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November 24, 2019

Let's call it what it is - The Quebec Inquisition Office (QIO)

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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In case you missed it, Québec's Bill 21, which became law when passed back in June, is not only anti-Muslim, but anti-women - especially Muslim women.

Under the provisions of this regressive legislation, these women are being doubly penalized: first, because they visibly identify as Muslim through their religious clothing; secondly, because they are women, who in 2019 are still globally targeted, based solely on their gender identity.

Moreover, sad but true, hijab-wearing Québec Muslim women who may choose to leave the province face far more social restrictions than either Jewish or Sikh men who also choose to observe traditional head coverings.

It is a cruel and illogical irony for the Québec government to claim it is merely upholding the separation of church and state, while simultaneously wielding the blunt instrument of legislation to openly target a religious minority – worse still, the women of a religious minority.

What could be more discriminatory or sexist?

And who do Québec legislators think they’re kidding with the flimsy pretext that by enforcing Bill 21 they will “protect” the province’s secular character?

The entire justification for it borders on the irresponsibly stupid.

Originating in recommendations made by the Bouchard-Taylor Report of more than a decade ago, Bill 21 was presented with the professed intention of eradicating visible religious symbols throughout most of the public sector.

In practical terms, that meant civil service employees, teachers, law-enforcement officers, judges, and many other professionals would be forbidden to openly wear items such as hijabs, turbans, kippahs, crucifixes, and similar clothing or symbols while on the job.

After long and contentious debate, Bill 21 was pushed through in June by the ruling Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) with help from the Parti Québécois.

It did not enter the world quietly.

Even before coming into force last September, it sparked a groundswell of confusion and protest. Critics have condemned it as legalizing discrimination against religious minorities, while supporters claim that Québec is fulfilling the CAQ’s pre-election vow to make the province a fully secular society.

No fewer than four separate legal challenges have been filed against Bill 21.

To counter them, the Québec government has invoked the infamous “notwithstanding clause” that allows provincial legislation to override (in reality, to violate) the constitutional provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But it did not address that the Quebec Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion!

But how, I ask, will it make Québec more secular than the rest of Canada to deny a hijabi Muslim woman a public education teaching job while still allowing her to work at a privately-funded school? Similar questions can be asked in reference to government-supported hospitals and research labs, versus privately-supported institutions. It goes on and on …

All across Canada, Muslim families - including mine - have women who choose to wear the hijab and those who do not. It is part of life, and has never been an issue – until in Québec with the imposition of Bill 21.

This is just another reminder of how profoundly our world is still shaped and controlled by male power. Bill 21 targets women solely by identity.

It harks back to the ugly history of government and church-sanctioned campaigns such as the Spanish Inquisition – an astonishing 356 years, from 1478 to 1834 – which targeted and subjugated both Muslims and Jews for simply being who they were; identity itself was criminalized.

In the light of that uncomfortable truth, I recommend that the Québec government establish its own Inquisition Office, with a full set of bylaws and enforcement rules, including the power to fine all Bill 21 “offenders.”

The QIO – Québec Inquisition Office – would determine and define what a religion is, what a religious symbol is, and how it violates the law, or not.

Would wearing a logo-imprinted hijab or head covering, as some women do when they’ve lost their hair due to cancer treatment, be deemed illegal whether they are Muslim or not?

Could a person’s religion be declared on their driver’s license?

What about an atheist/agnostic Muslim woman who chooses to wear a hijab for reasons of culture or personal preference? What about a female government worker who converts to Islam? Would Bill 21 force employment ads to specify that hijab-wearing Muslim women should not apply?

All these and more would be questions for the QIO to deal with on an almost-daily basis. It would probably require a large budget!

During the Spanish Inquisition, Muslims and Jews were given the ultimatum of leaving their country where many had lived for generations, or converting to Christianity; the only remaining option was death.

To meet the sudden high “demand” for mass baptisms, church officials would gather entire villages in the local square and spray them down with hoses. Back then, your forcibly converted Muslim and Jewish neighbors would then be tested for their sincerity by being offered a meal with pork. If they declined there was worse, much worse, in store.

This period witnessed the ugliness of humanity at its most brutal extremes.

The Inquisition resulted in a massive “brain drain” of Muslim and Jewish scholars, scientists, doctors, teachers, and a wide spectrum of other skilled professionals, who left Spain to resettle in Muslim-majority countries. Could a similar exodus of talent be in Québec’s future?

Fortunately Québec’s nationalist-secularists have not proven as fanatical as their historical Spanish counterparts. Ironically, however, they don't seem to know much about Canadian history – such as the times when their ancestors were targeted for discrimination by English Canadians, again based solely on their identity.

Throughout and around the city of Waterloo, Ontario, where I live, there are many Mennonite communities. Some Mennonites choose to dress differently, live differently, and school their children differently. Most are descendants of Mennonites forced to leave the US two centuries ago because they didn’t fit in the prevailing Christian culture there.

One other justification for Bill 21 is that it is supposedly supported by the “majority” of Québécois.

But that too is misleading. The Spanish Inquisition was also “supported” by European Christians, from humble believer’s right up to the reigning Popes of more than three centuries.

But uncritical acquiescence by the masses and authorities alike doesn’t make bad laws good. Campaigns like the Inquisition and the later horrors of Nazism are still indefensible legacies of human bigotry and brutality.

Perhaps the Québec government could instead create a QEO – Québec Engagement Office – dedicated to teaching, supporting, and promoting the province’s rich history, culture, language, and arts. That would do far greater good for everyone than the short-sighted excesses of Bill 21. 

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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