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Secularism and the soccer pitch
Patrick Lagacé admonishes Quebec’s “strange view of secularism”. But is secularism what he really wants?

Prince Arthur Herald, 13 June 2013

In a guest column for the Globe and Mail on Tuesday, June 11, the journalist Patrick Lagacé discussed the recent banning of turbans from soccer pitches in Quebec. His thesis was that the Quebec Soccer Federation’s decision was not only wrong for its own sake, but also suggestive of something perverse in Quebec’s view of secularism.

Underlying this attitude, he claims, is a xenophobic double standard, whereby the Catholic culture inherited by today’s Québécois is allowed to slide by, while minority religious customs are confronted. This is an interesting argument, and one that ought not be rashly dismissed. But it is worth noting that in his rush to categorically denounce both the QSF ruling and the secularist justification thereof, Lagacé misses the nuance and room for debate on this question, which cannot be so easily answered with ordinary liberal zeal.

The simplest, yet most important, point to counter is Lagacé comparison of Quebec society to the segregated southern United States during the 1950s. By stating that the turban-wearing “can play in their backyard, but not with official referees, not in the official rules of soccer”, the QSF has, in Lagacé’s judgment, committed an ethical betrayal of that variety. But even if one shares his contempt with the decision, the comparison is bunk. Because of its voluntary nature, discrimination on the ground of religion — even at its most wrong and colossal — is never the same as discrimination on the ground of skin colour or race, which is completely involuntary and unrelated to the various disagreements about ethics and ideas that pervade interreligious discourse. And even if one interprets an air of sectarianism in the QSF statement, it remains that the wearing of a turban is an individual choice (takeable by any person, include a non-Sikh) which is not impinged by a soccer body’s decision to prohibit it — no one, after all, is required to play soccer in the first place.

Lagacé also writes as though secularism, as he understands it, is the set of ideals that animates Quebec’s public policy on matters of religion. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it is worth noting that the province of Quebec is far more influenced by laïcité, the French term that is sometimes translated as secularism, but which nevertheless differs in substance from the English word. Secularism, in English, refers to the separation of religious institutions from governmental ones and to the guarantee of religion’s free exercise. (This definition has a legal and textual basis: the First Amendment to the United States constitution guarantees the free practice of religion while prohibiting “establishment”.)

By contrast, laïcité is more related to the clerical-anticlerical divide that was a major conflict in France during the late-18th and 19th centuries. Like many issues in French politics, it was (and continues to be) far more state-focused than their equivalents in English-speaking countries. In the latter, and especially in America, the primary concern is the right of citizens to practice their faith without state interference, and without the burden of belonging to a religion that is at odds with the official confession of the government. In France (and by later borrowing, in Quebec), laïcité incorporates the notion that it is the role of the state to progressively move society (including society’s institutions) away from religious influence. The confiscation of church property by the state and the desecration of Christian symbols during the French Revolution are examples of laïcité, not secularism, as the latter would never permit state involvement in what is supposed to be a stateless affair.

Another key distinction is that the secular ideals that emerged in English-speaking countries were developed in response to religious pluralism and to the legal and political challenges that arise therefrom. In France, meanwhile, laïcité came about due to arguments between the members of a quite uniformly-Catholic population. This is why the anticlerical side of the question was chiefly concerned with what they viewed as the injustice of Catholic institutional power over the whole of society, not simply atheists or the members of other religions. And it is for these reasons that the Anglophone conception of secularism is far better prepared to deal with the mass arrival of non-Christian religions than is the French version of laïcité.

To suggest that the QSF ruling represents a corruption of Quebec secularism is to therefore commit a rudimentary, but serious, analytical error. In Quebec society, there is strictly-speaking no secularism — as we understand it — to corrupt. Yet even if one were to accept this leg of his argument, it is not entirely clear that authentic secularism is what Lagacé really wants. For if Quebec and the QSF were to follow a genuine secular course, his objections might not be addressed.

For example, Lagacé presents the anti-turban ruling as a straightforward and purposive attack on the religious freedom of Sikhs, rendering it anti-secular. But secularism does not insulate every religious action from possible restriction. In fact, there are two clear instances where secularism does not guarantee unrestricted religious freedom: 1) when a religious action by one person conflicts with the freedom of someone else, and 2) when a religious action breaks a generally-applicable law. There are plenty of antecedents for the latter from Canadian law and politics: Muslim women are not permitted to violate the existing dress code at citizenship ceremonies by wearing a niqab; Sikhs are not allowed to drive motorcycles with a turban in lieu of a helmet; and Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot deprive their children of life-saving blood transfusions because their church tells them to do so.

If such logic were applied to this case, it would appear that the QSF decision is defensible: the ban on headgear existed before it was challenged for religious bias, and applies to the use of any headgear, religious or secular. And even if the rule were to be new, what matters is consistency of enforcement: if Sikh players are allowed to wear a turban, that it must be held that anyone can wear any other piece of headgear that they like. Yet it seems that what Mr Lagacé wants is an exemption or “reasonable accommodation” (an invariable euphemism for religious accommodation) making Sikhs play by a different set of rules than their fellow athletes. That can be characterized in many ways, but secular is not one of them.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com