Secularism: For a Broad, Open, and Democratic Debate


The journal À bâbord! [To Portside] will sponsor, on Friday, 22 January at the University of Québec at Montreal, a colloquium titled “Québec in Search of Secularism.”1  With Guy Rocher, Françoise David is a guest of honor at the event.

For several months, nay several years, there has been an intense debate on secularism, so much so that we would like to complete it in Québec.  The crisis of reasonable accommodations2 has propelled this question to the forefront of social debates.

Québec Solidaire is in favor of a secular Québec, regarding the state as well as its institutions.  At the same time, our members meeting at our congress last November signified their commitment to fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religious conscience.

We maintain that a debate is necessary to perfect the secularism of the Québécois state and its institutions.  Following the example of the Québec Secular Movement, Québec Solidaire has demanded that the Québec government organize a debate on secularism to arrive at the strongest possible consensus on it and put that down in writing.  This debate must include all the Québécois of all origins: for us, discussion about secularism is not a discussion about immigrants!

Several questions remain to be defined and they affect the Francophone majority as well as minorities.  For example, the crucifix hanging above the head of the president in the National Assembly is considered by some to be a matter of heritage that must remain there.  For others, it’s first and foremost a symbol put at the heart of a secular institution by Maurice Duplessis in order to seal the alliance of church and state.  The crucifix therefore has to go.

Secularism: Mother of an Inclusive Modernity

The proponents of secularism “à la française” often invoke the law of 1905.  The law on secularism, introduced in France by socialist deputy Briand, was a product of a great republican movement anxious to decisively carry out a separation of state and religious authorities and thus to consecrate the neutrality of the French state toward all religions.  At the same time, the law put an end to discrimination, of which the Protestants had been victims, in access to jobs in civil service and education.

Two visions clashed in France then.  The radical current of Émile Combes, senator of the democratic left and heir to a very assertive anti-clerical tradition, wished to instrumentalize the state and the principle of secularism in order to wage a battle on the terrain of beliefs, which could lead to a possible limitation on the freedom of belief.  However, for the moderate current of socialist leader Jean Jaurès and minister Aristide Briand, themselves non-believers, the ideological battle against clergy had to be set apart from the responsibility of the state.

The state must make sure that it is sheltered from religious authority, but “the republic is the right of every man, whatever his religious belief, to have his share of sovereignty,” as Jaurès reminded all.  As conceived by Briand and Jaurès, secularism is as solicitous of the neutrality of state institutions toward beliefs as of guaranteeing the freedom of conscience of each, in accordance with the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

It is this modern conception that eventually prevailed.  The freedom of conscience is one of the principal fruits of the contribution of the Enlightenment to the Western civilization and has played an undeniable role in the emergence of modernity.  In 1905 it became one of the pillars of French secularism, together with equal rights and religious and spiritual choices and the neutrality of political authority.

In the eye of Québec Solidaire, to defend the freedom of conscience of others is therefore a founding act of modernity, whose project is, in a manner of speaking, to include and not to exclude.

The Veil: Neither Obligation Nor Prohibition

We are often questioned about our position on the subject of the veil worn by a minority of Muslim women in Québec.  We would like to remind people that wearing religious signs while on public duty is only one of the questions that we ought to debate in the framework of an approach to a completely secular state.  However, as our position on the wearing of the veil attracts questions, we would like to explain it again here.

The veil originated at least 4,000 years ago, among the Sumerians, well before Islam, Christianity, and even Judaism.  Under the Judeo-Christian and Muslim religions it became an instrument to control the bodies of women and, unquestionably, a sign of patriarchal oppression.  The idea of it was imposed by “sacred” texts, written by the hands of men who lived in archaic societies which did not recognize the equality of rights between women and men.  A feminist party like Québec Solidaire therefore rejects the obligation to wear the veil: there is no ambiguity about it.

We reject just as clearly the attacks on the rights and freedoms of women, any and all attempts to dictate to women how to behave, be they by religious or political powers.  Women must be free, autonomous, full-fledged citizens in all societies.  Their bodies belong to them, and they must be able to do, freely, what they want with them.

