UPDATE: An Abrupt End to Quebec Separatist Plan to Ban “Ostentatious Signs” of Religion

This article contains updates and revisions, post-election, to a story that ran earlier this week. –The Eds.

 On 7 November 2013, on the heels of a heated public debate about the role of religion in public life, the Government of Quebec tabled its controversial Bill 60, Charte affirmant les valeurs de laïcité et de neutralité religieuse de l’État ainsi que d’égalité entre les femmes et les hommes et encadrant les demandes d’accommodement [Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests]. 

The legislation, introduced by Bernard Drainville, the Minister for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, sought to affirm the religious neutrality of the state, in particular by prohibiting public sector employees, including those working in hospitals, schools, daycares, and universities, from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols” [signes ostentatoires].   The legislation also proposed to amend the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in order to enshrine the “equality of men and women” as the highest human right to which other rights (such as freedom of religious expression) would be subordinated. 

From the initial indications from the government concerning this legislative initiative, in May 2013, through a noisy publicity campaign launched in September, to televised public hearings over the winter, and culminating in the stunning electoral defeat of the governing Parti Quebecois on 7 April 2014, the Charter of Quebec Values (as popularly named) created tremendous division within Quebec society, lining up politicians, journalists, media celebrities, unions, and other public figures and institutions onto bitterly opposing sides. 

Supporters of the Charter characterized the initiative as a consummation of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when Quebec society first began to reject the dominant political role enjoyed by the Catholic Church, and thus a necessary step to protect the public sphere from “religious influence,” modeled in part on the legal initiatives adopted in France, and framed as a repudiation of “Canadian” multiculturalism policy as a weak and dangerously indiscriminate mechanism for regulating cultural and religious diversity and for securing social solidarity. 

Opponents decried the Charter as a thinly disguised attack on religious minorities, especially Muslim women, who risked facing unprecedented barriers to employment and participation in public life, and to that extent, a sign of Quebec’s lamentable endorsement of a broader Islamophobia that has swept the Western world in the post-9/11 context.  The defeat of the government at the polls on 7 April would seem to indicate that the agenda of the Charter has now come to an end, and that Quebeckers have rejected its divisive politics. In the words of Bernard Drainville, the principal architect of Bill 60, on the day after the election, “It’s over, the Charter.  We did what we could to get there. Unfortunately, things ended rather abruptly.” 

However, a longer view of the debate surrounding Bill 60, and of the social factors that fueled this debacle, suggest that the Charter’s underlying politics of religious identity and inclusion have far from subsided.  What follows is a closer analysis of some of the terms on which the previous government sought to regulate religious difference in the public sphere.  It remains to be seen how the newly elected Liberal government in Quebec will manage these questions of religious identity and diversity, and whether they will end up entangled in the very same language of ‘liberal tolerance’ one finds at the root of previous government’s Charter initiative.

To unearth the reasons why the animating force of Bill 60 might remain in play within Quebec politics, even in the wake of the recent election, we need to examine more closely one of the key planks of the proposed Charter, namely to draw a line between ‘ostentatious’ and ‘non-ostentatious’ religious signs, and their respective degrees of permissibility within the public sector workplace.  “From this point on,” it was stated in one government document, “those working for the state must demonstrate their religious neutrality, not only in their behavior but also in their appearance.”  The proposed Bill thus proscribed the wearing of religious signs that are “easily visible” and that draw attention to themselves (ayant un caractère demonstratif). 

The language adopted here—beginning with very notion of signes ostentatoires—was embedded in a larger conversation concerning the place of religion in modern nation-states, as emphasized by none other than then-Premiere Pauline Marois, when, during one media scrum, she defended her government’s initiative as conforming to “a well known international standard.”  No doubt, one of the most important precedents being invoked here was that of France, which in 2003 tasked the Stasi Commission to help ‘defend secularism’ within the French public school system through the codification of acceptable legal limits for the wearing of religious attire.  In this context, the Quebec initiative offered a variation of what has already become a familiar international theme that conceives secularism and its threats in specifically visual terms.  The word ‘ostentation’, after all, assumes an intentionality on the part of the wearer to be noticed—more precisely, to be noticed in an excessive, provocative manner—and thus undesirable religious affiliations and modes of public presentation can be treated as forms of visible pollution.

