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02/25/2018 20:55 EST | Updated 02/25/2018 21:44 EST

Quebec's Islamophobia Has Gone Down An Eerily Familiar Path

There are unsettling parallels between Quebec's dehumanization of Muslims and the bigotry that formed in pre-war Canada.

While I was out promoting my latest book in October, I received news that the Quebec Liberal government had just passed an odious piece of legislation, Bill 62, which forces Quebeckers to uncover their faces while giving and receiving public services. The law followed on the heels of the equally repugnant Secular Charter, which died when the previous PQ government was defeated despite the widespread popularity of the Charter itself.

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Both measures were introduced under the guise of protecting the religious neutrality of the state, but the farcical nature of this argument was laid bare when both governments refused to consider removing the giant cross which graces the Quebec National Assembly where the legislation was passed. The cross, they argued, represents Quebec's "heritage."

Exactly no one was fooled by this sophistry, which laid bare what was really at play — Islamophobia.

As I saw this naked bigotry play out in real time, many of the arguments sounded eerily familiar. I had just spent more than a decade bringing to light a previously unknown episode that helped deceive the Nazis into ending the Final Solution at the end of the war and may have saved as many as 300,000 Jews.

[Quebec] is often unfairly portrayed as a bastion of bigotry even though the rest of Canada was hardly more tolerant at the time.

As a backdrop to these events, I explored how the fate of millions was sealed when country after country closed their doors to the Jews of Europe. It is difficult to pinpoint a worse offender than Canada, which admitted fewer Jews before the war than any developed nation. Although this shameful record was driven by the country's notoriously anti-Semitic immigration chief, Frederick Blair, Prime Minister Mackenzie King could have easily opened the doors to Hitler's refugees with one stroke of his pen. But, as King confided to his diary in 1938, "I fear we would have riots if we agreed to a policy that admitted numbers of Jews."

King was undeniably a racist himself, but he had also publicly expressed sympathy for the Jews of Europe. And yet it was clear that he assumed one province in particular was in no mood to welcome the refugees. Quebec had become notorious for a movement of radical anti-Semitism that publicly vilified Jews as alien outsiders who threatened the fabric of Quebec and Canadian society. Because of this dark period, the province is often unfairly portrayed as a bastion of bigotry even though the rest of Canada was hardly more tolerant at the time.

In many Toronto neighbourhoods, for example, real estate covenants prevented homeowners from renting or selling to Jews or people of colour. But Quebec was distinct in its intolerance for one reason in particular. As the Québecoise historian Esther Delisle revealed in her 1992 book, The Traitor and the Jew, it wasn't everyday Quebeckers who were fanning the flames of bigotry, but the so-called intellectuals. Among the worst offenders were the academics and the secular nationalists — including a young Pierre Trudeau — and newspapers such as Le Devoir which supported the Achat Chez Nous boycott of Jewish businesses.

Fast forward three quarters of a century to the passage of an odious piece of legislation targeting Muslim women who wear the veil. It would be easy to once again portray Quebec as a bastion of intolerance and xenophobia except for one shocking statistic. A recent Global News poll reveals that a staggering 68 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec would support a similar face-covering ban in their own province.

It wasn't everyday Quebeckers who were fanning the flames of bigotry, but the so-called intellectuals.

Once again, however, there was a factor that made Quebec's bigotry distinct from the rest of Canada, as I discovered on a recent visit to my hometown of Montreal. I was astonished to hear supposedly progressive Montrealers — French and English — defend Bill 62 on the grounds that it protected Muslim women from oppression. Having never actually met a woman who wears the niqab, they confidently pronounced that these women are forced by their husbands to don the oppressive garb and the legislation was therefore necessary on the grounds of feminism.

"The niqab, burka has no place — not even on the bus. It is not a religious sign. It's a political symbol of the enslavement and de-empowerment of women that is supported by the most repressive regimes on the planet," argued the Quebec political scientist Andre Lamoureux, despite the fact that many niqab-wearing women have explained that they chose to wear the veil over the objections of their husbands. Most of the apologists for this law, of course, are also happy to smugly condemn U.S. President Donald Trump for his notorious Muslim immigration ban, despite the fact that Bill 62 is arguably worse because it represents an assault on the constitutional rights of our own citizens. To be fair, many progressive Quebeckers have also condemned the new law, but not loudly enough to prevent its passage.

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The Holocaust was a unique event and I would never invoke a comparison of history's darkest chapter to any modern phenomenon. But when intellectuals of the 1930s demonized the Jews as outsiders, it served to dehumanize them and thus made it easy to ignore the subsequent genocide. Today, as we witness the dehumanization of Muslims — portrayed by the right as terrorists and by the left as oppressors of women — it is no wonder that the Muslim Rohingya are being slaughtered in Burma right before our eyes while the world reproaches the perpetrators with words but fails to intervene.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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