Our Fascist Society II: Islamophobia in Canada

From Pink Hijab Day 2016. Photo by Samantha Moss.

As Canadians, many of us pride ourselves on being “better than the Americans.” It’s an ongoing tug-of-war on who has better leadership – us; who has better people – us; who’s better at hockey – debatable, but us; and who is more accepting of other cultures – us? Although Canadians like to reflect on the ways we are “better” than the United States, it’s important that we start reflecting on the ways we’re similar.

Many Canadians (and Americans) were quick to rally against Trump when he passed executive order 13769, better known as the travel ban or more accurately, the Muslim ban. Distinctly titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” it targeted refugees, immigrants, visitors, and American citizens travelling from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen into the U.S. What may not be explicitly similar between those countries at first glance, becomes blatantly obvious with a quick web search. Amongst the seven countries, Syria has the lowest percentage of Muslims and still boasts a whopping 74%, while the other six are all upwards of 97. What was phrased as a ban against “Foreign Terrorist Entry” was really a ban on Muslims. And Canada is no better.

Canada, Quebec specifically, didn’t seem to learn from the U.S. We just branded it with a fancier and no less discriminatory name: “Religious Neutrality.” Bill 62 was passed on October the 18th and bans face coverings for anyone giving or receiving public services. This includes, but is not limited to: buses, libraries, daycares, hospitals and so many more public spaces and spheres. One thing is clear though: this bill is neither neutral nor constitutional. Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states: “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: a) freedom of conscience and religion; b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression; c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and d) freedom of association.” Under section 2(a) of the Charter then, the rights of those who wear face veils or coverings are violated by this bill. Some argue the niqab, hijab, burka, and other facial garments are not religious requirements but rather, cultural. To you, I refer section 2(b): the freedom of “thought, belief, opinion and expression.” If the state has no place in the bedrooms of a nation, as Pierre Trudeau claimed, then it definitely doesn’t have a place on women’s bodies.

What many supporters of this bill are failing to see, is the targeted discrimination that it not only allows, but strongly promotes. The Bill itself states: “Persons who request a service from [personnel members of public bodies] must have their face uncovered when service is provided.” Facial veils are primarily dominant amongst Muslim women, so this bill is targeting not only Muslims, but women as well – two historically victimized and discriminated groups.

By JeanPassepartout (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
It’s important to note that the province promoting “neutrality” is predominantly and historically Roman Catholic. The Assembly where the bill was passed had a Crucifix in it. That doesn’t seem neutral to me. The apparent goal of this bill is to promote a secular public space, yet no other religion, group, or culture has been referenced. The niqab, burka, and hijab have been cited severally as “unacceptable,” yet the most obvious group has been completely overlooked: nuns. Despite being predominantly Catholic, Quebec lawmakers seem to have completely forgotten about nun habits. These not only cover the hair, but the neck as well, and are often paired with long garments not dissimilar to the chador or abaya (full-length garments) many Muslims wear.

To supporters, facial veils aren’t a sign of personal or religious expression, but of oppression. Andre Lamoureux, a spokesman for a movement on secularism stated: “(The niqab) is not a religious sign. It’s a political symbol of the enslavement and de-empowerment of women that is supported by the most repressive regimes on the planet.” And this, in a nutshell, is what the bill is really about – fear. When it comes to politics, logicality is crucial to creating and passing objective and fair laws, however, emotion often wins, and fear is an irrational but very real and powerful emotion. Fear of the ‘other’ is one that has been perpetuated by governments, societies, and institutions alike since the dawn of time. This perpetual othering of cultural and religious groups has become a hallmark for segregation and discrimination throughout human history, and our society today is no different. To the Nazis, it was the Jews; to the industrial Americas, slaves; to Canada in World War II, it was the Japanese; our focus has only been redefined and refocused on Muslims, and Islam as a whole. What should be a war on terror has become a war on a religion that promotes peace.

Along with fear comes gross misunderstandings and misconceptions. These religious and cultural facial and bodily garments are meant to be empowering, allowing women to choose how they represent themselves. It allows them to reclaim autonomy over their bodies in a world that hypersexualizes the female form. Furthermore, it is a practice that reflects deep faith, and yet this ability to freely express themselves has been taken from thousands of Muslim women. Worse still, this wasn’t the start.

Before Trump’s ban, there had been a similarly outrageous ban that had gone quietly into the night – at least many people seem to have forgotten about it now. In late July of last year, ‘Burkinis’ were banned in France, and before that, the burqa had been banned in 2011; and in 2004, “conspicuous religious symbols” had been banned in French schools. What do France and Quebec have in common? History. The French are primarily Catholic, specifically Roman Catholic and are a deeply cultural and historical society. This has a strong influence on their value system and fear of change, or at least, too much of it. This is easily proved by Quebec’s citing of their cultural ‘distinction’ the numerous times they have attempted to separate from Canada. ‘Burkini’- a colloquial cross between ‘burqa’ and ‘bikini’, is a common swimsuit many women, particularly Muslim, wear. Its design is intended to keep its wearer modest, while paying respect to Islamic traditions and teachings, yet in France, it was seen as an attack on secularity; countless people were offended.

John Stuart Mill, an English Philosopher, cited the difference between an offense and true ‘hurt’; offense, is a matter of taste. Disagreeing with others’ choices or simply disliking it, can offend you, but it does not hurt you. Hurt, involves a violation of your rights, a limitation of your liberty as guaranteed by the Charter or an overall negative effect on your safety or livelihood – as Bill 62 is on thousands of women’s. In ‘On Liberty’, he writes: “The acts of an individual may be hurtful to others, or wanting in due consideration for their welfare, without going to the length of violating any of their constituted rights. The offender may then be justly punished by opinion, though not by law. As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it.” In summary, offense is not punishable by law.

Canada prides itself on being a cultural mosaic as opposed to the U.S.’s ‘melting pot’, meaning we appreciate and celebrate cultural diversity, yet Bill 62 makes many wonder if this is true. Ultimately, it raises a huge question for not only Quebec, but Canada as a whole: what does it mean to be Canadian? Where do you draw the line with assimilation – especially cultural and religious; how do we protect our Canadian identity while still remaining the cultural mosaic we pride ourselves to be? If we allow various cultures and ethnicities to freely express themselves, don’t we lose our cultural identity? These fears of nationalistic identity are the driving force behind laws like Bill 62. Coupled with Islamophobia, it deals a crippling blow to our progress in cultural acceptance.

So, what does this bill mean for hijabi women? It means that they can sit in hospital waiting rooms but won’t be treated (except in emergency situations); they can drop off their children at school, but can’t pick them up. They can walk amongst the stacks at a library, but can’t take out any books; and they can’t use public transport. This last ‘rule’ seemed extreme so Quebec’s Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee was asked how veiled women can avoid being kicked off buses, to which she answered: “Well, if you don’t get on, you don’t get kicked off.”

This bill is what it looks like when history repeats itself. Whether we’re looking at Trump’s travel ban or the ban of Burkinis in France, or what Nazi Germany did to Jews, or Canadians with Japanese internment camps, or slavery in general; it’s all the same: discrimination. Take a good look around everyone, this is the new, and not very improved, fascist society.