To help clarify the terms on which state neutrality was to be defended, as well as to generate broader support for the bill, in the late summer of 2013, the Quebec government launched a PR campaign, one element of which was an infographic designed to concretize this distinction between (permissibly) ‘non-ostentatious’ and (impermissibly) ‘ostentatious’ religious signs.  On one side one finds a hijab, a niqab, a kippa, a dastar (Sikh turban), and a ‘large’ crucifix; lined up on the other side are several items of jewelry—a small crucifix, a ring bearing a Star of David, and a crescent moon-shaped earring.  What is going on here?

First, let us note how the infographic performs the work of comparative religion through the generation of equivalences.  A rather disparate collection of bodily disciplines, habits, aesthetic sensibilities, and material affordances for the cultivation of piety disappears behind the surface of signs that function synecdochally as markers of one’s religious identity and affiliation. 

Not unlike the sumptuariae leges of Ancient Rome, in which different colors and types of clothing served to distinguish citizens according to their age, gender, and social rank, the modern liberal state conceives of its agents as a unity encompassing difference, while at the same time providing a visual means for demarcating tolerable and intolerable categories of persons.  Indeed, once they enter the arena of the ‘neutral state’, regardless of the intentions or assumptions of their wearers, the hijab, the niqab, the kippa, and the dastar all become equally recognizable as visual matter ‘out of order’; they are now markers of identity and affiliation that somehow risk occluding the very possibility of an integral and consistent form of state agency.

Following closely from this, we might further note that whereas much discussion of Bill 60 focused on the proposal to ban ostentatious signs, this infographic pointed out how the modern state has had an equal stake in defining the category of the ‘non-ostentatious’ religious sign.  This was explained by some as a ‘compromise solution’, whereby the government of the day, recognizing the untenability of removing all visible evidence of religious affiliation, opted to make provisions for a degree of ‘tolerable offense’ to its vaunted principle of state neutrality.  With the creation of the category of ‘permitted religious signs’, it was argued by some, the government was simply seeking to preempt protracted legal debate over whether the bill was discriminatory against religious minorities, or whether it failed to protect the fundamental human right of liberty of conscience. 

It might also be suggested that the bill was crafted to avoid ruffling the feathers of the large numbers of practicing Christians currently working in Quebec’s public sector—a less than insignificant number of which do happen to wear (typically small) crucifixes—and thus the visual code aimed its sights more narrowly on undesirable religious minorities, while at the same time allowing the government to proclaim the even-handedness of its approach.  But whatever the actual intentions of the government, the deployment of this category of the ‘permitted sign’ wonderfully epitomized a much larger and more longstanding liberal project to (re)construct modern religions as spheres of personal conviction, and to ground the authority of the state in the consensus of religious communities and actors to make themselves recognizable on such terms.

The non-ostentatious sign is thus a marker of religion that ‘knows its place’ in the pax moderna of privatized, personal convictions and secular state power.  And, in the benevolent, paternalistic spirit of this project to contain religion, a gesture was made here toward ‘impolite’ forms of religious activity.  As depicted in the infographic, those deemed guilty of visual offence are offered ‘substitute signs’, through which their religious identities, affiliations, convictions, and practices might be made more acceptable, such as through the wearing of a Star of David ring or a crescent moon-shaped earring. 

Paradoxically, the very state that sought to create and protect a form of public space as ‘religiously neutral’ ended up inventing religious practices that never existed before, by creating its own iconographic repertoire that would allow kippa-wearing Jews, hijab-wearing Muslims, and dastar-wearing Sikhs to enter into the public space of the state and to join the ranks of their small-crucifix-bearing liberal citizens. 

This paradoxical gesture should not surprise us.  On the contrary, the strange visual language of Bill 60 perfectly instantiates what Talal Asad elsewhere has described as ‘the game of religious signs’ that the secular state plays, and that, in playing the game, allows the abstract being of the modern state to be realized in the first place.  What new versions of this game will be invented by future governments in Quebec, or for that matter, anywhere else in the world where the fantasy of securing liberal public tolerance through the privatization of religious conviction continues to hold sway?