Quebec is Poised to Undermine Religious Freedom

Foreign Policy

crowd holding Canadian flag

Zahra Jamal, Foreign Policy

With a proposed ban on public employees wearing religious symbols in Quebec to be debated by the legislature by June 14, the Canadian province is poised to potentially become the first regional government in North America to ban the veil for government staff. Like many bans on religious symbols, this one, in theory, will also target turbans and yarmulkes. In practice, it will hit Muslim women who wear the hijab hardest.

Quebec may be a canary for the Americas, but its proposed law joins several recent bans on hijabs and niqabs (full face veils) across Europe. Understanding the dynamics that have given rise to Europe’s bans—the mainstreaming of bigotry, targeting of Muslim women, and impact on local Muslims—sheds light on what’s at stake in the pending Canadian legislation. Attacks on racial or religious minorities from Quebec to Christchurch, New Zealand, to the U.S. cities of Charleston, Oak Creek, Pittsburgh, and Poway were perpetrated by footmen in a loosely organized global white power movement. To those who adhere to white power beliefs, Jews, Muslims, and LGBTQ people are so-called invaders who are theoretically extinguishing the white race. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are at the heart of white supremacist ideology.

But these are not simply fringe groups or fringe ideology. Canada’s Canada’s Conservative Party leader and front-runner in this October’s race for prime minister, Andrew Scheer, has courted far right, and white nationalist, supporters throughout his career, and European far-right politicians including France’s Marine Le Pen and Estonia’s Martin and Mart Helme have drawn criticism for using gestures associated with white supremacism. The suspect in the April synagogue shooting in Poway, California, cited scripture from evangelical Christianity as justification for his crimes. Polls taken in the last few years by Pew, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and the Forum Poll indicate that 44 percent of evangelical Christian Americans, 49 percent of churchgoing European Christians, and 40 percent of Conservative Canadians hold nationalist and anti-Muslim views.

Muslim women face the brunt of Islamophobic bigotry. Those who don the hijab (headscarf), niqab (face veil), and burqa (full-body veil) are visible and vulnerable targets. For centuries, many Western scholars, church elders, and political leaders justified colonial and imperial incursions with the call to save Muslim women from Muslim men, citing the veil as a symbol of oppression. In contrast, in European and Quebecois political and popular discourse over the past decade, hijabs and niqabs have come to symbolize terrorism, thus reconstituting Muslim women from cause to enemy, from subjugated victim to powerful terrorist. According to proponents, bans on religious coverings are meant to liberate Muslim women from oppression, emancipate them into secularism, and deter them from violence. Burqa bans thus simultaneously falsely frame veiled women as security threats and legalize Islamophobia.

Quebec’s controversial Bill 21 would prohibit certain public sector employees, such as teachers, government lawyers, and police, from wearing religious symbols of any size, including clerical collars, crucifixes, turbans, yarmulkes, and hijabs. (The ban will only apply to those who are new to the job or who change jobs. Workers currently in place in any of these professions will be allowed to continue wearing their religious symbols.) The proposed legislation would also be a de facto niqab ban, as it forbids people from delivering or receiving government services with their faces covered. The marketing firm Ipsos reports that nearly 70 percent of all Canadians support a similar ban in their own provinces.

Like its European counterparts, Quebec's hijab ban is a populist, secularist, anti-immigrant labeling of religious symbols as a threat to secularism. Proponents of Quebec's Bill 21 include the center-left Parti Quebecois and the center-right Coalition Avenir Quebec, as well as some Muslims who escaped repressive regimes requiring women to veil by law. The left-wing Quebec Solidaire party and the center-right Quebec Liberals oppose the bill, though the Liberals previously supported a niqab ban. Indeed, throughout Europe, center-left political parties have implemented burqa bans, claiming they protect gender equality, secular values, and integration of minorities.

For many European politicians, hijabs and niqabs signify attacks of mass violence and threats to national defense. Former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga and former Lithuanian President Arturas Paulauskas both expressed concern that the niqab could mask security risks. One Swiss canton’s September 2018 law legitimized a similar prohibition because face-coverings “threaten or endanger public security or social and religious peace.” In 2014, the then-Spanish interior minister expressed support for regulating burqas, citing both the dignity of women, and the need for identifying those who commit unlawful acts. Then-Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who subsequently became chancellor, in 2017 said that full veiling signifies “not a religious symbol but a symbol for a counter-society.”

Mainstream center-right and left parties have expanded discrimination under the guise of women’s rights. France banned religious symbols from public schools in 2004 and outlawed face veils in all public spaces in 2010. In 2009, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy said: “The problem of the burqa is … a problem of liberty and women’s dignity. It’s not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. … That’s not our idea of freedom.” Justification for new, restrictive laws in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and Denmark resonate with French concepts of neutrality, state secularism, and the need for an open society.

