Religious Symbols in the Public Square : The Quebec Charter of Values , and tackling Islamophobia in Canada

This Evening I attended a lecture by Rev Dr. James Christie , about the Charter of Values , and the problematic nature of the document. His lecture was followed by three 10-15 minute responses , each response was from a different faith ( Jewish Secular Humanist , Sikh , and Muslim , respectively) , after that there was a short discussion , where a few insightful comments were made. Here is a summary of each presentation and some of my thoughts:

James Christie:

Christie opened his lecture , by citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18) , then he went on to talk about the World Council of Churches (WCC) , and a statement they have made regarding the mistreatment of religious minorities in Canada , The United States and a number of European nations ( France , UK , etc). The WCC then goes on to reaffirm the universal right to ‘freedom of religion’ , (Christie also notes that the Churches of the world don’t have a great track record on this issue).

What I found somewhat strange is that , The WCC expressed concern over the growing politicization of religion , and the growing religionization of politics. Anglican lay theologian , William Stringfellow was an active member of The WCC , and he said the following:

The Christian is committed permanently to radical protest in society. The Christian is always dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs.

Stringfellow was not the only one , who held such views about the role of religion in the public square , so with statements like the one made by Stringfellow ( and others) in mind , I’m wondering what has changed in The WCC from the time of Stringfellow to the present.

Once Christie has finished talking about The WCC , he talks about the changing religious landscape in Canada , and he makes two points which I think are important. The first point he makes is that Canada’s religious landscape is more diverse now , than ever before ( there are more Muslims in Canada than there are Presbyterians). Following from the first point ,he notes that Canada’s religious landscape is also increasingly polarized. Roughly 30% of the population is observant in their adherence to a religious tradition , another 30% is openly hostile to the expression of religious faith of any kind , and the rest of the population are somewhere between fairly observant and indifferent.

After giving us this background information on Canada’s religious landscape , he finally talks about the Quebec Charter of Values. He quotes a very telling section of the Charter ( the opening statement) , which I will also quote:

Charter affirming the values of state secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between men and women and providing a framework for accommodation requests.

Christie doesn’t explain why this section of the Charter is so problematic. Perhaps he thought that the problems are self-evident ( I was able to spot them fairly quickly). At the very least this should raise questions about state secularism and possibility of “religious neutrality” , and also important ,  the question of how banning veils ( among other religious symbols) affirms the “equality between men and women”. Christie goes on to talk about how the charter is the product of scapegoating , and how it in fact has little to do with religion.

Though I enjoyed Christie’s lecture , I thought that he sometimes downplayed the political and social aspects of religious practice , due to his adherence to principles of inclusivity and tolerance.

*Note: I’m not good with names so I will not use names for the responses

The Secular Humanist response

I found this response interesting , because she was not as opposed to the Charter as everybody else in the room. She found the charter problematic , but affirms its desire to establish a robust state secularism ( she identified herself as a “Hardcore secularist”). She did not find the the opening state of the charter problematic at all , and thought that it was quite positive.

After those remarks , she explains to us why she is a hardcore secularist , and describes what life was like for her growing up as a Jewish person in the Winnipeg public school system. In the morning she would have to recite Christian prayers , at Christmas she would have to sing Christian hymns , etc. Such experiences were awful for her , and using her experiences as a starting point , she goes on to argue that Canada , is not as post-Christian as many people believe it is. According to her , a form of civil religion rooted in Christianity is still considered normative in Canadian society , and this is why we ought to campaign for a religiously neutral government.

She goes on to state that the biggest problem with the charter is its regulation of religious garments. She finds this problematic , because it infringes on the rights of religious women , and because religion is a personal choice , the state should not interfere with the choices of Jewish and Muslim women. She concludes by critiquing the policing of women’s bodies in conservative strands of religion , and then stating that state secularism and freedom of religion are not incompatible.

I really appreciated the personal experiences she shared , but I found her association of the practice of religious faith with some kind of antiquarian belonging.

*Note: I didn’t take any notes on the Sikh response ( it was really good) , so I would have difficulty writing about it.

The Muslim response

To be honest , i thought this response was better than the lecture itself.  She said everything that needed to be said , and much more. You could see in her face , and hear in her voice , how distraught she is with the current state of affairs in Canada.  She opens her response with the words “I never thought it would come to this..”. She came to Canada in 1976 , and now she is wondering how to explain to her grand sons why she moved to Canada.

According to her , Canada is regressing and nobody seems to be protesting , much to her frustration. She goes on to argue that the issue of Islamophobia in Canada did not pop up out of thin air , but is the product of twelve years of growing Anti-Muslim sentiment. Every time Muslims speak out against this , they are silenced , or labeled extremists. She goes on to criticize human rights discourse , especially ‘Freedom of speech’. When the Prime minister refers to Islamism as the biggest threat to Canadian society , Muslims are told to shut up , because he is simply exercising his right to freedom of speech. When Muslim women in Quebec are attacked , spat on , and the subjects of violent and degrading language ,nobody speaks out. The issue of Islamophobia is systemic , and has spread to the highest offices in Canada. Since Canada’s Islamophobia has been brewing for over a decade , the issue is much bigger than the Charter.

She goes on to critique our notions of multiculturalism and equality. Throughout the evening there has been alot of emphasis on starting conversations between different groups within Canada. She calls these conversations into question by pointing out that as a Muslim woman of color , she is portrayed as a victim and her agency is denied , and therefore these conversations are impossible when you are portrayed as the embodiment evil. She sums everything up nicely by saying “Canada has created an enemy , and it looks like me”. After saying that ,s he criticizes inter-faith conversations for being male-dominated , and calls for civil disobedience in the province of Quebec.

Overall the lecture gave me alot to think about ( after the Muslim response a fellow student made some astute remarks about where Canada’s ongoing colonial history fits into all of this). The fact that the Jewish and Muslim women in today’s conversation , have received piles of hate mail and death threats , is more than enough to tell us that we have a real problem on our hands. I think we have no other option , apart from solidarity with Muslim communities in Canada. The Muslim respondent from this evenings lecture , has stated that she is tired of the silence of Non-Muslims , and that we must speak out against the present state of affairs before things get worse.

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