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Muslims real target of charter, law prof says

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Mukhbir Singh, left, Victor Goldbloom and Rabbi Lisa Grushcow confer during a panel discussion at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom on the proposed Quebec values charter. [Janice Arnold photo]

MONTREAL — Muslims are the real target of the proposed charter of Quebec values, while kippot and turbans are “collateral damage” in the provincial government’s plan to eliminate religious symbols from the public service, a McGill University law professor says.

Speaking Oct. 20 at a panel discussion on the issue at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Daniel Weinstock said Islamophobia is “the elephant in the room” in the push to secularize Quebec.

“We are not at the centre [of this debate], but as Jews, according to our ethical tradition, we have to stand up resolutely for our Muslim brothers and sisters,” Weinstock said, receiving widespread applause.

Weinstock, who was an adviser to the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation and until 2012 was head of the Université de Montréal’s Research Centre on Ethics for many years, said the charter is “a response to a problem that does not exist and has no sign of becoming one in the near future” – and “a fairly extreme” response at that.

Weinstock is optimistic the charter will not go forward. He sees “deep fissures” starting to appear among its three main proponents: “laïcité [church-state separation] perfectionists,” who not only want the state to be neutral, but to help everyone get over religion; feminists, and nationalists who think the sovereignty movement has become too inclusive.

If the charter, as now envisioned, did become law, Weinstock thinks it would not “pass constitutional scrutiny.”

“The government is playing a dangerous electoral game,” he said. “I think it may be underestimating how much Quebecers are attached to the values in the charters, both federal and Quebec’s own. I think they are more sensitive to these issues than the government gives them credit for.”

Fellow panelist Leila Bedeir, of the Collective des féministes musulmanes du Québec, concurred: “Let’s call a spade a spade. It’s Islamophobia,” and in particular a fear of visible Muslim women.

The Vanier College teacher, who was not wearing a hijab, said the government has “hijacked the equality of the sexes for its political goals.”

“Muslim women have become the principle threat to the secular nature of Quebec society, to the nation,” she said, and the target of fear of a community that has rapidly grown to more than 200,000 people, an increase of 500 per cent in 20 years.

She deplored that certain feminists support a “paternalistic” attitude on the part of the government, while condemning it in the Muslim tradition.

Muslim women wear head scarves “for as many reasons as there are women: religious, cultural, familial,” Bedeir said. Although there is a “strong recommendation” that they do so from religious authorities, “it’s a discussion that’s been going on for 1,400 years.”

“If the bill passes or not, the damage is done,” she said. “Those who are different will not feel like an integral part of society unless they erase everything about themselves and assimilate.”

But, it’s a double-edged sword, Bedeir suggested. Muslims like herself who are not visible and are engaged in public life are “accused of being infiltrators, of trying to Islamicize institutions, of pushing a pro-hijab agenda.”

To be labelled an Islamist, as she has been, certainly discourages civic involvement at the very least and can be ruinous, said Bedeir.

The temple’s Rabbi Lisa Grushcow commented that the event’s organizers, indeed, “had to scramble” to find a Muslim representative for the panel.

Weinstock added that the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor recommendation that people representing state authority such as judges and police officers should not be allowed to wear religious symbols – a compromise echoed by former PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard – is not the answer either.

This middle ground is itself a curtailment of individual rights and must be justified to be overridden, he said.

Considerable time was given to commentary from the near-capacity audience. One of the most affecting remarks was from a woman who described herself as the daughter of Holocaust survivors who was born in Poland and has been living here since early childhood.

“I’m frightened, even if the bill is not passed. What will the ripple effect be?… Will there be violence?”

Alice Herscovitch, executive director of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC), a co-organizer of the event, responded that, “This is not the Holocaust. There is no persecution, but there is a real anxiety among people who were identified as Jews in Europe and North Africa, and died for it. There is a fear of being seen as the other, of new stereotypes about the differences of being a Jew here.”

Other panelists were Micheline Milot, a Université du Québec à Montréal sociology professor and author of Laïcité sans frontiers, who argued that the French model of secularism is not applicable in North America; Mukhbir Singh, a vice-president for Quebec of the World Sikh Organization, who said the turban is an essential part of an observant Sikh’s attire; Father John Walsh, a Catholic priest who noted that he has not worn a clerical collar for 45 years, but nevertheless opposes restrictions on fundamental rights, and Victor Goldbloom, past president of Canadian Jewish Congress, Quebec region, and a former Quebec cabinet minister, who said public servants’ attire must remain a personal choice.

The latter two men have spent decades in interfaith dialogue and pleaded for people to make a greater effort to understand those of different beliefs and customs.

The discussion was moderated by McGill law professor Shauna Van Praagh, and closed with remarks by Rev. Diane Rollert, minister of the Unitarian Church of Montreal.

The event was held in collaboration with the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Montreal, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, as well as the MHMC.

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