In April 2016, then-Labor Minister Nicolas Schmit, a member of the Luxembourg Socialist Workers’ Party, tweeted: “The burqa is incompatible with our values. It degrades the dignity and equality of women.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the burqa should be outlawed “wherever legally possible” at her center-right Christian Democratic Union party’s conference in December 2016. Norway’s parliament voted to ban the burqa for school and nursery, school, and university teachers last June.

In August 2018, Denmark became the latest European country to ban the burqa, following national niqab bans in France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Austria, and Latvia, along with citywide bans in Spain, Italy, and Switzerland, and site-specific bans in Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Russia. As in other European countries, in the months leading up to the local Danish elections in late 2017, Islamophobic bigotry increased when the center-left Social Democratic Party adopted language and positions from the populist, anti-Muslim, right-wing Danish People’s Party. Leader of the Social Democrats Mette Frederiksen (elected just this week to the post of prime minister) noted in an April 2017 interview with DR Deadline that her party had contributed to what she considered failures in the country’s integration policy, saying that when non-Western immigrants do not integrate, they do not contribute to society. And Social Democrat Member of Parliament Trine Bramsen told the Kristeligt Dagblad daily in February 2018 that “the burqa and the niqab are symbols of social control, as when we see women living in violent marriages forced to wear burqas and niqabs and thus being excluded from the Danish labor market.” These remarks of Social Democrats echo those of right-wing Danish People’s Party’s MP Martin Henriksen, who proclaimed in a 2017 interview with the Danish newspaper Berlingske, “The more [people] in Denmark with Muslim background, the greater the threat to Danish identity.” Similarly, MP Henrik Dahl from the right-wing Liberal Alliance party asserted in a February 2018 Danish Broadcasting Corporation interview, “The burqa and the niqab are not Islamic garments, but Salafist ones. … [They represent] the ideology of the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and the Taliban.”

The Danish face-covering ban, popularly known as the “burqa ban,” fines those whose clothing conceals their faces in public up to 1,000 kroner (about $150); repeat offenders can be fined up to 10,000 kroner ($1,500). Danish officials claimed the August 2018 ban was not aimed at Muslims but at promoting public safety and gender equality among those covering, or forcing others to cover, their faces with garments without “recognizable purpose” like winter scarves or motorcycle helmets. Some months before its passage, the Danish People’s Party member Soren Espersen tweeted, “all the contortions we have to make in order to avoid ‘discrimination.’ This is about burqa and niqab and nothing else.”

While the precise number of Danish niqabis is unknown, two research studies cited in the 2017 European Islamophobia Report on Denmark found between 35 and 200 Danes who don the niqab or burqa to express their piety. Half of veiled Danes were converts as of a 2013 sociological survey.

The ban was not an isolated salvo against Muslim immigrants in Denmark. The election of the Social Democrats to power on June 5 was widely seen as having come after a hard tack to the right on immigration. That's not new. Different levels of the Danish government have sought to protect Muslim girls from what they view as the generational oppression of Muslim women through a national action plan and online courses targeting ethnic minorities.

In 2017, Denmark’s Institute for Human Rights and Minister for Integration Inger Stojberg of the center-right Liberal Party expressed concern that minority children are often subject to violent social control in their non-Western homes. That fall, the Ministry of Education surveyed public school children which was criticized for having the apparent aim of proving that Muslim parents socially control their children, especially their daughters, by restricting their movement, education, employment, and choice of marital partner. The city of Copenhagen launched a campaign website, report, and 12-step plan to combat negative social control. Using captioned images of veiled girls on their website, the city’s campaign implores fellow Danes to help young Muslim women cut ties with their parents to end social control. “We can’t accept women not being able to escape a violent marriage or parents forcing their children into a narrow-minded view on life and attempting to control their lives. We must strengthen efforts on numerous fronts and tackle misguided religious considerations,” Stojberg told the Copenhagen Post.

More broadly, over the past decade, media and political rhetoric have shaped public perceptions of the veil. Although Denmark featured veiled Muslims favorably as visible minorities in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Danish fashion labels showcased veiled Muslim models as late as 2017, media descriptions of hijabis have diverged sharply. A European Network Against Racism analysis of Denmark’s six largest newspapers between 1999 and 2013 found Muslim women framed as veiled, oppressed, and socially controlled. Preben Brock Jacobsen, the author of the book Islam in the Media, has found that between 2014 and 2016, Danish media articles conflated Islam with terrorism and oppression three times more often than articles presenting Islam as peaceful. Ironically, Western governments are oppressing the same women: Across countries with veil bans, Muslim women consistently protest that they have had no voice in whether and how such laws about their bodies should be entertained or implemented.

