, like nationalism and populism, can be good or bad, left or right. But all three are currently being denounced and even demonised for a dubious reason: neoliberalism. Weakening the nation-state serves the interests of international free-market capitalism. Political Islam has latched onto this issue as a way to promote its agenda: Islamists demonise Quebec secularists for being “identitarian.” But in reality, no-one could be more obsessed with identity than Islamists themselves; they claim to speak for all Muslims, assert religious identity over all others (such as citizenship) and promote the veil in its various forms to impose that identity, with the goal of making it omnipresent.
Furthermore, being a Québécois or being a Canadian are two competing identities, two competing nationalisms. Choosing one over the other is more a matter of personal taste than anything else. The Quebec identity is just as legitimate as the Canadian identity.
Jacobsen: Parti Québécois (PQ) is a centre-left political party. You describe how the PQ has a sovereignty orientation policy and a secularism policy, but these policies merge. The critics of the PQ proposed Charter used the term “racist,” sometimes. How does the use of the epithet ignore the thrust of the Charter and fail in furthering the dialogue about secularism, Quebec sovereignty, and the Charter itself, as well as acknowledge the individuation of each topic in the larger discussion on secularism?
Rand: Secularism and Quebec independence are two completely distinct issues – or at least they should be. However, they have become inextricably linked. The Quiet Revolution which began the secularisation process also saw the development of a strong independence movement, and the partisans of one are often partisans of the other.
Furthermore, criticism of and opposition to the Quebec independence movement is often highly unprincipled. Instead of using rational arguments to oppose Quebec separatism, anti-separatists often engage in slanderous discourse, accusing separatists of “racism” and similar nonsense. This habit of vilification has been recycled to oppose secularism in Quebec, thus mixing the two issues even further. Islamists have taken full advantage of this for their purposes.
Jacobsen: You also talk about traditionalists in the province. Have they changed at all regarding the perspectives on the PQ proposed Charter or Quebec secularism generally? Or are the main groups – the traditionalists, the purported multiculturalists and some Islamists, and secularists – mostly stuck in their paths?
Rand: Traditionalists still exist in Quebec, but they are marginal. They suffered a major defeat with the 2015 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada prohibiting prayers at municipal council meetings. This was a major victory for Québécois secularists who had been fighting this battle in lower courts for years. However the recent successes of political Islam – which include motion M-103 and the recommendations of the subsequent parliamentary committee – tend to awaken quiescent traditionalists who, whether out of resentment or opportunism, see the successful promotion of one religion as a reason to promote their own.
Jacobsen: You talk about conformity and the overriding of principle, and “betrayal” of the principle of secularism, for the preference of conformism to reign. Can you expand on this point, please? Also, can you provide any relevant updates to the developments of the conversations in the public sphere around Quebec secularism?
Rand: I think I have already answered that question in large part in my previous comments.
Those in Canada outside Quebec who claim to be secularists need to swallow their pride and admit that Québécois are way ahead of them on this one issue: secularism. But so far, many Canadians have not given up their strong attachment to Quebec bashing, a sort of virtue signalling on steroids. Ironically, smearing Québécois by accusing them of “racism” is itself racist; here I am using that word in the general sense of bigotry against an ethnic group, as explained in my article “Racism: Real and Imagined”.
Secularism is a progressive, left-wing political program, but it has been abandoned and is even opposed by the postmodernist “left.” The anti-secular voices in Canada, including some who hypocritically claim to be secular, constitute an expression of that regressive, postmodernist left, a degenerate form of left-wing politics which panders to religion, wallows in cultural relativism, discredits the left and ultimately strengthens the right and the far-right.
Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Rand: Several points that need to be stressed:
- You cannot have secularism without some restrictions in some contexts. If bans on wearing religious symbols are never acceptable, which is apparently what pseudo-secularists promote, then that means a great victory for religious privilege and a smorgasbord of religious identitarianism everywhere, in particular in public services.
- Any attempt to assign collective guilt to Québécois in general for the crimes of Alexandre Bissonnette (the massacre at the Quebec City mosque in January of 2017) is a form of hate propaganda, as odious as blaming the Jewish people for the death of Jesus.
- Slander is censorship. The vilification of Quebec secularists has one goal: to silence them by making it difficult or impossible to express their very reasonable ideas in public debates, and thus, to deny Québécois their right to choose secularism.
- The term “Islamophobia” is simply the new blasphemy for the 21st century, but concentrating on one particular religion. The word is unacceptable if used as an accusation, is unrelated to racism and should never be used in government legislation, regulations or programs.
- Islamism is indeed dangerous in Canada, although it has not yet progressed nearly as far here as it has in Europe. We have the Atlantic Ocean to thank for that. But it is just a matter of time.
- Favouring Islam by suppressing criticism of it will inevitably increase both hostility towards Muslims and the aspirations of competing religions, especially Christianity, for similar privileges. The result will be to strengthen the political right wing, on the far-right of which lies Islamofascism, a.k.a. Islamism or political Islam. The federal government continues to enable Islamism by pandering to some of its demands.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mr. Rand.
David Rand is the president of Atheist Freethinkers (LPA-AFT) based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The organization participates in a local coalition Rassemblement pour la laïcité (Quebec) and is affiliated with two international associations: Atheist Alliance International (AAI) and the International Association of Freethought (IAFT).