The $1.8-million award won by Quebec philosopher Charles Taylor this week for trying to find common ground between science and faith should resound loudly in that province, where a Muslim woman has been told to quit her job as a corrections worker or remove her hijab.
Quebec seems resistant, of late, to Prof. Taylor's message as a philosopher: that human identity is complex, and plural, and richer for it. A pluralistic society allows individuals to express their rich identity and respects difference. Thus, the Templeton award winner has pushed for other Canadians to accept Quebec as a distinct society. "A country that aims to include more than one nation has to make room for more than one version of what it means to belong." But he has turned that same argument back on his beloved Quebec. "I don't want to live in a 'normal' Quebec, in which the only sense of belonging that counts is that shared by people whose ancestors have tilled this soil for 400 years." Conciliatory by nature, but unafraid to speak his mind, the McGill University thinker was the perfect choice to co-chair a panel set up last month by Premier Jean Charest to probe the accommodation of minorities.
Quebec has become so vexed by the question of what is a reasonable accommodation that it has got its back up against any accommodation. The latest example involves a 19-year-old, Sondos Abdelatif of Montreal, who was training to be a correctional officer at a provincial jail. She was told this week that her hijab is a safety risk, since a prisoner might use it to strangle her. Religious expression is not an absolute, but yesterday Quebec's Public Security Ministry refused even to explore whether her hijab might be modified to ensure that it is not a strangulation risk.
If the hijab is a bona fide safety risk for jail guards, Quebec is within its rights to tell Ms. Abdelatif not to wear it. Similarly, Quebec soccer referees would be justified in barring girls and women from wearing hijabs in soccer games, as a referee did in the case of an 11-year-old Muslim this winter, if the risk of strangulation were real. But Quebec needs first to ask: Is there more than a microscopic chance that a player might be choked by her own hijab during a soccer game? And has there ever been a reported case of strangulation with a hijab? If so, are there ways to modify the hijab to minimize the risk?
A pluralistic democracy has to separate the fear and suspicion from the reality. Some guidance is to be found in a debate over a Sikh boy's wearing of a kirpan, a ceremonial dagger, to public school in Quebec. The school barred him, saying the kirpan was a weapon. But the Supreme Court of Canada pointed out that there had been no recorded cases of the kirpan being used as a weapon in Canadian schools and that scissors, pens and baseball bats are potential weapons that are not barred in schools. Schools are free to demand that kirpans be secured inside clothing so that they are out of reach, the court said.
The dispute over Ms. Abdelatif's hijab touches on the most basic rights. Her right to work is at risk; work helps gives a life dignity. Where possible, Quebec should not try to force religious minorities to choose between their faith and their work. There is a strong public interest in accepting people from all backgrounds into mainstream jobs.
But accommodation has become a dirty word in parts of Quebec this winter. One small community, Hérouxville, adopted a provocative set of standards aimed at Muslims and other minorities, including a prohibition against stoning. Mario Dumont, leader of the Action Démocratique du Quebec, praised that community. Premier Charest said the soccer referee who barred a hijab-wearing girl from playing soccer had done the right thing.
Prof. Taylor, the enemy of rigid thinking, the seeker of common ground, is needed these days in his home province.