What am I supposed to feel when I stand across from a government employee at the SAAQ (the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec)? This employee might ask for my expired registration papers. She will tell me how much it costs to re-register my car. She will probably point out that there are unpaid parking tickets to be dealt with before she can renew my registration. “Ok, ok, I knew those tickets would catch up with me eventually.”
But what am I supposed to feel or experience when I stand across from this employee?
Apparently Bernard Landry thinks that there is something particular I should be feeling or experiencing. Specifically, he seems to think that I should be experiencing some kind of dissonance or distress on account of the hijab she is wearing.
Landry, who is the former leader of the Parti Québecois, and the former premier of the province, has recently become the point person in publicly defending Quebec’s yet-to-be released charter of secularism – a charter that would apparently prevent this nameless Quebec employee from wearing her hijab.
And from his comments on the subject, I gather that M. Landry thinks there is something deeply problematic when I stand looking at this muslim-woman-employee through the plexiglass. There she is in her colourful scarf and with her professional demeanor. And here I am with my impatient “I need to get back to work” attitude. There is a problem here, apparently.
But what is the problem? What is it that M. Landry and the Parti Québecois think I should be experiencing?
Am I supposed to feel that her religious expression impinges upon me, and is a denial of, or affront to, my own faith and identity?
Well, I don’t feel that way. I understand her hijab as a particular spiritual discipline that is important to her. That scarf has a long history within certain traditions of Islam. Her scarf is probably as important to her as the cross pin is to her colleague two wickets over.
Or am I supposed to think that her wearing of the hijab means that the province of Quebec embraces this particular employee’s religious faith – that the province of Quebec therefore believes that her particular faith is the one true path toward human flourishing? That the province therefore thinks that I am on the wrong spiritual path?
Of course I don’t think that. Who would? The constitutional and cultural frameworks of Quebec and Canada are relatively strong. And in their present form they grant significant freedom for divergent faiths and their practices. This employee’s wearing of the hijab simply points to the freedoms we share in this constitutional and cultural context. So everyone knows that the state doesn’t endorse her faith or submit to it in any specific way – she is simply an employee in a state-run agency, fulfilling her assignment as ably as anyone else.
Or perhaps I am supposed to be afraid that “they are taking over” and that once there is a certain number of “them” in the province, they will force a change within Quebec law and culture and overturn key aspects of it. Perhaps freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, and the equality of the sexes, are all under threat.
But I am not afraid in this way. This does not mean I am so naïve as to think that all cultural traditions are made equal or that all religious and cultural traditions are consistent with the cultural heritage of Quebec and Canada – they are not. But the idea that “they are taking over,” or represent any kind of threat to the culture of Quebec today or in the future is nonsense and fear-mongering. In fact, there is every possibility that we have something to learn from them.
Indeed, if at this historical moment Quebec’s particular cultural traditions are so tenuous as to be under significant threat, then it would probably be a wiser course of action for the PQ to undertake a thorough re-evaluation of the foundation and substance of those traditions.
Mr. Landry thinks I will or should feel threatened, or feel nervous, or experience more than a little anxiety for the future of Quebec when I stand across from this SAAQ employee in a hijab. But I feel none of those things. And I’m firmly convinced that no one else should, either.