According to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practise, worship and observance.”
This value is enshrined in human rights laws in many countries as well. Its interpretation, however, varies from place to place.
The French passed a law in 1905 separating the church from the state and promoting laïcité, loosely translated as secularism. This was understandable given the abuses of religious power at that time, especially by the Catholic church. A similar sentiment was adopted a half-century later in Quebec for similar reasons, in what is known as the Quiet Revolution.
The problem is that both France and Quebec are much more pluralistic today. Does laïcité still apply, or does it violate the religious freedoms of citizens of France and Quebec?
Quebec’s Bill 21 was recently upheld by the province’s Superior Court. It prohibits public servants, including school teachers, from wearing anything that could be seen as religious, including the Jewish kippah and the Muslim hijab. The French have a similar law and the French Senate recently passed a bill prohibiting women under 18 from wearing the hijab in public.
It’s informative to note the response to these laws, especially by Muslim women. French journalist Nadiya Lazzouni points out that wearing the hijab often makes her a target as she travels by public transit in Paris. She notes that a 1905 law upholds her freedom to take part in this form of personal expression.
There has been an international response to the proposed French law. The #HandsOffMyHijab campaign on social media has gone viral.
Islam was a source of strength and solidarity during the years of French domination in North Africa. The wounds of colonialism are still largely unhealed and Islam remains very important in people’s lives.
France and Quebec have the right to govern themselves as they see fit. One can understand the importance of laïcité as a response to religious oppression from years past. But does it fit the reality of 21st-century pluralism?
Many countries struggle with the reality of religious diversity. Germany recently had a completely different response. When reports of Jewish men being attacked while wearing the kippah surfaced, thousands of non-Jewish Germans – including Foreign Minister Heiko Maas – began wearing the kippah in public to express solidarity with their Jewish neighbours.
Could a public servant in France or Quebec have been sanctioned for doing what Maas did?
Opposition to Bill 21 from outside of Quebec can also be seen as a threat to Canada’s linguistic and cultural diversity. However, it’s also true that there has been much resistance to the law by members of the public service unions who are most impacted by these new policies. The most notable opposition has come from francophone teachers of Quebec.
In France, it’s unlikely that the bill recently passed by the senate will have sufficient support in the other house of the legislature to become law.
As cultures come together in places like France, Germany and Canada, questions arise about how we can best get along. We’ve proven time and again that we’re better when each person is respected and each culture is celebrated. If we listen to each other, we will figure this out.
Diversity is strength, and freedom of religious expression is a human right.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.
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