A collision of culture and religion in Quebec

MONTREAL―Whether it is to realign Canadian values in an age of terror, or simply to win votes, critics warn that Prime Minister Stephen Harper could be taking the country along a turbulent course with his broadside against the niqab and stricter strains of the Muslim faith.

Look far enough along that path and you will see the province of Quebec, whose struggle with the faith has been going on for years and is nowhere near finished.

Here, a cheeky town council that decided in 2007 to outlaw face coverings in public (except for Halloween, of course) led to a multi-million dollar commission on religious accommodation. A political proposal to ban the wearing of religious symbols failed to pass into law, but not before reports came in of mounting aggression and abuse against veiled women. Now, Muslim communities across Quebec are reporting that there is suddenly no room and no appetite when they are seeking permissions to open places of worship.

“It’s as if it’s okay today to be a Muslim in our society as long as we’re invisible,” said Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of the Quebec Association of Muslims and Arabs for a Secular Society.

The Harper government’s decision to appeal a court ruling allowing a Muslim woman to wear a niqab (an Islamic face covering with openings only for a woman’s eyes) while taking the oath of citizenship, was one federal step in the province’s path. But the prime minister’s assertion that the niqab is the product of a culture that is “anti-women,” seems like an administration doubling down in preparation for an election.

“When we know that we have more people with tattoos on the face than people with the niqab we know that it’s a way to actually bring all this fear of our fellow citizens on the table to actually gain some votes,” Bouazzi said.

It’s been tried before by the Parti Québécois government. It found spirited support for a legally dubious ban on the wearing of religious symbols by judges, bureaucrats, university professors and even daycare employees, only to have their gains undermined by a jumbled stance on how to achieve Quebec’s independence in last year’s provincial election.

“It’s true, the niqab is anti-woman. We have to say it clearly and stop beating around the bush out of fear of upsetting people,” Bernard Drainville, the architect of the PQ values charter who is now running for the party’s leadership, told Radio-Canada Thursday.

Drainville made pains to note that he was aligned with his party’s federal cousins, the Bloc Québécois, rather than with the Conservatives. But so strident was he in his denunciation of Harper’s main political threats, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, that it was the effect rather than the intention that mattered most.

“I listen to Mulcair and Trudeau and I say to myself that it’s the ideology of multiculturalism pushed to the extreme. They’re not even able to say that the niqab is anti-woman, that it’s an obvious sign of fundamentalism. I can’t believe it,” Drainville said.

Such a strange alliance ― a sovereigntist and a prime minister ― may be best explained by a raw political calculation.

Over and above the nearly eight in 10 Quebecers who reported being worried about religious fundamentalism in a Leger Marketing poll last month, or the 74 per cent who support Harper’s anti-terrorism legislation, or the 73 per cent reporting terrorism fears and the 62 per cent who back the bombing campaign against the Islamic State, there may be an even more nuanced calculation to explain the PQ-Tory echo.

Clues come from a September 2013 study of the values charter by the polling firm CROP. It found strongest support for the PQ values charter among the old stock francophone Quebecers who live in the rural regions, cling to their Catholic heritage and overwhelmingly believe that immigrants are washing over their land and their way of life.

In other words, it was red meat for the more conservative elements of Quebec society ― just the types Harper’s Tories already represent in the five provincial ridings they currently hold and that they will be targeting in the general election to be called later this year.

No surprise then, that it was in Victoriaville, Que., where Harper is wooing local mayor Alain Rayes to run on his slate, that the prime minister announced his intention to appeal a Federal Court ruling that upheld a Toronto Muslim woman’s right to take the citizenship oath wearing her niqab.

“That is not the way we do things,” Harper explained. “This is a society that is transparent, open and where people are equal . . . . I think we find that offensive. That is not acceptable to Canadians.”

The Conservative leader sees values, and perhaps votes. Trudeau has marked his territory on the opposite side of the argument, accusing Harper of applying exclusionary policies once reserved for Holocaust-era Jews to Muslims today.

But Bouazzi, who is all too familiar with the debate, sees only threats.

“I think all Canadians should be worried. All these debates bring more and more tension and we’ve seen ripple effects of these debates (in Quebec) where mosques get attacked, where women wearing scarves are aggressed in the street.”

The tensions, even if only from rare or isolated cases, risk adding to the sense of stigma, exclusion and racism that can push impressionable young Muslims down a radical path, he said.