On “Religious Symbols” and the Politics of Perception

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by Matt Sheedy

On September 10, 2013, the government of Québec made international headlines with a controversial proposal, Bill 60, more commonly referred to as the “Charter of Values.” The Bill would see restrictions on the wearing of “religious symbols,” requiring the removal of hijabs, yarmulkes and turbans for those in positions of public authority (police, judges, etc.), as well as for most employees who work for and do business with the provincial government. Despite the relatively small percentage of people potentially affected by the Bill, its polemical nature has turned it into a lightening rod for broader debates over the perceived influence of “political Islam” in Euro-Western societies, as with similar cases in countries like Germany and France.

While the ban on all “religious symbols,” which includes the wearing of large crosses (see image above), attempts to convey an equal limitation under law, the broader social effects of this proposal have already had a disproportionate impact on women who wear the veil, as seen, for example, with a an attack in Québec City in September of this year. According to the Québec Collective Against Islamophobia (Collectif Québécois contre l’Islamophobie) there has been a 300 per cent increase in complaints about anti-Muslim attacks in recent weeks.

It is also worth noting that the “Charter of Québec Values” was previously referred to as the “Charter of Secularism” during the (now ruling) Parti Québécois’ election campaign and was tabled in the Québec legislature on November 7, 2013 as the “Charter Affirming The Values Of Secularism And The Religious Neutrality Of The State, As Well As The Equality Of Men And Women, And The Framing Of Accommodation Requests.” With the pairing of “secularism” with notions of equality between men and women, it doesn’t take much of a leap to guess the Bill’s intended target.

Adding fuel to the political fire, displays of crosses on public buildings, nativity scenes and Christmas trees have all been exempt from the Charter, classified instead as symbols of Québec’s “cultural heritage.”

On the national level there is widespread opposition to Bill 60, with leaders from all major political parties coming out against it, suggesting that it will be easily defeated if challenged in the Supreme Court of Canada.

So, why propose such a controversial Bill in the first place if it is bound to fail?

For those who are paying attention to the internal politics in this affair—which does not, it seems to me, constitute a majority of Canadians, let alone those outside of the country—it is commonly held that the Charter is being used as a wedge issue by some within the Parti Québécois, which is a separatist party with aspirations to cede from the country. Following this logic, a Supreme Court ruling against the “Charter of Québec Values” can be used as evidence that the government of “Canada” is trying to limit Québec’s sovereignty, thus bolstering the party’s popularity.

Questions of cultural identity are also caught-up in this complex matrix, ranging from long-standing concerns over the protection of the French language against the Anglophone majority in the rest of Canada (the “ROC”), to more nostalgic ideas of maintaining a distinct society against the influence of immigrant communities, with notions of “secularism” or laïcité serving as a discursive tool that is utilized in order to protect against this perceived threat.

What interests me here in particular is how this affair has relied on a familiar discourse on freedom from vs. freedom of “religious belief,” despite the more nuanced language that also includes explanations of veiling as a “cultural” and/or “traditional” practice by many of those who are most affected.

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I recently attended two events in opposition to the proposed Charter. The first was held at the Manitoba legislative building in Winnipeg (see image below), on December 10, 2013, entitled “Affirming Human Rights and Religious Diversity for All Canadians,” as part of International Human Rights Day. The following evening, on December 11, 2013, I also attended a public forum at the University of Manitoba dubbed “Freedom From Religion: Is Government Going too Far in the Secularization of Society?”

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The first event featured Aboriginal, Japanese, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh speakers along with a self-identified “secular” former-politician and a (white male) Christian minister. Here the plea for “diversity” was literally embodied by the presenters themselves, with an overarching concern with what all this could mean for struggles against racism.

While the second event did not offer support for Bill 60, the proposed topic of debate lent itself to a more legal and abstract conversation. Significantly, it did not feature any self-identified Muslim speakers nor anyone who could be labeled as a “visible minority.”

On thing that struck me about these two events was that while the form was different, the content was more or less the same—freedom of “religious belief” as a matter of human rights.

While those at the first event spoke of their own experiences of political discrimination, racism and the need to protect diverse identities, the content of their appeal was one of protecting “religious diversity,” which was couched in a conceptual framework of representing different expressions of “belief.”

The mostly white audience at the university event, which featured a panel that included a political theorist and two lawyers, provided much the same content, while the form appeared in a more abstract conversation about the laws surrounding human rights in Canada, along with some of the theoretical parameters that are commonly used to justify social cohesion within “secular-liberal” states.

In conversation with one of the lawyers after the talk, I was informed that the most common defence in matters like this one refer back to the leading precedent for cases of “freedom of religion” in Canada, R.v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., [1985] 1 SCR 295, which held that,

The essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by practice or by teaching and dissemination.

It is of course understandable that legal rulings must classify the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in the parlance of our times and that people seeking to prevent changes in existing laws or to fight for greater inclusion would refer to the terms and conditions that are available to them. This is the domain of practical reason where such pragmatic choices make sense.

If we turn to theoretical issues in the study of religion, however, this whole affair provides a rather fruitful instance of how familiar classifications of “religion” and the “secular” help shape the ways that we perceive and conceptualize the main terms of the debate, which has its limitations–for those negatively effected and for scholars alike, albeit in different ways.

Addressing this problem in a recent blog post in reference to the widely circulated image that appears at the top of this page, Gabrielle Desmarais writes:

Little room is left for debate over whether the symbols depicted in Figures 1 and 2 are understood by their wearers as religious. Those who wear items such as the hijab or the yarmulke might not categorize those items as “religious”, but rather as “cultural” or “traditional”. They may even consider these reasons to be as equally important as so-called “religious” values, and believe that these deeply-held values should be honoured in a similar fashion.

As Desmarais further observes, this type of classification can lead to harmful assumptions about what is and what isn’t a “religion” within the legal domain, since such designations are removed from the various contexts in which diverse beliefs, practices, customs, preferences and habits emerge. This in turn feeds into our own scholarly debates, where insiders’ self-descriptions—influenced by the laws of the state—continue to shape and even naturalize the discursive ground upon which we speak… even when we know that the reasons for veiling are complex and do not quite fit the maps that are in place.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual and myth, and social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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