Rama Kourouam supports a ban on Hijabs in schools: “faith is in the heart,” she says.
Her younger classmate agrees. Siham says that “some teachers would not see beyond the scarf and judge us — it’s best if we have to take it off.”
The girls had just removed their headscarves as they approached the gates of Lycee Robert Doisneau, near Paris, in 2005.
The girls spoke to the BBC a year after the implementation of President Jacques Chirac’s law banning conspicuous religious symbols in schools. It was just one measure in a long tradition of other secularist policies — laïcité, as it’s referred to in France — including a ban on religious garb in hospitals, state offices, and, eventually, all public spaces.
Since its inception in 1904, laïcité has covered itself in a variety of different veils. Under Chirac, it was laïcité negative, according to his successor Nicholas Sarkozy. Chirac’s policy had more to do with legislating away religion, argued Sarkozy, who styled his, positive, approach around working with Muslim groups and building a broader consensus that meant celebrating all religions by not putting one above another. The social strife he hoped to quell came anyway, but he did manage to cobble together the support of several prominent Muslim groups for the measures. He later moved to ban any garb that covers a citizen’s face in a public forum. Francoise Holland, the country’s new Socialist president, has continued and expanded the policy. Soon, every school in France will sport the charte de la laïcité on its walls.
All things considered, it’s worked relatively well at integrating France’s Muslim population. One 2008 poll found 14% of Muslims considered themselves French foremost, while 60% felt equally French as they did Muslim. The poll also found that 75% of Muslims had a favourable view of laïcité.
There has been a measured increase in the number of private religious schools that have not had to adhere to the state’s secularism.
Now, histrionics abound, Quebec is trying the same thing. Through all the screaming and hyperbole, the anglo-federalist crowd is having a hard time accepting one basic tenet of Marois’ plan — it just might work.
"To maintain social peace and promote harmony," the website for Quebec’s plan reads. "We must prevent tensions from growing."
Putting aside a general lack of tension in the province between its hundred thousand-odd Arab population, Quebec’s plan may very well replicate the results of France’s hundred-year social experiment experiment. Make no mistake — Marois’ plan isn’t about trying to push out Muslims or Sikhs. It really is about inviting those immigrant suburb-dwelling populations to be une pure laine Québécois, no matter how hamfisted that invitation may be.
In that vein, Quebec’s secularist charter is not racist nor xenophobic — it is, if you can leave your innate commitment to Canadian cultural pluralism at the door, actually a step towards equality. If it’s done right.
Fact is, multiculturalism has worked in Canada because we’ve, perhaps rightfully, made our national identity vague enough to allow foreign cultures to bleed into our own. Quebec has never identified with or accepted that policy. The rest of Canada has yet to figure that out.
Which is why Marois caught flak for making the apparently audacious statement that “in England, they slap each other in the face and send bombs because it’s multiculturalism and nobody can find a place for themselves in that society.”
Nevermind that Prime Minister David Cameron himself admitted that multiculturalism in the UK is an abject failure.
Some, pointing out England’s poorly enacted policy, may point to terror attacks perpetrated by homegrown terrorists, like the 2005 Underground bombs or the murder of soldier Lee Rigby earlier this year. But you can’t pin a failure of multiculturalism on the Muslims — it’s the Englishman’s fault.
The general fear of the Muslim as the other in the UK has given rise to the generally racist and xenophobic brownshirts in the English Defence League and the holocaust-denying Nick Griffin-headed British National Party — and their network of ever-more terrifying counterparts throughout Europe.
For all its faults, France’s laïcité has attempted to bring all social groups under the fold as compatriots, and that’s done as much to improve the disposition of the native French as it has for their new countrymen.
And it’s sucked the air out of France’s answer to Griffin. The xenophobic Front Nationale, once led by all-around racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, saw its support decline going into the early 2000s. It has rebounded under the leadership of his infinitely more moderate Marine Le Pen, but still has failed to elect any more than but a smattering of candidates.
Polls, surveys, and crime statistics has shown that France tends to be more positive on immigrants, against more controls on immigration, and have less racially or religious-motivated hate crime than England. And, what’s more, France has many more non-European immigrants.
And, not for naught, there were 171 cases of racially-motivated hate crimes in Canada against those from the Asia continent, and another 49 where the victim was targeted for being Muslim. Quebec had the second-lowest rate of hate crimes in the country.
This isn’t all to say that forced secularism is the sole conduit for social cohesion and not having your population hack at each other with machetes, but it is one route.
If you want to oppose Marois’ secularist agenda, propose an alternative.