Whether they admit it or not, virtually all Westerners hate the niqab and burqa for the anti-democratic ideology and misogynistic gender relations they signify. Many are increasingly willing to say so.
Why does political correctness fall away when it comes to the niqab? Because other Islamist inroads, like Shari'a banking, happen offstage, so to speak. They are not "seen" by the public. But the niqab is open to the collective public gaze. Individuals responding to their own discomfort observe that discomfort mirrored in other people's faces, which in turn emboldens them to protest. Politicians know grassroots support when they see it and several Western leaders have seized the moment for legislating partial or full niqab bans.
Parallel to the parliamentary efforts now advancing in France and Belgium, Quebec recently tabled a new law, Bill 94, which will ban the niqab — or any face cover — when extending and receiving public services in such institutions as courts, hospitals, schools, and licensing bureaus.
It is no accident that Quebec is leading the way in North America on this file. Quebec, apart from multicultural Montreal and its diffuse northern native populations, is the last bastion of ethnic homogeneity on the continent (with a not-unrelated tendency amongst ethnic québécois to politically incorrect candor), a province where obsession with cultural preservation drives the political agenda.
Since the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, cultural preservation has become synonymous with the linguistic hegemony of French. But Catholicism, however vestigial in terms of practice and influence, still rallies the loyalty of québécois in the face of perceived challenges to their cultural security.
Because the controlling hand of the Catholic Church fell particularly heavily on women in the past, Quebec is also the most militantly feminist of Canadian provinces. Female politicians exert a powerful influence over all social and cultural policies and disbursements here. The galling sight of veiled, depersonalized women in this women's rights stronghold arouses far more animus than any multiculturalist ideal can counter.
The decisive move, approved by 95% of Quebecers (a rare moment of political accord uniting federalists and nationalists) and 75% of all Canadians, followed a cultural tipping point, arrived at in November 2009, when a niqab-clad Egyptian woman, Naema Ahmed, was expelled from a government-run French class. This was done for pedagogical reasons, not religious ones; hostile to suggested compromises in advancing phonological competencies for which the teacher's direct observation of her mouth is crucial, she exhausted the administration's patience. Notable in her case, however, is the fact that the school felt so hamstrung by political correctness and dithered so long, the government stepped in to order the expulsion.
Ahmed's indifference to the sensibilities of her classmates and her general belligerence were helpful in reinforcing the public's impression that she was making a political rather than a religious statement. That she later tried to re-enroll, still veiled, in another French course — unsuccessfully — and promptly filed a complaint with a human rights commission gives the whole caper the earmarks of an Islamist shot across the bow.
Ahmed's rebarbative attitude happily precluded the kind of public sympathy elicited by another Montreal case in which a veiled Indian Muslim woman, "Aisha," was removed from a French course. Aisha tried to cooperate and was heartbroken, not angry, when expelled. Her story served to make a reasonable law seem draconian to sentimentalism-driven commentators.
Quebec has been poised for some time to draw a line in the unstable sands of "reasonable accommodation." Justifying the Ahmed expulsion, Quebec immigration minister Yolande James was forthright in making it plain that "if you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values. We want to see your face."
The road to Bill 94 can be said to begin in Hérouxville, Quebec, a tiny rural hamlet of 1,300 souls, with nary a niqab in sight, or likely to be. In January 2007, following a number of controversial cases involving the reasonable accommodation of religious sensibilities in Montreal, one of its outspoken councilors, André Drouin, published a "code of conduct" for immigrants including bans on the stoning of women and female circumcision, while privileging in public institutions the Christian symbols that are familiar to the 95% of Quebecers who identify themselves as Catholics. The retired engineer was pilloried as a racist at the time, but today he feels vindicated by Bill 94. The manifesto served to reveal the fault lines between elite theorists and the population, as well as to kindle passionate debate on the limits of reasonable accommodation.
Embarrassed by the worldwide attention the manifesto received, with its attendant images of Quebec as a redneck backwater, Premier Jean Charest instituted the costly ($7 million) yearlong Bouchard-Taylor commission in February 2007, its mandate to investigate and make recommendations on the treatment of religious minorities in Quebec. The expressed goal was to avoid French-style minority ghettoization and encourage integration.
The commission, headed by earnestly paternalistic academic multiculturalists who were totally out of sync with the mood of the population and visibly affronted during public hearings by outspoken expressions of resentment against religious minorities — chiefly Hasidim and Muslims — arrived at their foreordained conclusion that Quebec culture was not threatened by minorities and that their pet concept, "interculturalism," which maximizes tolerance for individual choices, deserved further study. The public was not buying any of it.
Is Quebec racist? Polls indicate Quebecers admit to racist attitudes disproportionately to other Canadians, but there is no hate crime evidence to suggest heritage québécois are more racist in practice than other provinces. Is Quebec xenophobic? Yes, somewhat, although it is a mild version that asserts itself in grumbling, not in organized vituperation, vandalism, or violence.
Quebec is a distinct society, culturally isolated in North America and understandably defensive around realistic threats of cultural dilution. Elevated xenophobia relative to other provinces has not, however, made inroads on Quebec's record as a peaceful, democratic, and behaviorally tolerant society.
Xenophobia is reflexively condemned as a cultural sin amongst our intellectual bien-pensants. But what if another cultural group really is out to dominate your own group? In that case, benign xenophobia — the kind that aligned with feminism to produce Quebec's Bill 94 — is what one might call an atout, a trump card in the grim cultural war games to which all democratic societies have been co-opted, where victories that do no harm to democracy, like the niqab ban, are few and should be regarded as precious.
Barbara Kay is a weekly columnist in the comment pages of Canada's National Post newspaper. This article was sponsored by Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.