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Muslims in Quebec, Belonging to an Intercultural Society: An Interview with Charles Taylor

[Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor giving a lecture at the New School University in 2007. Image via Wikimedia Commons.] [Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor giving a lecture at the New School University in 2007. Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

Hicham Tiflati (HT): In my research on identity formation and the sense of belonging of young Muslims in Quebec, I have been finding that most of my participants deny their Quebecness and insist on being only Canadians. However, some of them cannot be anything else but Québécois because of the visible Quebecness in their character. Moreover, most of them are caught between Quebecness and Canadianness. Whether it is true or not, they believe that multicultural English Canada is more compatible with their Islamic and cultural values than intercultural French Quebec. So it is hard for them to imagine living in a separate Quebec that is not a Canadian province. What is the way forward for these Muslim youth?

Charles Taylor (CT): Maybe they are responding to the way they feel the Quebecois de souche see them. A lot of people from immigrant backgrounds said to me they [Quebecois de souche] don’t accept us as Quebecois. They say we never felt Quebecois because we are looked on as being outsiders. And here we are talking about ordinary, open, and educated Quebecois (from immigrant descent), and the message they feel is that they are not recognized. I think that this is maybe part of the reason why they don’t want to call themselves Québécois.

Furthermore, I think the actual philosophical difference between multiculturalism and interculturalism has nothing to do with this. I think the difference is in the sense they are getting from the host society. And there are certain parts of Canada in which things are very bad too. And if you remember a few years ago in Ontario they were proposing to change the laws about marriage counseling to include training some imams.[2] And we had these hysterical and ignorant protests about sharia. That kind of hysteria can also be triggered in English Canada. And some people I know involved in this should know better. So it’s the fear that these people are going to change us that we need to overcome. That makes all the difference, and not the actual details about multiculturalism and interculturalism.

HT: Is it possible to reconstruct and renegotiate a community's identity without undergoing profound changes, and without affecting “old stock” Quebecers’ sense of belonging and pride?

CT: Yes, I think it is possible. The way in which interculturalism works at its best is that you have a majority with a common enterprise, whether they are teaching or learning at schools, in an industry, or in a political movement. The majority (the Quebecois de souche) and the minorities are together elaborating this enterprise. This often works in the Montreal scene. So this collectivity comes to find that they have another way of looking at things, which is different from the way the Quebecois de souche looked at it before. And they are more or less happy with that because everybody has a role in elaborating it. It’s not totally miles away from the way the Quebecois de souche understood it before and they are comfortable with this co-creation of the identity of whatever this enterprise is, mainly because there is a majority of Quebecois de souche that doesn’t feel that the whole thing is going to be carried away in a whole different direction.

But as soon as you get out of this co-creation, this island, which is obviously in Montreal, you get these terrible fears arising from people who don’t have any direct, close, or common experience working with immigrants. And because of our past in Quebec and the fight for our identity and so on, fears arise. At the best and most benign, we consider these people as outsiders; less benignly, we say that they are a threat to our identity. And frankly the whole campaign on the Charter of Values was based on that, the fears that they (immigrants) are going to change us. So how do we cope with this fear? One of the recommendations we had in the report is that we have to get more mixing.[3] We have international student exchange; why don’t we have students from Montreal visiting another school in Rimouski, for instance? We have to increase the degree of real mixing. I don’t know how to accelerate this process, but this is my answer. The experience shows that these dangers do not exist. I keep saying that these minorities will change us less than our children. Our children and grandchildren are very different and they are changing us much more than these newcomers.

HT: You have written and spoken extensively about interculturalism and living together in Quebec; you point out that the difference between multiculturalism and interculturalism is in their story and have argued that the “multi” story dethrones the traditional ethno-historical identity without putting any other in its place, but the “inter” story starts from the reigning historical identity but “sees it evolving in a process in which all citizens have an equal voice in this evolution.”[4] Is the difference between multiculturalism and interculturalism just in the story being told?

CT: It’s a mistake to say that the difference is just the story. There is a real difference. The story of multiculturalism in Canada is that there is no historic culture that is at the center of Canada. So people from the British Isles are like the people from Ukraine, like people from Italy, etc., all at the same level. You can’t tell that story here in Quebec. So what we need is the intercultural story, which means that all the people here now define the society in which the next cohort is going to be invited in to integrate. It means that everybody has a seat at the table in modifying together the common culture. So we do have an origin culture from an original source—it’s the francophone from the seventeenth century, we have that—but it’s constantly being re-negotiated and re-defined to the account of not just to the people newly arrived, but to other currents such as feminism.

For instance, when you have something arising in society, ça change la donne [it’s a whole different ball game]. You have to revise the whole ways of thinking. If you accept gay rights, ça change la donne. So it’s not just that new people arrive, but it’s because new identities are created or identities that have been suppressed demand recognition. And this has to be renegotiated and re-discussed. So Quebec’s story is different and the Canadian story can’t be told here. It’s too distant from our experience.

HT: What I have been hearing from immigrants, mainly those from France or North Africa, is that “if Quebec is not a Canadian province, it should not be a French province.” Some of them are saying that Quebec is importing the French rhetoric on most issues related to immigration and living together, especially its relationship with Islam and Muslims. What is your take on this?

