As religious prescriptions for living lately have come to be infused into daily life in novel and provocative ways, the question is often posed: Has the presence of Islam changed the face of social relations in the West? The question has especially animated Canada's bilingual Quebec province - a political entity that seeks to apply the rule of law to all its residents, without exception. This is a debate we'd do well to consider, as voices raised to implement and to protest exceptions to the law become more frequent, more strident, and more divisive.
In the beginning was the town of Hérouxville (motto: Carpe Diem), whose municipal council unanimously adopted a code (in English and in French) of "societal norms" in January. These applied to the town's 1,300 residents, but concerned future resident immigrants, especially. Most noted was language condemning public stoning of women and genital excision.
The point? The fact that "men and women have the same value." And that from this derives
"a woman's right to drive an automobile, vote her conscience, sign checks, dance, and decide for herself."
The town's normative code also remarks that Quebeckers are wont to decorate Christmas trees and patronize physicians of either gender, that cuts of pork and beef may very well mingle on the butcher's table, and that girls and boys do swim together.
This being, the charter continues,
"we consider it unacceptable to stone women to death in the public square, or to burn them alive, disfigure them with acid, or subject them to genital mutilation."
It also requires residents to expose their faces, at all times, in public, for purposes of identification (All Hallow's Eve excepted).
The Hérouxville code was inflammatory by design, and resembles the resolution, passed unanimously by Quebec's National Assembly in May 2005, that opposed the creation of Islamic tribunals in the province (and across the nation, they hoped). This resolution was the product of disputes that had gripped Ontario over the reasonableness of Islamic arbitration, and made Quebec the first province to expressly forbid Islamic (sharia) law.
After the vote, the Premier noted:
"It's important to send a very clear message that there's one rule of law in Quebec."
"In our case, we are very much an inclusive society, but a society that will govern itself by one set of rules."
Quebeckers largely agreed, and 80% of those surveyed in February claimed to support the elimination of religious accommodations across the province.
Finally, the Hérouxville "norms" raised such a chahut (ruckus) across the province that Quebec Premier Jean Charest felt impelled to charter a special commission to examine the lengths to which the province ought to "accommodate" religious minorities. And in a surprising turnaround two weeks later -- on the heels of a visit from a Muslim women's delegation, and threats of action by the Canadian Islamic Congress and the Canadian Muslim Forum -- "genital excision" and "public stoning of women" were dropped from the code for reason of perceived anti-Muslim bias.
And yet, Quebeckers did not abandon the discussion of religious concessions; the Hérouxville code served to ferment the debate, which has exploded into view since the Premier's commission began its work this month. Since January-and in the last weeks, expecially-the number of articles published on the subject of "reasonable accommodations," and the commission's own charter, has become difficult to ignore.
Montreal's La Presse recently complained of "reasonable accommodations" throughout the province, including prenatal courses forbidden to men (for purposes of gender segregation), and steps taken to respect the "cultural and religious specificity" of hospital guests. These include allowing male relations to supervise medical examinations of women. Concessions like these were conceived to satisfy a number of Quebec's Muslims, who objected to unsupervised, intimate contact between a woman and her physician. Complaints against concessions made to Quebec's Jewish and Sikh communities also feature prominently, but it's clear by the language employed by the Hérouxville councilors, media types, and members of the political establishment, that demands from within and about Quebec's Muslims are driving the agenda.
Reflecting on Quebec's present discussion, I wonder what it will take to provoke a debate on "reasonable accommodations" in the United States. And when will we conclude that accommodation of religious practice cannot come without conditions? Hérouxville represents a symbolic (if Quixotic) gesture by an almost entirely homogeneous provincial settlement, which hopes to denounce offences presumably covered by Canada's criminal code. The point for these Quebeckers was not to break ground for new law, but to make clear that the ideas that contribute to certain religious practice are in and of themselves reprehensible. "Appalling," not "different."
Quebeckers don't want to argue with God; and they have taken steps to guarantee that refusal to debate God's mind does not require one to endorse others' eccentric or cruel customs for harmony's sake -- or to keep the peace.
Quebec, the "most godless province in the West," by one count or another, nonetheless seeks to impose a single legal framework within her boundaries. She will not be a province under God, but she will demand liberty and (a single) justice for all-whether one is of mass or minority opinion.
Whatever occurs, Quebec's public hearings on "reasonable accommodations" for religious minorities have now begun, and will continue throughout November, in 17 communities across the province. Recommendations will be read to the provincial government and the public in March 2008.
I hope that Quebec will shrug off allegations of "Islamophobia," and choose instead to endorse equality before the law. In so doing, the province will have presented a model for public discussion, and may suggest answers to our own, whispered questions. Quebec will be well worth watching in the coming year.
How the commission's recommendations will square with Quebeckers' ideas on the subject of accommodation-and whether the commission's position will be taken as evidence of dread aplatventrisme (prostrate surrender), we can't be sure.
Aplatventrisme or "reasonable accommodation"? For many Quebeckers, it's become a tomayto/tomahto sort of thing.
R. John Matthies is assistant director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org