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Is Quebec Fostering Religious Radicalism?

09/11/2013 12:15 EDT | Updated 11/11/2013 05:12 EST

The Parti Québecois government's "Values Charter" certainly breaks new ground in its hypocrisy: the legislation that would ban Quebeckers from wearing "overt and conspicuous" religious items in the public sector will be debated under the shadow of the crucifix that hovers over Quebec's legislative chamber, a crucifix that Premier Pauline Marois insists will remain overtly and conspicuously in place.

In other respects, however, the separatists are following in the well-worn footsteps of European governments, who have reacted to popular fears about fundamentalism and immigration by limiting the rights of their citizens to the public expression of private faith. France adopted its "headscarf ban" law in 2004, and the Netherlands followed suit with its "burqa ban" in 2012.

Though promoted as the high-minded defence of secularism, these laws are grave errors in judgement.

If history has but one lesson, it is that when religion and politics mix, both are degraded.

The democratic ideal of separation of church and state is as much in the interests of the church as it is in the interests of the state. It demands freedom of worship without political interference, as much as it demands a civil society free of religious compulsion.

A secular democracy ensures that governments can not intrude into the relationship between the individual and his God, and that no tyranny of the majority can curtail the most personal exercise of private conscience. Simultaneously, it guarantees that public institutions answer to the expressed will of the people, instead of to particular groups claiming a privileged insight into the interpreted will of God.

Crucially, a secular society is not one that is hostile to religion. It is one that is blind to the religious choices of its citizens.

Laws limiting personal religious expression play upon the cheap political capital to be gained from marginalising small, awkward, and unpopular groups, at times when insecurity ripples through society. But these laws also corrode and undermine the very principles of tolerance and inclusion they purport to defend.

When the state takes an interest in regulating religious expression, it invites religious institutions to reply by using their force of numbers to remake government policy. More seriously still, excluding people of faith from the mass of society is the surest way to isolate and drive them into the arms of radicalism.

No matter how jarring, alien, or even distasteful we may find particular practices, the suppression of voluntary religious expression by informed adults is a far greater evil. It is not secularism. It is atheism as a coercive state religion. It is no more acceptable in a free and democratic society than sectarian persecution or forced conversions.

I believe that we, as Canadians, understand this instinctively. Our country was first forged out of a colonial accommodation between Protestants and Catholics, later out of an amalgam of Abrahamic faiths, and today encompasses a society that is largely disengaged from formal worship. As much as any other people in the world, state secularism and religious tolerance are at the heart of the ideals that bind us together and define us as a nation.

There is no denying that we are living through an age when our ideals are being tested. To what extent do our values of tolerance require us to tolerate practices that may emanate from intolerant philosophies? If demographic changes in our liberal democracy cause our cultural centre of gravity to shift away from our established social values, which should prevail: our identity as democrats or our identity as small-l liberals?

These are not easy questions, but the answers certainly do not lie with those small minds who would trade upon our most unworthy fears.

State suppression of free religious expression by free citizens is unacceptable in any secular democracy, and it is an offence against the free society that is the birthright of every Canadian.

Akaash Maharaj is Executive Director of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption. His personal web site is www.Maharaj.org. This article is adapted from one of his earlier broadcast essays.

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Quebec Values Charter