CT: It is a tragedy that they should feel that way because there are objective reasons for why it is going so badly in France. In France, the Muslim population is, to an extent, much less educated; some of them came a couple of generations ago and their kids are not properly integrated. They have problems finding jobs. They are discriminated against. You have these kids in the banlieues [the suburbs] who can’t get a job, who are angry, and who are really anti-French. I understand their frustration because that’s what we get when there is a sense of alienation and a feeling that they don’t belong to the country.

But the situation in Quebec is totally different than in France. The Muslim community in Quebec is more educated than the local population. There is no reason why they should have a sense of anger or alienation unless we create it. It is totally gratuitous. I make the analogy that people in les banlieues parisiennes [Paris suburbs] are like our aboriginals. We have a long history of alienation and (in return) resentment and so on. We have intractable problems with that, even among people with the best will. So for the immigrants from the Maghreb, there is no reason and no basis for resentment unless we create it totally out of our own heads, because of our own fears that have nothing to do with them and nothing to do with knowing them or working with them. That’s why I was passionately against the Charter. The Charter thing didn’t help that feeling of belonging to Quebec.

So to get back to your question, my hypothesis will be that this sense of suspicion, of fear, of anger, and of alienation are not necessarily radiated by people that we work with but are radiated by the media that creates a sense that we don’t have a place here for Muslims, and that we can’t be co-creators. My idea of how interculturalism works in a society is that the people that are here now create the conditions in which the next cohort of immigrants are going to enter, and those will create the conditions in which the following cohort will enter, and so on. It’s a creation by all the present generation. That’s how a successful intercultural, and even a multicultural, society works. But there is a sense here among immigrants that the will to do that is not there in the majority. But they are only half right, because there are a lot of Québécois de souche who think like me.

One of the striking results of the commission is that the places where you find most hostility and anger towards Muslim immigrants are not Montreal, not even the “far suburbs,” but dormitory suburbs (Saint Gerome, Laval, the South Shore, etc.) where people don’t necessarily know their neighbors.[5] Probably they only meet them on their way to work, and their only contact with this problem is the media. The media (Journal de Montreal and the whole Quebecor) absolutely played a terrible role in this. They invented some of these incidents or they exaggerated them to tremendous degrees. But there was an appetite for that and it was fed by the media. The people whose only access to this problem was through this media were in another planet.

HT: Are we failing to promote Rousseau’s and Kant’s equal dignity and identical rights and immunities for all Quebecers?

CT: Ce n’est pas là où le bât blesse [that’s not where problems arise]. That’s not the issue. Everybody believes in dignity for all human beings, but people tend to exclude those whom they fear. So it’s not enough to have the general philosophical concept of dignity; you have to diffuse all these very bad stereotypes. For instance, you see this in our debates about laïcité. Who can be against laïcité as a general principle? We are all different and we have to have neutral government and so on. Then you portray certain people as enemies of laïcité who want to destroy it. It’s here where these exclusionary ideas become accurate.

HT: Muslims in Quebec are facing a great deal of scrutiny regarding their patriotism and their sense of belonging. You describe the Muslim community in Quebec as a highly educated population that displays a desire to integrate into Québec society; and, yet, is subject almost daily to discrimination and exclusion. Will Kymlicka argues that much of the fear expressed today regarding Muslims in Canada is virtually identical to the fears expressed a century ago regarding the integration of Catholics, who were seen as undemocratic and unpatriotic because of their refusal to integrate and their allegiance to the Pope.[6] Do you agree with Kymlicka’s point? And where do you see Muslims in Canada in general and Quebec more specifically?

CT: Yes, in general, with the exception of the fear of this jihadi terror that we didn’t have back then. If we go back, let’s say to the history of the States in the 1840s, the Church and the State were separated and the society was a Christian society. However, the reaction to some groups was very bad. Claims were made about Catholics, such as they don’t understand our political system (or the way things operate here, to use their terms), they are dangerous, they get orders from priests, the Pope is going to tell them how to vote, and so on. So you get something, which is incredibly analogous to what you see today in relation to Muslims but without the terror dimension, which is produced by the geopolitical situation. And the kind of essentialism such as: they, “Muslims,” will be like this forever and they can’t integrate and become part of our society.

If you know history, there is a terrible sense of déjà vu and a terrible sense of where do we ever get beyond this. It took us time to integrate the Irish, the Italians, then Eastern Europeans, then Hispanics, and now Muslims are playing this role in a lot of Western societies. This can be either an optimistic or a pessimistic making of Muslims’ situation in the West. The optimistic side is that you get the feeling that we will get through this because most of these exclusions have been overcome before. The pessimistic side is that we might destroy the relationship on the way (the way the French have done, for instance) and then you don’t get to that point where there is real acceptance of them as partners and co-creators of the culture for the next generation.


[1] A term usually used to refer to “oldstock” Quebecers.

[2] The debate was about allowing Islamic arbitration regarding family disputes between Muslims.

[3] See Bouchard, G., Taylor, C., & Québec (Province) (2008) Building the future, a time for reconciliation: Abridged report. Québec: Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d'accomodement reliées aux différences culturelles.

[4] See Taylor, C. (2012) Interculturalism or multiculturalism? Philosophy & Social Criticism 38, p. 418.

[5] See Bouchard and Taylor 2008.

[6] See Kymlicka, W (1998) Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ethnocultural Relations in Canada (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 55.

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