Consume This! Understanding Political Parties’ Leading Role in the Debate over Islamic Clothing

In our June edition of Consume This!, Emily Laxer examines the intersection of political parties, secularism and the consumption of symbols of collective identity, by comparing how Islamic veiling is framed within French and Québécois political landscapes.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Consume This! Understanding Political Parties’ Leading Role in the Debate over Islamic Clothing

By Emily Laxer

We live in an era of tremendous political instability, upheaval, and divisiveness.  From Latin America to Europe, from the United States to parts of Canada, a populist wave is washing over our political systems, affecting policy domains as varied as the economy, migration, the environment, and national identity.

One of the defining characteristics of this tumultuous political moment is the proliferation of highly politicized debates over whether and how to restrict the wearing of – primarily Islamic – religious coverings in countries’ public spaces and institutions.  Through these debates, questions of consumption, clothing, symbols and identity become central objects of a larger political struggle over ways to negotiate the parameters of secularism and religious expression.

France has been at the forefront of those debates. In 2004, the country banned the wearing of ostentatious religious signs in public schools, citing the legal principle of laicité, or secularism.  Then in 2010, policy-makers responded to controversy over the Islamic niqab and burqa by prohibiting the wearing of facial coverings in all public spaces.

Canada, too, has witnessed a growing preoccupation with Islamic religious coverings, primarily – though not exclusively – in its French-speaking province of Québec.  Just weeks ago, that province’s centre-right Coalition avenir Québec government tabled a bill that, if approved, will prohibit the wearing of religious signs by civil servants in positions of authority, including judges, police officers, crown prosecutors, and – most controversially – teachers.  Subject to intense challenges from two of the province’s three main opposition parties, this proposal is only the most recent in an almost two decade-long debate over religious accommodations in Québec.

In trying to understand how countries have chosen to address (mainly Islamic) religious signs in public spaces and institutions, and how the ensuing debates have redefined the secular landscape across various settings, scholars have told different but complementary stories.

One of these is a story about race. Several works point to the deep-seated colonial systems of meaning and relations of power in which attempts to exclude Muslims from the body-politic are inscribed. This story is especially salient in France, where the term ‘Islamophobia’ is used to capture how colonial belief systems empower racialized representations of the veil as signifying the ‘otherness’ of French Muslims.

There is also a story of gender. Indeed, laws attending Islamic signs have become key venues in which differently-positioned feminists are debating what constitutes women’s dignity, agency, and equality.

A third tale to emerge from scholars’ grappling with the Islamic signs debate is a tale about migration.  Indeed, for many, attempts to curtail the visibility of Islam are just one manifestation of the retreat of liberal multiculturalism in states and of the related rise of citizenship policies that aim to enforce newcomers’ conformity to prescribed national ‘values’.

A fourth prominent story in the canon attends to the role of historically-rooted narratives of nationhood and secularism and the ways these inform contemporary responses to religious diversity.

And finally, there is a story about law, with scholars asking how advocates of restrictive legislation have been able to fit it into existing legal and constitutional frameworks.

In my new book Unveiling the Nation: The Politics of Secularism in France and Québec  (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), I aim to add a new story to this patchwork, one that takes seriously the role of political parties in bringing about varied and unexpected developments in the Islamic signs debate. That story stems from my attempt to answer a series of questions. How and why – or why not, as the case may be – do parties take up the issue of Islamic signs and, very often, make it central to their electoral brands? What determines the stances that parties adopt as they reckon with this issue at a given time or in a given place?  What are the implications of parties’ actions and interactions for Muslim women’s access to citizenship and belonging in the nation?

Answering these questions is a necessarily interdisciplinary endeavour.  I am a sociologist by training. But until quite recently, political parties have been cast as background characters in sociological analyses of politics.  To the extent that sociologists did focus on parties, they tended to frame them as conduits for pre-existing public opinions and cleavages.

But recently, a new approach has emerged, which attends to the constitutive role that parties play in articulating – and not simply reflecting – collective goals and identities.  Drawing insight from this approach, I attempt in the book to shed light on the ways that institutionalized narratives around race, gender and nation, policy-discourses around citizenship, and established legal frameworks are interpreted and activated by political parties as they seek electoral dominance.

The cases I draw from to shed light on these processes are those of France and Québec.  Bound by a historical colonial relationship, these two French-speaking societies share a number of linguistic and cultural features.  Recently, moreover, both have seen the proliferation of debate over whether Islamic veiling constitutes a threat to established institutional and discursive notions of secularism.  Yet, I argue, the unfolding of that debate has differed significantly in these two settings, in part because of the way parties within each have responded to their respective landscapes of electoral competition.

In France, that landscape has historically been marked by contestations of class.  Indeed, from the late 1970s until very recently, voters at the French ballot box were given a choice between traditionally left-wing candidates advocating for state redistribution to alleviate class inequality, and right-wing parties touting the equalizing powers of the free market.  But since the 1980s, a new political contender – the ultra-right Front National (renamed Rassemblement National in 2017) – has upset these politics-as-usual, siphoning votes from the right and the left on the basis of an explicitly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agenda.

I argue that the debate over Islamic signs – including the ‘consensus’ that politicians have projected over religious restrictions – bears the marks of mainstream parties’ struggles to deflect this ultra-right political threat. And, although it is very much contrived, that ‘consensus’ has had real and damaging effects for France’s Muslim minorities.

Meanwhile, a different set of political processes marks the unfolding of the debate over the incorporation of Islamic signs in Québec. In that setting, I observed a far more conflict-ridden political landscape, in which politicians and other leading figures directly challenged one another’s very legitimacy in managing this issue.

I propose that the persistence of nationhood rather than class as the basis of electoral contention has contributed to this outcome, rendering parties in Québec far more reluctant than their French counterparts to proclaim a ‘consensus’ around this issue.  Indeed, after nearly two decades of debate, the question of whether and how to restrict such signs remains highly politically divisive, even after three successive governments have considered turning restriction into law. And it is my contention that this intense divisiveness reflects the fact that the main parties have hitched their political wagons to near opposite images of Québec’s national past, present, and future.

In a nutshell, parties play a leading – and under-appreciated – role in the Islamic signs debate.  They interpolate and creatively re-define established ideas and institutions in order to draw distinctions between national ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.  As scholars, we should take notice.

 

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About the Author

Emily Laxer is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Glendon College, York University, and the author of Unveiling the Nation: The Politics of Secularism in France and Québec (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019).

|Twitter: @emily_laxer |Website: laxeremily.wordpress.com

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