Secularism, Women’s Liberation and Intervention: More on the Racist Reasonable Accommodation "Debate"

Regarding yesterdays post about the racist “reasonable accommodation debate”, one comrade sent me a comment in which he suggested that this was a “three way fight” situation, and that radicals should forge our own path by pursuing a strategy of radical secularism. In his words:

Seem’s you are leaving a huge section of the problem out of you summary. The current backlash focus on accomodation for religious reasons. Populist and reactionarie use the situation to push a racist, anti-immigration agenda, that’s for sure. But at the same time it’s a classic 3 way fight situation. The left have been silent on this and I think it’s a really big mistake. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and the only good way out I see is a push for a radicalisation and deepening of the secularisation (laĂŻcitĂ©) of Quebec society. That is, we can refuse religion in the public sphere if, and only if, we destroy the last vestige of catholic priviledge (ex.: if we refuse to accomodate muslim with a room to pray, then we must close down the “chapelle”). The line to crush the populists while at the same time “accomodating” a majority who is not at ease with religion in the public sphere should look like this according to me.

Perhaps it’s in the air, but a similar point was made on the website of the left-nationalist newspaper l’aut’journal a few weeks back. i respect the intentions behind the argument, but i think that in the current context prioritizing the struggle for a “zero tolerance” secularism would not only be besides the point, it would risk transforming oneself into the left-wing of the nativist camp.

Here’s my reasoning, let me know what you think…

Within white francophone Quebec, religion plays a very marginal role in propping up structures of oppression – that fight was fought, and won, by a generation of capitalist modernizers fifty years ago. Not to say we don’t bump into the remnants of Catholicism active on the far right, not to say that Catholicism is not a problem in some contexts, or that Quebec is not a post-Catholic (as opposed to purely secular) society. Just that it is of marginal importance, Quebec being in fact one of the most secular corners of North America.

It is true that within certain immigrant and racialized communities religion plays a more important role, and often a reactionary one.

But these communities are not monolithic. Based primarily in Montreal and its suburbs, many of them are overwhelmingly proletarian, dynamic, and cosmopolitan. They include radical elements of both left and right, and are constantly being transformed by their own internal struggles, as well as their interpenetration with all the other communities who live here.

That we of the white left – both anglo and francophone – are not necessarily privy to all this is no great crime and no great surprise, just a consequence of the fact that these are for the moment distinct communities (and, for the most part, relatively young communities, here as across Canada).

Within Quebec, i think it is fair to characterize all of these communities as marginalized – in that their traditions and practices are often treated as intrinsically less worthy than those of either the established anglophone community or the Quebecois nation. Furthermore, most of them are also oppressed, suffering not only from particularly harsh levels of exploitation and inferior access to “public” resources and institutions, but also a whole panoply of unpleasant experiences, running the gamut from interpersonal racism to police violence to criminalization.

These communities are not simply marginalized and oppressed in a vacuum, they are marginalized and oppressed by institutions, organizations, classes and individuals of the dominant societies. As such, were we to take it upon ourselves to intervene within these oppressed communities we would not only be unlikely to achieve our objectives, we would probably end up well within the orbit of our own nations’ racism.

The situation would be different if the call for “zero tolerance” secularism were to be coming from within these targeted communities. But the present racist context makes that less likely to happen, and white leftists engaging in a campaign for mandatory secularization of all public spaces would only make it less so. Given that racism is the dominant aspect of the entire “reasonable accommodation debate”, and that it is hypocritically hiding behind these questions of secularism and anti-sexism, we can only imagine that this rise in nativism will make the struggles of racialized queers and women and non-believers all the more difficult.

We are just at the beginning of a long process, as Canada is being transformed by the worldwide shift to neo-colonialism which began decades past. Forty years ago as this process was in its early stages, less than 4% of people living in Canada were members of “visible minorities” – today it’s over 13%, but much more in the major cities where racialized immigrants increasingly constitute the critical mass of the working class (i.e. 22% in Montreal, still one of the whitest major cities in the country). In terms of developing the working class of tomorrow, from 1996 and 2001 racialized communities accounted for almost all of the 1,1% population growth across the province – their numbers grew by 14.7%, almost all of which was driven by proletarianizing immigration.

There is great potential for revolutionary opposition to Canadian and Quebecois capitalism from within these communities. We can hope that it will be led by left-wing and anti-patriarchal forces, and when we can work with and support the latter we certainly should. But intervening to push these communities to the left is not what is on the agenda for the Quebecois or anglo-canadian left in the current “debate”. Rather, what is at stake for us is our own politics, and our ability to maintain or find a base for these within our own communities while remaining in solidarity with the oppressed, and not the oppressor.

Instead of focusing on secularism i think that elaborating and aggressively pursuing an anti-racist and anti-patriarchal struggle within our own communities – where sexism and homophobia and racism are much more central and dangerous than the husk of Roman Catholicism – is the best way forward. Such work is more likely to make us natural allies within the immigrant proletariat for the anti-capitalist resistance of tomorrow. Given the fact that “the woman question” and not “the god question” is increasingly at the center of global capitalism, developing such a struggle is more likely to lay the basis for a revolutionary opposition to capitalism here… and everywhere else too.

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