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I'm an Atheist Who Hates Quebec's Secularism

I'm an atheist and a feminist, who is, in theory, 100 per cent in agreement with separation of church and state, yet dislikes everything about this Charter. To many, this appears to be contradictory. How, you ask, can an atheist not be in favour of secularism? How, you ask, can a feminist, not be in favour of women's liberation and freedom; the right not to wear a restrictive piece of patriarchy-imposed clothing like the hijab? For the simple reason that the Charter of Quebec Values has absolutely nothing to do with those two issues.

My taxi driver, a beautiful dreadlocked Haitian man blasting classical music from his radio, tells me it looks like it's going to rain. At the red light, three giggling schoolgirls wearing multi-coloured hijabs cross the street. An Asian teenager with short bright purple hair glances up at us from her book, sees nothing of interest and goes back to reading. I once lived in a place where everyone I knew and everyone I interacted with for 10 entire years was Greek. It was lovely and it was fine, but this version of 'lovely and fine' has always suited me much better.

The above paragraph served as my Facebook status a few months ago, when the Charter of Quebec Values was first introduced by the PQ. It was a status that was heartfelt and honest, written hastily in the back of a Montreal cab, on my way to board a train bound for Toronto.

It was a status that received a barrage of 'likes' from friends, and was immediately shared by many others. Why? I suspect, because it had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with people. It resonated because it reduced a proposed piece of legislation down to its nuts and bolts; down to the mere possibility of laws legislating appearance, good will, perception, and the way we choose to interact with one another and co-exist in this messy, maniacal, multicultural maze we call a metropolis, but is still very much an overgrown village.

I'm a person who loves chaotic culture shocks. I thrive on them. I like living in a town surrounded by people I don't get, because, I've long come to the realization that I don't need to get them, to respect them. It's profound comfort and acceptance in who I am and what I believe in that allows me to navigate my life in such a way that I don't feel I have to justify my choices to anyone. It's what allows me to understand that others, in turn, don't have to justify theirs to me. All that is required is mutual respect and acceptance. Not tolerance -- acceptance.

A law that seeks to limit people, to erase a part of who they are, to reduce and inevitably dilute their identity only to "acceptable" bits, is a law that offends me in a profound way. I particular love the delicious irony of one group of immigrants (because, with the exception of Natives, we're all immigrants here) dictating to another group of immigrants what they can and cannot do.

"But it's only if you're a public servant, and only during work," pro-charter defenders will say. The justification being that one can do what they like the rest of the time. No, thanks. The minute you create pictograms, dictating what's forbidden and what isn't, the minute Minister Drainville casually mentions that private businesses are strongly encouraged to follow the rule of the law, you're already down a slippery slope. Lines have been drawn, fingers have been pointed; the "wrong" kind of Quebecers have been identified.

Haven't we, as human beings, evolved to the point that we no longer have to resort to the metaphorical planting of flags anymore? Haven't the Internet and social media made it abundantly clear by now that we live in a global village, and that what affects some inevitably affects us all? Is a pissing contest still required, or is there a way to promote some sort of respectful live-and-let-live approach that doesn't seek to legislatively enforce an outdated and exclusive vision of Quebec?

Choosing to see people in terms of one dominant feature (their hijab, their kippa, their cross) and seeking to minimize that feature is not only an unwarranted imposition, but a denial of the parts that make up the whole. The idea that people's cultural and religious identity is not essential to them; that it can somehow be shed on command, is both simplistic and insulting. Particularly when the dominant group's religious symbols are conveniently branded as 'cultural' and promptly retained. Particularly when the dominant group was once discriminated against for its own language and culture, and should perhaps now be showing more tolerance towards those who want to preserve what they consider worth preserving.

I'm an atheist and a feminist, who is, in theory, 100 per cent in agreement with separation of church and state, yet dislikes everything about this charter. To many, this appears to be contradictory. How, you ask, can an atheist not be in favour of secularism? How, you ask, can a feminist, not be in favour of women's liberation and freedom; the right not to wear a restrictive piece of patriarchy-imposed clothing like the hijab?

For the simple reason that the Charter of Quebec Values (the name itself makes me itch, I'm so allergic to the implications of division and finger pointing this carefully-chosen name incites in people) has absolutely nothing to do with those two issues, and everything to do with manufactured division and promoting a discriminatory solution to a non-existent problem.

Secularism does not mean selective secularism. You don't get to purge some symbols while allowing those you deem acceptable to remain by conveniently labelling them as "culture." That's not neutrality of state, that's discrimination. And until a true charter of secularism is proposed, this one isn't even worth the paper it's printed on.

But isn't the charter being lauded as a brilliant defence of feminism?

