Haunted by its Roman Catholic background and still horrorstruck by last year’s mosque shooting, Québec, the French-speaking province of Canada, has been embroiled in a debate over the display of religious garb for ten years. The last rounds of legislative efforts to address the Islamic face veil deserve attention, as they introduce new measures and technologies meant to govern public practice of religion. Their analyses also show that (pace Marx) history sometimes happens as tragedy and farce simultaneously.
Those following the global debates about religion’s place in the public sphere will remember Québec’s 2013 attempt to establish a “Charter of Values” forbidding public-sector employees from wearing the veil and other “conspicuous religious symbols.” This legal bill, however, was never implemented. It died in 2014, after the party that tabled it (the Parti Québécois) was swept out of power by the Liberal Party. While the defunct Charter was initially supported by a majority of voters, no politicians want to resurrect it today, and many remember this episode with a hint of shame.
Elected in 2014, the Liberal government was nonetheless pressed to address a set of widespread concerns that the controversial Charter of Values (and the debate surrounding it) helped raise and fuel. Among them are the sentiment that many Muslims are poorly integrated into Québecois society, and the conviction that the veil sanctifies gender inequalities. During the 2014 election campaign, the Liberal party promised to present, within six months in office, a legal bill that would solve and quickly alleviate these public anxieties.
Their legislative response came three years later—and might be remembered as one of the most absurd legal enterprises undertaken in the name of secularism. Instead of banning the headscarf and other conspicuous religious symbols, the new government chose to focus on face covering. But unlike other, European legislations that forbid wearing the full veil in public, Québec’s 2017 Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality (also called Bill 62) ties the issue to the evasive notion of “public service.” It prohibits anyone from covering one’s face while giving or receiving a service from the state—a situation which, given Québec’s fairly large public sector, encompasses all interactions occurring in hospitals, schools, libraries, employment centers, and public transportation.
In spite of the obvious reference to religious neutrality in the bill’s name, the government absurdly insisted that the proposed law was not about religion. To prove it, the government widened the ban to all sorts of face covering. “The obligation to uncover your face,” the Minister of Justice clarified, “is not just for the veiled woman, it also applies to bandana and sunglasses.” Hence, in October 2017, Québec became the first modern state to enforce the “separation between the state and religious institutions” by forbidding its constituency to ride the subway (or consult a librarian) while wearing sunglasses. As the Economist noted, Québec’s efforts to uphold state religious neutrality goes as far as to make it illegal to enter a bus shrouded in a scarf, as many of us must do in order to get through the cold winters.
If this attempt at securing state secularity reads like a Monty Python sketch, the face-covering aspect of the bill nonetheless raises tragic questions for those it silently targets: those wearing the niqab or the burqa. Should a doctor refuse to treat someone wearing a face veil? Would female students be forced to lift their veil in order to attend classes? How could veiled women access the public libraries? The Canadian Muslim Forum did not wait to declare that Québec’s law on religious neutrality “will lead to stigmatization and exclusion from social and democratic life of a class of Canadian citizens, by depriving them of their right to equality and the right of access to public places.” The left-wing party Québec Solidaire also pointed out a cruel irony: “a women with a covered face will be allowed in a bookstore,” they remarked in a statement, “but not in a library, since the first is private and the other is public.”
In response to these critics, state officials recently declared that those refusing to obey these rules on faith-based grounds may petition for a “religious accommodation”—a mechanism whose workings the Minister of Justice disclosed in May 2018, six months after passing the law. The revealed document stipulates that all public institutions in the province (e.g., universities, hospitals, service centers, transit agencies) shall designate an “accommodation officer”—a new administrative function freshly designed by the Minister to receive and treat individual requests for accommodation, such as permission to take the bus with a niqab. Requests will then be transferred to the institution’s “highest administrative authority,” who has the ultimate say over the requested accommodation. As legal experts noted, this new portion of the face-covering law forces niqab-wearers to make countless requests to accomplish simple everyday tasks such as getting a driver’s license, taking public transit, or borrowing a library book.
And nothing, so far, guarantees that the requests of veiled women will be accepted. On the contrary. At a press conference about these religious accommodations, the Minister of Justice stressed that “although everyone can submit a request, not all of them will be accepted.” To help administrative authorities evaluate and eventually authorize individual demands, the government established six criteria every request must fulfill to result in an accommodation. Chief among these criteria is the “sincerity of the applicant’s belief.” The applicant must believe, the Minister specified, “in the need to comply with a practice that is part of the applicant’s faith or with a religious belief.”
To sum up: under the new law, every Québécois seeking to board a bus or attend classes with a face-covering veil will be required to demonstrate to a designated public officer that her religious belief is sincere enough to warrant accommodation. On the other side of the fence, a newly invented state official—the accommodation officer—will be charged with the responsibility not to apply the law, but to decide who is exempt from it. Unlike bus drivers and library staff, who must ensure the law is respected, accommodation officers are responsible for measuring the sincerity of the veil-wearers’ faith and judging (on a case-by-case basis) whether these citizens can receive the public services their taxes pay for. Such officers are supposed to receive special training, but for now, no one knows how they will do their job.
Canada’s French-speaking province is not alone in grappling with the veil ban conundrum. The legislative assemblies of France, Belgium, Austria, and most recently Denmark have all banned the Islamic face veil from the public sphere. Since September of 2011, face veils (as well as masks, balaclavas, but not sunglasses) are banned from all of France’s public places, such as streets, parks, museums, and shops. Offenders are hit with a fine of 150 euros and must take a “citizenship course.” In the same year, Belgium also passed a law outlawing the wearing of any clothing that obscures the identity of the wearer. The Austrian far-right Freedom Party followed suit, in 2017, with a law forcing its citizens to keep their faces visible from the hairline to the chin in public. In May of this year, Denmark enacted similar legislation forbidding face veil wearers (0.1 percent of the country’s population) to wear a burqa or a niqab in public.
Compared to the European jurisdictions, Québec has devised a subtler tactic. It framed the issue around the notion of public services and set up administrative mechanisms to accommodate those it recognized as sincere believers. In the process, the government has transferred the parliament’s regulatory capacity to a new type of state official invented for the purpose of the law: the accommodation officer. Under Québec’s new religious neutrality law, the decision to ban or permit face covering no longer falls under the authority of the sole legislative assembly. Governing Muslim women’s access to public services now involves the power to discriminate between true (“sincere” in the language of the law) and false religious subjects—a power that will be exercised by a contingent of ordinary public employees dispersed across the social body.
And yet, public employees have made clear (through their union representatives) that they do not want to bear the burden of settling the question that Québec has been debating over the last ten years. “We elected [the current government] to make decisions,” said the Union of Public Employees in a statement denouncing the face-covering law for throwing the hot potato into the lap of ordinary workers. Amid all these protestations, Quebecers will have to wait to see the new law enforced, as it is currently contested in court. Meanwhile, Québec’s new legislative efforts to ensure “state neutrality” might prove a landmark in the development of political tactics to manage what we, moderns, have come to call religion.