«Non quia timemus non audemus, sed quia non audemus, timemus»
«Ce n'est pas parce que nous avons peur que nous n'osons pas; c'est parce que nous n'osons pas que nous avons peur».

Le PQ à l’heure de l’Europe

Matthew Fisher : PQ’s controversial Charter of Quebec Values echoes European views of religious symbols

lundi 16 septembre 2013

Premier Pauline Marois’ proposed Charter of Quebec Values, which forbids public officials including teachers, doctors and police from wearing most religious symbols and headgear, finds its echo across western Europe today.

In what Germans have dubbed the “burqini ruling,” the country’s highest administrative court ruled last week that notwithstanding their constitutional right to religious freedom, Muslim girls can be compelled to take part in mixed-sex swimming classes at school. To guard the modesty required of their faith, the court suggested that Muslim girls go to the swimming pool attired in a black full-body suit known as a “burqini.” But the specific legal issue that the court considered was an individual’s constitutional rights against the state’s obligation to educate all children.

British media were full of reports over the weekend about a Liberal Democrat MP who called for a ban on women wearing veils in schools and public places. His call for a national debate on the issue, followed by a few days a decision at a college in Birmingham to ban all students, staff and visitors from covering their faces. The college reversed the order in the face of heavy criticism from politicians and the public.

Even so, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman declared that the British leader would be in favour of prohibiting veils in schools.

Comparing European and Canadian attitudes about anything is difficult. The legal, historical and social contexts are different. There is, for example, no precise European equivalent of what the Marois government is trying to do. But the currents that have created the political motivation for Quebec’s pending legislation are broadly similar to those found in many European countries today, as is the emotionally charged debate over whether the state should involve itself in such matters.

Nearly 30 million Muslims now live in western Europe, including nearly eight million in France and Germany. One in every 13 French citizens is Muslim. The figure in Germany is one in 20. There are also significant Muslim minorities (four per cent or more) in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and Denmark, according to a study three years ago by the Pew Research Center.

At the same time, the number of native-born Europeans having children has declined. This has created serious gaps in the labour market that have been filled by immigrants who have brought with them far different ideas about religion, culture and life. This has created tensions that are readily evident in working-class districts of cities such as Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels and Vienna, where women wearing various interpretations of Islamic dress are a common sight.

Another factor that may have contributed to hardening attitudes in Europe about how people should dress has been the wars in the Middle East and South Asia. European soldiers, aid workers and journalists who went to Iraq and especially Afghanistan were often horrified by how badly women were treated there and brought their deep unease about this home with them.

Disputes involving newcomers have escalated into race riots in countries with strong liberal traditions such as Sweden. Neo-Nazis protested violently earlier this month in Berlin over a new state-funded shelter for asylum seekers including many Syrian refugees.

Discussing racial and religious divides has been taboo in post-war Germany, where the evil of the Holocaust has long cast a dark shadow. But the consensus that such topics were strictly off-limits has been changing.

Germany is Doing Away with Itself, by banker and Social Democrat politician Thilo Sarrazin, was a runaway bestseller when it was published three years ago. In his book and other writings, Sarrazin savaged his country’s post-war immigration policies and the old consensus that created them. One of his more incendiary comments was that immigrants from Turkey and Arab countries mostly lived off welfare, refused to integrate and, according to a quote attributed to him by a German newspaper, “constantly produces new little headscarf-girls.”

Like most other German politicians, Chancellor Angela Merkel has denounced Sarrazin’s comments. But Merkel agreed with Sarrazin that multiculturalism had been a failure.

Legislation and rules regarding religious apparel and ornaments in schools have been a particularly hot potato in France where, as in Quebec, opponents of such initiatives have regarded them as attacks on basic human rights and liberties.

Following a report by a national commission of inquiry, France famously banned the wearing of religious symbols in publicly funded primary schools and high schools in 2004. The law affected what Christian, Jewish and Sikh students could wear, but it has often been regarded there, and elsewhere in Europe and now in Quebec, as being primarily aimed at Muslims.

The ban adopted by France’s government under Jacques Chirac created a huge controversy at the time, with major demonstrations for and against it. However, as in Quebec, there was strong public support for the legislation, which was eventually supported by all the main French political parties.

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