The eminent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor recently agreed to have an extended conversation with Ronald Kuipers, a representative of The Other Journal, about the many issues he raises in his latest book, A Secular Age. The two philosophers discussed such topics as the relationship between religion and politics, the relationship between faith and philosophy, and the matter of carrying forward a religious tradition in what Taylor has described as an “age of authenticity.” In what follows, the third of a three-part interview, Taylor discusses how his findings as part of the Quebec Commission square with the analysis of contemporary society set forth in A Secular Age. In surveying the landscape of North American religious and political culture, Taylor addresses such topics as secularism, accommodation, Islamophobia, and the politics of mobilization.
The Other Journal (TOJ): I’d like to start by asking you a bit about your experience as part of the Province of Quebec’s Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (popularly known as the Quebec Commission). For our unfamiliar readers, this involved co-chairing (with Gérard Bouchard) months of public hearings across the province of Quebec that explored the impact of religious accommodation on Quebec’s identity and values. You’ve just recently finished the work, which included listening to the views of nearly three thousand citizens, by submitting a 300-page report.1 I was wondering if you heard anything in the public hearings that surprised you or that you weren’t expecting?
Charles Taylor (CT): Not so much in general outline, but I learned a lot in the fine detail. This experience made a lot of difference from that point of view. I knew there was a big reaction against a very dominant Catholic Church, and I knew there was a lot of ambivalence around that; a lot of people took some distance from that and others felt that they still had a very strong sense of their identity being linked with that. This is something everyone knew beforehand. But as to how the emotions were worked out, that was something very new to me.
TOJ: So you heard a certain level of emotion that you weren’t quite expecting?
CT: Oh, yes. These were very emotional meetings, the open forums more so than the formal presentation briefs. People spoke from the heart and really said what they were feeling, and sometimes it was very raw. There was a great deal of anxiety, the typical kind of anxiety that you see in some European countries, in a context where they find themselves in a much more religiously diversified situation than in the past, and they are worried about whether and to what extent their national identity will continue.
What a lot of the Quebecois are dealing with centers around religion, but in two contradictory ways, which is why it’s so difficult to understand. On the one hand, part of the sense of where they are at in their national identity is the “Quiet Revolution,” which reacted against an extremely authoritarian religious moment. They consider this revolution to be one of their great achievements, so you get this expression of fear toward unfamiliar religions, Sikhism, but mostly Islam. You get the fear that it’s going to bring them backward, which is not a very nice idea to them.
On the other hand, there is also a sense that where they come from is a very deeply Catholic past. And of course, the same kind of people have these two kinds of emotions; horror toward religion in general because of the dominance of the Catholic Church, but also a certain attachment to the Catholic past. And sometimes this is played out in a way that is very bewildering. So the same kind of people can have these two very different reactions, and from that point of view these unfamiliar religions are kind of threatening. They threaten to dethrone and relativize the deeply culturally Catholic identity of Quebec.
So you get the two reactions from the same people, which results in two very different responses. The first would be in favor of the very general hard line laicism [or secularism] of the kind people think is French but really isn’t. The people’s image of French laïcité is so far from the reality. So we’re dealing with myths of a certain sort. Sometimes people react as very hard line laïcité [or secularists], but sometimes they are more concerned to defend the local tradition; so they get very angry at what they think are the demands of people from other religions, for example, those who want to remove the Christmas tree from the town hall. These demands are invariably made but by those who have become very atheistic, not by the minority religions who really don’t want to get into that. But there is this idea that the minority religions are somehow behind these demands.
So you get these two kinds of fear and indignation going in very different directions. I guess I didn’t know until we went through the whole process how important each one was. I think that in the end, the strong secularist position is a very minority position. However, their spokespeople are very articulate and educated, and therefore, they can produce a lot of op-ed pieces and exert a disproportionate amount of influence. But they really don’t represent the majority of the people.
TOJ: So what you heard in these hearings was sort of an enrichment of the peoples’ opinion on these questions, not just the educated and outspoken leaders.
CT: Many people are confused. I mean there are so many tracks, and they don’t all fit together. We used to make a joke that the majority-winning strategy simply in popularity terms would be to combine an extremely lax secularism in relation to traditional Catholic customs and an extremely severe secularism in relation to everything else.
TOJ: That’s really interesting, because I had read actual editorials to that effect, where one notices such an inconsistency, where the laical or secularistic kind of attitude is taken with respect to minority religions, but the attachment to the Catholic past is an unquestioned baseline that Quebecers are kind of comfortable with, even though they are worried about going back to the Duplessis era.
CT: That’s exactly it! “Laicité pour les autre,” [Secularism for the others] as somebody put it [laughter].
TOJ: Well, that kind of segues into a follow-up question: The readership of The Other Journal is mostly American, and though Quebec is unique in regard to its cultural and political history, I’m wondering if you have any insights or thoughts into how Quebecers’ opinion on these kinds of questions might actually represent a larger North American anxiety. Take the example of John Tory’s punishment at the Ontario polls for supporting public funding for private religious schools. If other provinces, states, or jurisdictions held a commission like this, which I think might be useful, what do you think they would find that would be similar or different?
