Monday, February 12, 2007

Take down the cross, the menorah, the hijab ... and what's left?

When the Radio-Canada show Tout le monde en parle ("Everyone's talking about it") discusses the same issue two weeks in a row, one has to wonder whether an issue has really struck a nerve. And they talked about it last night. The issue, of course, is the place religion has in politics in the province. Québec is arguably the most secular and the most religious Canadian province at the same time, something that must baffle not only their fellow Canadians but even many Americans.

The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s saw the Catholic and Protestant Churches purged out of health, education and welfare and having those services run by the state. About a decade ago, religious schools were also abolished everywhere except in Québec City and Montréal; which turned out to be more of a bureaucratic nightmare than anything -- and in the case of one of my friends who lives in Québec (an evangelical Christian), she just decided to home school her kids, as did a lot of other parents. Which is fine as long as they stick to the curriculum.

Yet at the same time, religion is a very pervasive part of life. True, church attendance is way down. But people there are very devout on a personal level and most insist on getting married in the Church; and the fact so many street names as well as the names of cities and towns bear the names of the saints as well as other religious figures suggests religion isn't about to go away any time soon. And that's a good thing, I think.

As long as the overwhelming consensus was based on the Judeo-Christian ethic, it didn't seem to be seen as a problem. But it seems that immigration has reeled its ugly head -- a backlash against it has been simmering, and last month it exploded. For a province that prides itself on an autonomous immigration policy (something all provinces have the right to pursue, of course, but Québec has done so successfully) it's hard to imagine things getting this far.

What has caused this "pushing back"? It's being going on for months, but took on a nasty turn with the recent declaration by the rural town of Herouxville, Quebec; which passed a by-law banning people from stoning women, throwing acid on them, burning them alive, or performing female circumcisions. All things associated with some extreme sharia interpretations of Islam. Many people saw this as being racist and aimed at Muslims.

Since then, five other towns have passed similar ordinances. And it's not just limited to Islam. Even the majority Catholic Church, professed by fully two-third of Québecois, is under assault; after the current leader of the PQ, André Boisclair, said that it's past time to remove the crucifix above the speaker's chair in the Québec National Assembly.

What? Take down that crucifix, and you may as well also remove the giant cross atop Mount Royal and which acts as a guidepost for the island of Montréal at night. I have never heard any Jewish or Muslim or Hindu groups complaining about either before. Even Protestants, who prefer the empty cross over the crucifix (with Christ crucified) haven't objected to a Catholic symbol being in the Assembly.

The American policy of separating church and state has torn apart people in that country between people who believe religion is a private affair (usually Democrats) and those who think it should be an integral part of public policy (usually Republicans). At the extremes are those who want to remove the word "God" from money and the pledge of allegiance on one hand, and those who want to put Muslims and Jews on the next boat back to Eurasia on the other.

We Canadians have seemed to strike an appropriate balance. For historical reasons, a plurality of Canadians (about 43%) are Roman Catholic and that's not about to change any time soon. Yet from the start, compromises were made to respect the rights of Catholics and Protestants in the provinces where they were respectively minorities; and of course Jewish people were granted equal rights even before there was a Canada -- and even before the UK gave similar protections to the Chosen People. The general consensus has been a two way street of respect: Live by the rules of our society and we'll ensure you're free to live yours the way you choose.

Which makes the Herouxville declaration both insidious and stupid. It presumes all male Muslims support the genocide of women and that's simply ridiculous. It also presumes that the jihadists want to impose their way of life on other Canadians. Both have no rational basis in fact. It's based entirely on fear. It's really a statement that says, you're welcome to live here so long as you convert to Christianity.

On the other hand, some actions have been reflective of a society which seems too willing to compromise and are also stupid. Not too long ago, a health club in Montréal tinted its windows so as not to offend Hasidic Jews who objected to seeing women in Spandex exercising; and the police in that city now make a point of sending two men -- or a man and a woman -- to neighbourhoods where Jewish people are a majority. It's gotten to the point where the Confederation bargain means nothing, and the Québec Charter (which is even more expansive in declaration of rights than the federal one) is a joke.

There is a big difference between freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. There has been some overreaction on both sides of the debate, however the issue is a serious one. If people want to be politically incorrect, that's their business. But every action has a positive and negative reaction -- and when one pushes, they should expect someone else to push back. It's true in physics, and it's true when it comes to religion.

I've never been bothered by the presence of Jews or Muslims in Canada, people of faiths other than the Roman Catholicism I profess; I've never been bothered by people of no religion at all either. But it's time to get back to first principles: Respect is a two way street. There's no need to fear being politically incorrect and say exactly how one feels about something, regardless of one's faith. But we need to take a stand.

I for one would not like to see a country totally devoid of religion. Religious faith is a core Canadian principle. I understand Herouxville's point, but it's being made the wrong way when it comes to minorities. André Boisclair also doesn't get it either when it comes to the majority. Little wonder Canada has so many problems.

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