New Canadian Media

Quebec's Secularism Works Against Muslims: Experts

Written by  New Canadian Media Wednesday, 13 January 2016 22:54
People protest against the Quebec Charter of Values on Sept. 14, 2013.
People protest against the Quebec Charter of Values on Sept. 14, 2013. Photo Credit: "Non à la charte" by Matias Garabedian via Flickr CC

by Rosanna Haroutounian in Quebec City

Quebec’s relationship with religion must be considered in local efforts to prevent radicalization, say experts. 

“Public displays of religion or publicly practising religion are seen as not part of what Quebec is about,” says Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow from The Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University. 

He explains that this secularism impacts Muslims in a particular way, especially those who are “openly Muslim,” such as women who wear hijabs or men who wear traditional clothing. 

The need for Quebec to confront Islamophobia was the focus of an op-ed piece Amarasingam co-authored in December with researcher Hicham Tiflati in The Toronto Star. 

Amarasingam says anti-Muslim sentiments, especially against youth, can lead to critiques of the West like those propagated by terrorist organizations. 

“Simple things, like not being able to have a Muslim students association or discrimination at the campus-level get amplified and tied into broader ISIS propaganda which says, ‘You as Muslims will never be included in the West,’” he says. 

Many Quebec readers accused the authors of “Quebec bashing” in the op-ed and Tiflati was subsequently dismissed from his position at the Centre for Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence in Montreal. 

TIflati says he was surprised by the centre’s response, but that there were other events that precipitated the dismissal like when he was labelled an ‘Islamist’ in November by the website Poste de Veille. 

“The way religion is looked at is a bit different from how religion is transformed and interpreted in the rest of North America.”

The op-ed piece added to the social pressure the centre felt around Tiflati’s employment, he explains, adding that the decision for him to leave was somewhat mutual. 

Tiflati admits that because the centre is semi-public, adding his name to the op-ed made it appear as though the organization supported the same views. 

Despite this, he says he does not regret writing the article and is worried about the implications it poses for academics who want to share their research. 

"I was trying to project how youth feel in Quebec,” explains Tiflati. “The way religion is looked at is a bit different from how religion is transformed and interpreted in the rest of North America.” 

He says this was the conclusion of a 2008 report issued by the Bouchard-Taylor commission, which examined the impact of religious accommodation on Quebec's identity and values. 

Quebec’s unique position

“There is a unique history in Quebec in relation to secularism,” says Rachel Brown, a PhD candidate at Wilfred Laurier University and visiting research fellow for the Centre of Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria. 

Islamophobia tends to ebb and flow in Quebec.

“We can’t take away the history of Quebec and the Quiet Revolution, and how that would affect Islamophobia in that context, which is unique and distinct form the rest of Canada.” 

She adds that the Quiet Revolution, a period in the 1960s during which the government took control of sectors like health care and education away from the Catholic church, is fairly recent and that many people in Quebec remember the struggle to separate state and religion. 

She explains that Islamophobia tends to ebb and flow in Quebec. Periods of tension are marked by events like the proposed Charter of Values and the attacks in Paris in November. 

“The article could have been contextualized a bit more,” says Brown, adding the authors should have stressed that Islamophobia is not only a problem in Quebec, but that Quebec’s experience with it is unique. 

“The article was meant to engender trust in the Muslim community, to look at the centre as an ally, but the response supported [the community’s] suspicion,” says Amarasingam. 

He says Muslims feel distrustful towards the centre because of its community surveillance aspect. He says many people call the centre with complaints about things not related to radicalization, such as their neighbours praying next door. 

The Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence did not respond to requests for comment. 

Prevention needs multi-pronged approach 

Jocelyn Bélanger, a former professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal who now teaches at New York University Abu Dhabi, agrees that Islamophobia is not unique to Quebec, but a Western problem caused by global conflicts and the media’s response to them.

“Some Muslims, rightfully so, feel excluded from society or prejudiced against and alienated."

“Radical groups target innocent civilians so people develop an animosity to the Muslim community,” he says “Some Muslims, rightfully so, feel excluded from society or prejudiced against and alienated and as a result the narrative of oppression of Daesh or the Islamic State resonates more profoundly with them.” 

Bélanger helped with the launch of the centre in 2015 and created a toolkit that sheds light on myths of radicalization and de-radicalization, and what the public can do. 

“Raising awareness through education is a key element because research indicates that in terms of homegrown terror, about 60 per cent of cases can be detected by family, peers or friends,” he says. 

Tiflati says intercultural dialogue between youth can help prevent Islamophobia and radicalization, while Amarasingam adds community-based, grassroots programs like those for gang prevention and intervention can give youth a sense of belonging. 

"In terms of preventing radicalization, we shouldn't just put everyone in the same basket,” says Tiflati. “It is treated case by case.”

 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

 

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