According to students at Chelsea Elementary School in Quebec, Fatemeh Anvari was a great teacher. She was also popular with parents. However, being a good and popular teacher did not matter to the fanatical secular Quebec government that removed her from her teaching position because she wore the hijab. She was moved to non-teaching work. In the face of mounting public outcry against this blatantly racist act, Quebec’s Premier François Legault, far from making amends, doubled down stating that Anvari should not have been hired in the first place because of Bill 21.
In June 2019, the Quebec National Assembly passed into law what is referred to as Bill-21. Known as the “Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,” it bars public employees, including judges, lawyers, police, and teachers, from wearing religious symbols. It also restricts peoples’ ability to access public services if their faces are covered.
Using the pretext of preserving Quebec’s status as a ‘secular’ society, it essentially discriminates against Muslim women. While touting the principles of “equality of all citizens” and “freedom of conscience and freedom of religion,” it is blatantly discriminatory and excludes Muslim women from full participation in society as demonstrated by Fatemeh Anvari’s case.
Legal experts are of the opinion that Bill-21 runs contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including section 2(a), that guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. Fearing a court challenge, the Quebec government resorted to the notwithstanding clause (section 33) that prohibits a legal challenge for five years and allows the province to continue implementing a discriminatory policy.
There is also a great deal of hypocrisy in Bill-21 that provides legal cover for racist policies already practised by many Canadian institutions, especially in Quebec. On the one hand, the Quebec government claims to uphold secular values, but on the other it continues to promote certain religious symbols. Its claim to secularism is selective and fraudulent. It is meant to target Muslims, especially Muslim women that wear the hijab.
Until recently, there was a huge Cross installed on the wall behind the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly. The cross is a Christian symbol. It is especially popular with Catholics that make up the majority in Quebec. When this hypocrisy was pointed out, the Quebec government sought refuge behind the claim that it was a cultural, not a religious symbol. This did not convince many people. Under mounting public criticism, the cross was moved to another part of the Assembly building where it stays despite claims of secularity.
The secular hypocrisy runs deeper. In Canada, two types of schools receive provincial funding: public (secular) schools and Catholic schools. Quebec is predominantly Catholic. It was to pander to Quebec Catholics that funding is provided to such schools. This is also the case in other provinces. If Quebec is truly committed to secularism, why the financial support for Catholic schools?
Quebec also has the dubious distinction of being the first province where a place of worship—the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Center—was the target of a terrorist attack on January 29, 2017. Six Muslims were murdered in cold blood while they were offering night prayers. Another 19 worshippers sustained injuries, one of them paralyzed from the waist down.
The terrorist, Alexandre Bissonnette, a student at Laval University, was radicalized through the Internet and by surfing anti-Islamic websites. He was influenced by such Islamophobes as Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Anders Breivik, Donald Trump and a host of others. Among the people he killed on that fateful night was also an Engineering professor at Laval.
Terrorists do not emerge in a vacuum. While there is little doubt that the Internet plays a large part in poisoning people’s minds, governments have dual responsibility. First, they must go after people that indulge in promoting hatred against identifiable groups. Second, and more importantly, governments must not join in the demonization of a particular religious minority. Through Bill 21, the Quebec government is guilty of doing precisely that.
Not surprisingly, this racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic law has disproportionately impacted Muslim women. Ample evidence exists that Muslim women experience increased violence in Canada generally and Quebec specifically. Islamophobic hate crimes have risen alarmingly in Canada. Such hate crimes are more likely to involve female victims than other hate crimes.
Who is unaware of the gruesome murder of the Afzaal family last June in London, Ontario when three generations of the same family were mowed down by a pick-up truck? The 20-year-old assailant, Nathaniel Veltman, was motivated by hate and targeted the family because of their faith. True, there was much outpouring of grief and sympathy but no meaningful action has been taken by the government despite making soothing noises. Politicians of all stripes were quick to say that “hate has no place in Canada”.
What have they done to confront it? Next to nothing.
The firing of Fatemeh Anvari from her teaching position is another nod to racists and bigots that Islamophobia is acceptable. They can continue with discriminatory policies even though they violate the fundamental rights of people.