According to the European Network Against Racism, veiled European Muslim women are typically more likely than Muslim men to be victims of hate crimes and to experience discrimination in public, in accessing vocational training and employment, and in the workplace. For example, according to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, 81.5 percent of anti-Muslim acts and speech and nearly 100 percent of physical attacks targeted veiled women in 2014. The Netherlands-based nonprofit Meld Islamofobie (Report Islamophobia) reports that about 90 percent of Islamophobic incidences in the country in from January to June 2015 concerned Muslim women identified by their religious dress. Similarly, the Collective Against Islamophobia in Belgium said that the Belgian government’s Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism reported 64 percent of Islamophobic hate crimes and incidents were directed at Muslim women between 2012 and late 2015. Across the European Union in 2015 and 2016, 39 percent of hijabis and niqabis reported experiencing “inappropriate staring or offensive gestures,” a phrase interpreted individually by respondents, with 22 percent encountering insults, such as “Muslim bitch,” “Turkish slut,” and “Muslim whore,” typically from unknown European males. Common crimes include spitting on a hijabi or trying to rip off her veil. These numbers are staggering given that up to 91 percent of European Muslims do not report such harassment due to lack of trust in the police, fear of reprisal, belief that nothing will change, and the normalization of violence.

In the workplace, private companies in several EU countries, some of which lack government-sanctioned burqa bans—can legally institute veil bans at work, based on a ruling of the European Court of Justice. The Danish market research institute Megafon found that 33 percent of Danish Muslims have difficulty securing employment due to their religion. A study cited by the European Network Against Racism found that 55 percent of the more than 500 unemployed immigrant Muslim women in Denmark interviewed said their hijabs were obstacles to getting a job.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Canada’s national hate crimes statistics published by the government agency Statistics Canada show that anti-Muslim crimes rose over 151 percent nationally, and over 185 percent in Quebec, in the year following the Quebec mosque attack in 2017 that left six worshippers dead at the hands of a self-styled right-wing, white nationalist Canadian. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women says that Muslim women “bear the brunt” of hate crimes—such as on public transport, at work, and on social media—though Statistics Canada does not break down hate crimes against Muslims by gender. In 2017, a federally funded study identified some 300 white supremacist groups in Canada—with many flying below the radar in public by dressing simply in polo shirts and khakis—touting anti-immigration views and decrying the supposed loss of white European Christian culture, privilege, and power.

European burqa bans have faced legal challenges, but they remain in place. The European Court of Human Rights ruled on July 1, 2014, that burqa bans do not violate the European Convention on Human Rights because they promote national security and the aim of “living together.” The court upheld the burqa bans of France in 2014 and of Belgium in 2017, saying that they ensure human rights and democracy, as well as the “protection of the rights and freedoms of others,” and they are “essential to ensure the functioning of a democratic society.” Although the United Nations Human Rights Committee in October 2018 declared that the 2010 French niqab ban violated Muslim women’s rights to free thought and to equality under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights , the Council of Europe and the European Union are only legally bound by the human rights court’s decisions, not by the U.N. committee’s decrees. Hence, burqa bans can lawfully strip Muslims’ claims to equal rights despite European civil society and advocacy groups’ and political leaders’ responses to anti-Muslim bigotry.

In Canada, on the other hand, a 2011 ban on wearing niqabs to citizenship ceremonies and a 2017 bill in Quebec both banned face coverings such as niqabs and burqas when receiving government services, and both were struck down in Canadian Superior Courts for discriminating against and causing “irreparable harm” to Muslim women and for violating their constitutional rights. And Quebec has faced recent broad political, civic, and Jewish, Sikh, and Muslim opposition to Bill 21, decrying it as xenophobic and unconstitutional. The difference this time is that, if adopted, Bill 21 cannot be similarly challenged in provincial or national courts for overriding religious rights for the next five years, because it invokes both Canada’s and Quebec’s respective Charters of Rights and Freedoms’ notwithstanding clause. That means its far more likely to go into effect.

While Europe and Canada are pluralistic in makeup, the broad support for veil bans and for xenophobic sentiment show that they are far from pluralist in spirit. Ultimately, veil bans are about the sordid view that human diversity is a threat, and—similar to the flurry of state abortion bans in the United States—women’s bodies must be disciplined and regulated by the state rather than by women themselves to safeguard the nation.

Veil bans meant to safeguard national security threaten to inflame white supremacist violence. Ozlem Cekic, a former Danish MP for the green Socialist People's Party from 2007-2015 and one of Denmark's first female Muslim politicians, has faced death threats and Islamophobic comments, though she doesn't veil. What's more, the Islamic State and al Qaeda co-opted burqa ban rhetoric for propaganda and recruitment, which has been correlated with radicalization of individuals and an increase in Islamist-led attacks in France sinc

The New York Times reported in April that between 2011-2017, roughly 25 percent of white supremacist attacks globally targeted Muslims or mosques, and that 19 of these were at least partially motivated by retribution against Islamist extremists.

When the Quebecois National Assembly votes on Bill 21 this month, they can reverse a troubling trend and prevent it from going trans-Atlantic.

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