My old comrade Paul Wells (with whom I'll be appearing at Preston Manning's annual beano in Ottawa in a few weeks' time) has a piece in Maclean's about Quebec's proposed "Charter of Values", under which civil servants will be forbidden from wearing visible expressions of their faith. Some people think that, as with similar laws in France, the object is to "ban the burqa", but it's necessary to toss in a few kippahs and crucifixes for multiculti cover. Others point out that the province went from stoutly Catholic to the most aggresively securalist jurisdiction in North America in nothing flat, and that therefore their dislike of religious emblems might well be entirely ecumenical.
Paul, like me, is an anglophone who's spent a lot of time in Quebec and likes its people. I like 'em warts and all. Paul, on the other hand, seems to have been caught off-guard by all the warts - especially the carbuncular disfigurement of the "Charter of Values":
Surely, I wrote, nobody would put up with such nonsense. "It's make-or-break for the entire sovereignty movement," I wrote, "and I'm pretty sure [the PQ architects of the proposed charter] just broke it."
Yeah, well, that was wrong. A Jan. 20 LĂ©ger poll for QMI found the PQ with a three-point lead over the Opposition Quebec Liberals. The lead grows to 18 points among francophones, who determine the winner in most Quebec ridings. Satisfaction with the government of Premier Pauline Marois, which hasn't done much that most people would notice besides talk up its headscarf ban, has risen five points in a month. Support for the ban has risen to 60 per cent among all respondents, which breaks down to 69 per cent among francophones and 26 per cent among non-francophones.
It's possible to imagine Marois winning a majority on the strength of the headscarf ban, and increasingly likely she'll try her luck by calling an election within weeks.
There then follows a thoughtful attempt to explain the many reasons why headscarf-banning does boffo biz in la belle province - the secular imperative, a general deference to government, the fetal cringe of the opposition party, and, of course, fear of "Islamic fundamentalism", in which last category I make a cameo appearance:
There's a lot of tension around the role of Islam in Western societies. This magazine used to serve up a helping of it every week, under Mark Steyn's signature.
C'mon, not every week. Sometimes I wrote about Johnny Mercer or Ian Fleming.
That aside, Brother Wells' observations are all sound and sensible - except that he's so good on the trees he misses the forest. The closest he gets to mentioning it is that poll finding, which shows overwhelming (69 per cent) support for the ban among francophones and utter lack of support (26 per cent) among non-francophones. As I wrote in Maclean's four years ago, in one of those great steaming "helpings" I used to "serve up", with reference to whatever kerfuffle was kerfuffling around that particular week:
In return, the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente redeemed her paper with a characteristically sharp column on the new "two solitudes"â€”French and English Canada's different view of Islam, which she argued mirrored broader Franco-Britannic approaches. She's right. France thought nothing of banning the veil in its educational establishments, whereas in Britain a teenage girl who took her school to court for the right to wear the full-body "jilbab" had as her lawyer none other than Cherie Booth, wife of then-prime minister Tony Blair.
On this one, I'm with the "intolerant" Quebecers. Don't get me wrong. I'm a Common Law man. I like to be treated as an individual enjoying equality under the law, no more, no less. But these days that's not on the menu in either English or French Canada. Instead, we have competing philosophies of group rights. In the ROC, the group rights that matter are those of leftist social engineers' preferred minoritiesâ€”gays, natives, Muslims, pre-op transsexuals. Quebec also prioritizes group rights, but in this case the group that matters is the majorityâ€”la collectivitĂ©. As I said, I rejoice in English law's ancient disdain for the very concept of group rights. But, if I'm forced to choose between one view of group rights or the other, Quebec's seems less psychologically unhealthy.
That's it. Quebeckers think "group rights" mean minorities should defer to the wishes of the majority. So do the French, the Belgians, the Swiss, and other Continentals pondering bans on niqabs and minarets and whatnot. Whereas the notion of the state imposing a government dress code is repugnant to core English ideas of liberty (with the exception of Blair a few years back floating an empty and opportunist suggestion to ban hoodies from shopping malls) - which is why Paul Wells regards it as obvious "nonsense", as would most Scots, Aussie, and Kiwi columnists, and why in America's great iconic city Mayor Bloomberg thunders that the right to build a mosque at Ground Zero is some sort of bedrock test of the First Amendment and the people's willingness to live up to the ideals of the Founding Fathers.
So Continental countries are increasingly comfortable with banning the symptoms if not the cause of their troubles; and the anglophone democracies can't bring themselves to do even that.I don't believe either approach is the correct one, but I think they get to a profound difference between English and Continental understandings of liberty, and one that will prove increasingly important as western freedom comes under severe pressure in the decades ahead.
PS Many more steaming helpings on this subject right here.