What about women in Québec?  Women of very different life trajectories and references are among us.  They are evolving in a Québec that is much more advanced, regarding the equality between women and men, than 40 years ago.  Nevertheless, this is also a Québec that is not free from sexism and that particularly discriminates against immigrant women, whom employers deny jobs under diverse pretexts.

Domestic Space

How then can we protect the rights and freedoms of all women without excluding some of them from the labor market, for example?  For what purpose do we deprive the veiled women of the space of participation in active life which comes with work, condemning them to remain prisoners of often conservative communitarian ghettos?  Does rejecting the obligation to wear the veil mean the right to deprive Muslim women of the possibility to work for the most important employer in Québec: the state?  The holders of religious power who prescribe the veil would be the first to rejoice in seeing women confined to domestic space, more easily subjected to their influence.  That’s how we end up adding a veil of exclusion to the veil of cloth.

For us, it is important to wage a battle on the sartorial and behavioral religious obligations on the terrain of ideas.  We ought to say that these obligations, including the imposition of articles of clothing that cover women — for their bodies might become “an occasion of sin”! — are sexist and retrograde.  And we ought to offer assistance and protection to women who wish to resist their imposition by men or by communities.

Defend All the Rights of All Women

Québec Solidaire has therefore opted for a solution, which we would not claim to be perfect: it consists in walking together with women who have battles to fight and liberties to conquer.  This defense of others, even other women and men who differ with us in ideas or beliefs, is, as is made clear above, the very essence of democracy and the republican principle and secularism.  It has nothing to do with cultural relativism and multiculturalism.

The neutrality of the state, which secularism demands, is determined by actions of women and men who work there and not by their clothes.  We have therefore chosen not to prohibit the wearing of religious signs while on public duty and at public service, while agreeing that discussion needs to continue regarding situations where the wearing of religious signs may prove to be inappropriate.

Here, then, is what we propose: protect all the rights at the same time, without losing sight of the necessary complete neutrality of the state toward all religions and the non-influence of any religion on the decisions of the state.

Secularism Is Not Racism

In conclusion, we would like to dispel any misunderstanding that might suggest that Québec Solidaire is accusing secularists of being complicit in racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.  That is not the case.  How could we accuse secularism and its defenders while it is one of the central axes of our political project and our raison d’être?  We are working, like a number of other social and political actors, to try to perfect the secularization of Québécois society.  All the points of view must be heard in so far as the fundamental rights of each are respected and the common good is sought.

That said, we must point out that we are not the only ones who speak of secularism.  Xenophobes also speak of secularism — very selectively — in order to better exclude, in all truth to discriminate.  They use secularism as varnish to mask their fear of others, of strangers who practice other religions than Christianity, for, in their eyes, that threatens the Québécois identity.  They seldom say anything about the Catholic or Protestant religious authority, much less question Catholic doctors who invoke their religious beliefs to refuse to perform abortions, or elected officials who lead an official prayer to open their municipal council sessions.

In brief, the defense of the Québécois identity, however legitimate it is, is sometimes the pretext, these days, to mask a growing intolerance of others, especially newcomers.  Muslim communities in particular bear the brunt of it.  That we cannot tolerate, in Québec Solidaire.

Secularism as we understand it is inclusive, but it excludes the fear of others or any intolerance with regard to people whom Québec receives every year.  If these principles are clear and, as we believe, are largely shared by the Québécois population, regardless of their origins, pressures must continue to be put on the Charest government to engage in a broad, open, and democratic debate on secularism to arrive at the most unifying consensus for all the Québécois.

Françoise David, President and Spokesperson of Québec Solidaire

Amir Khadir, Member of the National Assembly for Mercier and Spokesperson of Québec Solidaire

1  The word used in the original text is laïcité, which has historically differed from the US-style separation of church and state designed to protect the market of religions from the state.

2  The concept of “reasonable accommodations” has its origin in Canadian labor law, especially Central Okanagan School District No. 23 v. Renaud, which resulted in a unanimous decision that “An employer must take reasonable measures short of undue hardship to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices.”

The original article “Laïcité – Pour un débat large, ouvert et démocratique” was published by Le Devoir on 18 January 2010.  Translation and notes by Yoshie Furuhashi.

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