Yeah... not so much.

By passing such a law, Quebec is chauvinistically claiming that we, as a province, have already achieved gender equality and now seek to enforce it with immigrants coming here. With, you know... the ones who "don't know any better." To say that reeks of paternalism is an understatement. Gender-based violence and poverty are still real issues here, and preventing a handful of women (seeking a career in the public sector, no less) from wearing a hijab does nothing to rectify that reality. It may feel like a victory, but it's a hollow one.

This province has always been a land of immigrants, but our collective memory is short. With each new wave of newcomers, panic and fear sets in, and discussions abound on whether or not diversity (in a place that so desperately and understandably wants to preserve its language and culture) can even be a strength, or whether it creates more issues and tension. This constant panic also fails to recognize that integration does not occur overnight, but rather is a difficult and long-term process which operates inter-generationally. Give people time and they will adapt. Nothing illustrates that more than the constant clash and often stark differences between first-generation immigrant parents and their children.

My parents, who are Greek immigrants, belong to the "acceptable" kind of foreigners. The kind (along with other European nationalities who arrived in the '50s and '60s) who are now a familiar part of this province's landscape and who therefore pose no threat. But it wasn't always that way...

Currently, Muslims are bearing the brunt of xenophobia. With the amount of media exposure they get and hand-wringing they cause, it's amazing to me that they only represent a measly 3.2 per cent of the entire Canadian population. You'd think we were experiencing an outright invasion. But, of course, perception and reality is never the same thing.

I'm tired of hearing people lament that the fact that we're so welcoming and tolerant here will be our downfall and will allow "evil doers" to get their way. Aside from the fact that it's a humblebrag of the worst kind, it's also disingenuous.

"Give them an inch and they'll take a mile," they say.

"Give me a break," I say.

Respecting people's individuality enough not to seek to impose your view of the world on them does not make you naive, unassuming and spineless. It doesn't mean the Muslim Brotherhood will suddenly feel emboldened enough to seek to enforce Sharia Law here and you'll just shrug your shoulders and say "Sure, why not?" and go back to watching Tout le Monde en Parle. To assume that is to seriously underestimate people's intelligence.

Even in its most benign form, nationalism; the idea that there exists an 'us' and a 'them', and that somehow the 'us' is far superior to 'them' simply because it's more familiar and more relatable, is humanity's major failing. We continue to make the mistake of believing that other cultures are just "failed attempts at being us" as Wade Davis so eloquently phrased it. It's hubris of the worst kind.

Human's predilection to value the 'same' is manifested in the intolerance displayed by those who are suspicious of the 'different'; the way recently-arrived immigrants are looked down on by those who did nothing more than catch an earlier boat. This constant clash of cultures, values, languages, religions, plays out on a daily basis right here in Quebec. The blatant -- sometimes crass -- division between the ideological right and the ideological left is what made covering the student protests such a failure in objective reasoning. Most people had already made up their minds from Day One about what the police and the students were all about, based on their own preconceptions and prejudices. There was no room for dialogue and very little for much-needed shades of grey.

The exact same thing is now happening with the Charter debate, as people are quickly dividing into camps against and in favour of this proposed legislation. So much for this charter uniting Quebecers, as Premier Marois suggested. But then again, that was never its goal, was it?

When you live your life from a place of pride and confidence, you don't react like a victim cowered in a corner, fighting off fictional attacks. You don't need to establish a pecking order, or push people back in their "place" or point the fingers at possible behaviours that could intentionally or unintentionally proselytize, offend or convert. You have faith (what a perfect word in the context of this conversation) that who you are, and what you believe in, can stand the test of mingling and associating with others' beliefs and ways of life and still retain its own uniqueness and value. That you won't get swallowed whole.

If you suddenly feel that the charter debate is sounding more and more like a debate on Quebec nationalism and survival, it's not by accident.

But, if there's one thing I know to be true, it's this: we don't become less of 'us' by embracing the 'other'. We become more. A more that is more nuanced and more open and more complex than the 'us' remaining enclosed in our own little world could ever become.

Whether you worship in a church, a mosque, a synagogue or a temple; or whether you're an atheist, you owe it to yourself and to your children, who will have to make a life in an increasingly multicultural and multi-religious environment (and that's our reality, and there's no turning back, no matter how much those who participated in last Sunday's pro-charter rally might want to) to expand your horizons.

We can choose to batten down the hatches against all sorts of imaginary enemies, or we can choose to co-exist in a dynamic, symbiotic, and mutually beneficial relationship that enriches both those seeking to retain their way of life, and those aiming to begin a brand new one here.

As Pauline Marois would say, "A nous de choisir."

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