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September 15, 2012

The 'charter of secularism' obscures what really matters

Ehab Lotayef

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The important issues are ignored and tensions needlessly aroused.

As the Quebec election approaches I find myself, unfortunately, pressured to vote for a candidate and party based on my religious sentiments and my feelings of discrimination against my community, rather than formulating my opinion based on the multitude of challenges — economic, educational, health-related, corruption-related, and justice issues — that face Quebec society as a whole. Can you blame me? Maybe you can, but before you issue your verdict, please hear me till the end.

The recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor commission were supposed to relax tensions between the majority in Quebec and different minorities, and address, once and for all, the question of “accommodation.” Yet after all the money that was spent and the effort that was put into the process, most of Bouchard-Taylor’s recommendations were not implemented. The door was left wide open for further political games at the expense of more important issues, and to the detriment of Quebec’s minorities.

Now, five years later, the Parti Québécois is reopening the issue in an attempt to win more votes at the expense of minority rights. And so those of us who would like to stand together against Law 78, against corruption, and against charging the poor more and letting the rich off easy, are forced to abandon those real battles for the fog of the PQ’s “charter of secularism.”

From what little we know of it, the goal of the charter is to assert secularism mainly by forbidding public employees from wearing religious symbols on the job. But what are you going to do about people’s names? If your last name is Singh, or ends with -berg, or if your first name is Mohamed, will you be forbidden from identifying yourself publicly if you work for the government? Many things will give away your religious or cultural affiliation other than your “symbols.”

There is another issue that many advocates of secularism are either ignorant of or choose to ignore: namely, the difference between a religious symbol and a religious obligation. As a Muslim man I can wear a verse of the Qur’an on a chain around my neck; you can call this is a religious symbol, and it is certainly optional for me. But as a Muslim I have to pray five times a day; this is a religious obligation. For a Muslim woman who believes in the requirement to cover her hair, that covering is a religious obligation. The same applies to Sikh men. Certain attire is believed to be a religious obligation by Orthodox Jews. For those individuals, the way they dress is not a religious symbol; it is a part of practising their religion.

How can the state, in the name of any noble value, force those citizens to choose between following their religion and representing the state? What we should be doing instead is to encourage government employees — and all of those who deal with the public — to act professionally while at the same time exposing their cultural identity. This is the way to build real harmony in our society.

Pauline Marois and her Parti Québécois should drop this charter, which will bring nothing but social tensions and discrimination, and instead focus on the real issues that face our society: education, health, corruption and, above all, social justice.

Ehab Lotayef is a Montreal poet, activist and engineer.

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