By Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
On Wednesday October 18, Québec passed a controversial new law that bans residents from wearing face coverings while providing or receiving government services — including public transportation. Neutrality has become one of the key talking points since the law was enacted. While the law itself is framed as “an act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality,” Québec Premier Philippe Couillard and Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée have both defended the law against accusations of religious discrimination by emphasising that the law bans all face coverings, and not only religious ones. These assertions of neutrality are, however, more complicated than they at first appear.
While many Québec residents are outraged at the anti-Muslim implications of the new law, I want to consider how this law neutralizes some apparently religious expressions while prohibiting others along with the rhetorical strategies the government has employed to solidify its apparently neutral stance.
Debates concerning religious objects are not new in Québec. In 2013, the Parti Québecois tabled a similar bill that sought to ban government employees from wearing “ostentatious” religious objects including hijabs, turbans, and large ornate crosses. At the time, Couillard opposed this ban on all apparently ostentatious religious objects and focused instead on the niqab, burqa, and chador. In an interview in 2014 Couillard explained, “we consider that the wearing of these three items of clothing by women [to be] the instrumentalization of religion with the end goal of oppression and submission.” The implication here is that religion is acceptable when it is an end in itself and unacceptable when it becomes an instrument to achieve particular goals.
But this narrow interpretation of religion ignores the many ways religious objects are routinely instrumentalized in Québec and elsewhere. The new law, for instance, was debated and eventually passed in the National Assembly where a large crucifix is prominently displayed. This ostentatious religious symbol is explicitly protected by the new law which states, “the measures introduced in this Act must not be interpreted as affecting the emblematic and toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage, in particular its religious cultural heritage, that testify to its history.” The crucifix in the National Assembly is thus itself a religious instrument used to achieve a particular goal, in this case testifying to Québec’s Catholic heritage. Yet by framing the crucifix an emblematic historical object rather than a religious one, the law effectively neutralizes it: the crucifix ceases to be a religious object by fiat and becomes instead a harmless instrument of cultural heritage. The neutrality to which the law seeks to foster adherence is one that is created, therefore, with an aim to privilege certain objects over others.
Yet despite Couillard’s comments concerning the niqab, burqa, and chador, the new law does not explicitly target religious clothing. In a recent interview, Couillard noted, “a covered face is something other than religion.” As a result, there is already confusion concerning exactly which face coverings will be banned in the province. In response, the opposition party Québec Solidaire recently ridiculed the law by posting a satirical image on its website that suggests new signs will have to be placed in busses and on metros prohibiting sunglasses, toques, and scarves.
Québec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée attempted to clarify the government’s position when she explained the law “concerns the ‘full veil’ [voile intégral] as much as it does hoods, bandanas, or sunglasses.” According to the Vallée, the goal is to promote ease of communication and ensure security more generally — an apparently neutral proposition. Yet this proposition seems out of place in a law that seeks to ensure religious neutrality. While the law does mention communication and security, it mentions these only as justifications for refusing religious accommodations.
In fact, the obligation to provide and receive services with an uncovered face is a non-sequitur unless it is assumed that covering one’s face in any way whatsoever –even with “hoods, bandanas, or sunglasses”– demonstrates an inappropriate lack of religious neutrality. Exactly how sunglasses demonstrate religious affiliation remains, of course, a mystery. The government’s claim to neutrality in prohibiting all face coverings is nonsensical when it comes to the law’s stated aim of fostering religious neutrality, but it is exceedingly useful as a strategy to present that law as both necessary and fair.
In other words, neutrality is never neutral. Neutrality is a strategic position created with particular goals and outcomes in mind and often serves as a handy, if disingenuous, rhetorical strategy for concealing the normative work it performs under a cloak of apparent fairness.
Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is Baker Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University and is interested in examining the political and social processes that permit certain beliefs and behaviours to earn the designation ‘religion’ and cause others to be categorized instead as magic or superstition.