Marian Scott, Montreal Gazette
The massacre of six worshippers in a Quebec City mosque a year ago should serve as a warning, says philosopher Charles Taylor.
Recent experience has shown that whenever governments adopt policies restricting the rights of minorities, there’s a rise in hateful incidents against those groups, noted Taylor, who co-chaired the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation.
In an interview, Taylor, a renowned political philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University, said the tragedy should send a message to governments that tampering with the rights of minorities — for example by restricting the right of a Muslim woman to wear a headscarf or face veil — can fuel xenophobia and abusive acts.
“The obvious lesson is that if people put forward what they think are very reasonable measures, in a measured way, to express a certain malaise with others, it’s taken up as a stigmatization. Whatever people feel, however they feel like reacting to stigmatization — if it’s shrieking at them in the street or even going farther than that — is encouraged,” Taylor said.
In the past year, Taylor has distanced himself from a key recommendation of the 2008 report he co-authored with historian and sociologist Gérard Bouchard, which proposed that authority figures like police officers, prison guards, judges and Crown prosecutors be barred from wearing religious symbols.
Last February, in the wake of the mosque attack, he wrote an open letter to La Presse saying he had changed his mind and now disagreed with the idea of restricting religious garb like the hijab (headscarf), kippa (skullcap) or turban.
In the letter, Taylor noted how the massacre created a wave of empathy for Muslims and united Quebecers of different origins. Passing a law that stigmatized minorities would reopen wounds and destroy the harmony that developed after the attack, he warned.
Bouchard said last year he was disappointed by Taylor’s change of heart and still believed the ban on religious garb for authority figures was necessary.
A year later, Taylor says he opposes Bill 62, adopted in October, which bars anyone wearing a face veil from giving or receiving government services. In December, a Quebec Superior Court judge suspended the face-veil ban after Muslims and civil-rights advocates challenged the law in court.
Rather than satisfying those who want to restrict the rights of religious minorities, such laws just whet their appetite for more, Taylor said.
“It’s not going to make people less xenophobic,” he said.
“That very measured restriction of their rights ends up encouraging any kind of dumping on them,” he said.
Reports of verbal and physical attacks against veiled Muslim women soared in 2013 after the former Parti Québécois government tabled its proposed Charter of Values, which sought to bar all government employees from wearing religious garb.
Taylor noted that the impact of such policies on minorities has been demonstrated not only in Quebec but around the world.
“The anti-burkini campaign in France produced a raft of incidents. Brexit produced a raft of incidents. We just know that this is how it works in modern democracies,” he said.
But Taylor dismissed the notion that the commission he co-chaired also fanned anti-immigrant sentiment by airing views that religious minorities are incompatible with Quebec culture.
“When I compare today to 2007, the group of people who ended up deciding this is a terrible thing has got larger and more decided and clearer about this. So that’s all to the good,” he said.
Taylor said he had agreed to the recommendation to ban religious garb for officials with “coercive” power on the theory that there is a difference between an official who can arrest or sentence criminals and other public-sector workers like teachers.
“I was never happy with that as a matter of principle but I thought if there is a special saliency, maybe there’s a case for not ruining the whole outcome of the report by including it in it,” he said.
But the distinction between officials with coercive power and other public employees was lost in subsequent debates, including the Charter of Values controversy, he said.
Taylor also linked the mosque attack to “this awful increase in the Islamophobic campaign which is coming from a lot of organizations that are well beyond our border.
“What distresses me is that organizations like La Meute, who are obviously one of the conveyor belts that lead to this campaign having that kind of effect, are more powerful than we thought, which really gives one pause,” he said.
Taylor said he is concerned that parties like the Coalition Avenir Québec could exploit popular support for curbs on minority rights during the next provincial election, to be held by Oct. 1.
“I think we can make a reasonable case that this is dividing Quebecers, this is something that is going to stop very valuable immigrants from coming to Quebec,” he said.
“So that case has to be made, and I suppose that some Liberals will be able to make that case even though they’re a little bit hampered by this Bill 62. Certainly the rest of us are going to be making that case and hammering that case,” he said.