CT: I wish we could do that; I would love to know what was behind that vote in Ontario over public funding for private religious schools. In a certain sense, this decision privileges the Catholic schools, which receive public funding as a constitutionally entrenched right. So this was a move that prevented that set of privileges from being generalized and extended to other religions. So my guess is that there is a certain amount of anxiety about these new and unfamiliar religions; there is obviously a certain amount of Islamophobia. And let’s face it; a lot of this generalized fear of the new religions in the West, including the widely circulating Islamophobia, was prompted by 9/11. So I would probably guess that that was part of the make-up of the Ontario vote. Maybe all the Catholics happily voted against Tory’s proposal for public funding for all religious schools, and in that sense they were happily entrenching a privilege they have in virtue of Canadian history.
TOJ: Although I didn’t follow all the media reports on the Quebec commission, I know the media reported on it a lot when it was happening, and they would usually report on some of the more sensational comments that were made. Sometimes these comments would reflect, I don’t know if bile is the right word, but as you said, a deep emotional anxiety would surface. Right then and there, I thought that if they did this in Ontario or Alberta, I’m not so sure one wouldn’t hear the same sort of things. Is that a fair statement?
CT: Possibly a fair statement. I mean we get a lot of stick in Quebec from the media in the rest of the country that we’re much more xenophobic [or afraid of otherness] than they are, and I tend to think that’s not really true. As a Quebecer, it gets my back up a bit. But to be fair, if the anxiety is more intense in Quebec, perhaps it’s because we have a standing anxiety about a defense of this minority culture that goes back 250 years. So there’s a much stronger anxiety about that in Quebec. Whereas even very WASPish people, although they too can feel they have been drowned in multiculturalism, aren’t worried that their culture or language will disappear. I think the anxiety level is certain to be higher here, but I think similar feelings of being swamped are felt elsewhere as well. So there are similar aspects, and yet I have to say something else that is very anti-Ontario.
TOJ: I’m from Alberta originally, so go ahead [laughter].
CT: The debate a couple of years ago surrounding Marion Boyd’s proposal to continue to allow faith-based arbitration to settle family disputes such as divorce, custody, and inheritances outside the court system—especially the controversy that arose when the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice said it wanted to set up its own faith-based arbitration panels under the province’s Arbitration Act, based on Shariah law—that debate, in my frank opinion, made me ashamed to be a Canadian. I’m not saying that the actual conclusion was wrong, because that is a very complicated question, but the tenor of the debate was shocking, appalling, it was hysterical Islamophobia at its worst.
TOJ: And this wasn’t just about extending these kinds of rights for legal recognition to Islamic religious councils, it would have also recognized Jewish and Protestant Christian communities as well.
CT: These rights had already had been extended to Jewish and Protestant Christian communities. What Dalton McGinty [Premier of Ontario] had to do by canceling this amendment was also to rescind their privilege. And this dramatic change in the direction of Ontario’s society was dictated by a public debate of the most shameful babble. Hearing it made me shudder to think that I’m a Canadian citizen—
And look at what happened to the Archbishop of Canterbury when he mentioned the s-word [Sharia]. When he said that there might have to be some recognition of Sharia provision, the same kind of mindless outcry ensued. We are living in Western civilization, which has this massive Islamophobic potential, and it’s being whipped up by certain people that can turn this into a hysterical mob of shrieking idiots.
TOJ: If I remember correctly, in the debate around certain kinds of Sharia family law, a certain kind of feminist concern was voiced. Would you lump that in with this hysteria?
CT: Absolutely. I mean when you ask some of these people now if they are really proud of what they did, they say, “I don’t know; I don’t know.” The feminist concern was really meant to be in defense of the most defenseless person, which is the practicing Muslim woman integrated into her community. In fact, what they did really does nothing for her, because if she wants to divorce, she needs a religious divorce; otherwise she can’t remarry. And the whole point of the Marion Boyd proposal was to create assistance for Muslim religious divorces, which would be carefully scrutinized by trained state personnel; people with right-of-oversight trained in the Canadian Charter of Rights who could intervene if certain rights were violated.
Now you could argue that those wouldn’t work, and I really couldn’t give an opinion until I knew much more about the sociology of the Ontario Islamic community. But all we heard was, “No Sharia in Ontario!” The feminist organizations, to their utter shame, played along with the worst kind of generalized Islamophobia, hinting that this would increase the possibility of terrorism and so on.
TOJ: This is a bit of an aside, but when this was being debated, I was holding a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto in the Political Science department. I was sharing an office with an Ismaili Muslim, Mebs Kanji, and we had some really interesting discussions where we discovered that we had the same sorts of feelings on the issue. Even as a Christian, I was more for recognizing this because I wasn’t as threatened, and I didn’t think the world would come to an end if we allowed a safe-guarded space for Muslims to practice their religion.
CT: I’m curious to know your Muslim colleague’s take on the matter, and what the general Ismaili Muslim take was?
TOJ: From talking with him, it seemed that the Ismaili Muslims are really pretty moderate.
CT: But they are seen by really hardline Sunni as not really being Muslim, right?
TOJ: True. We really saw eye-to-eye on the issue; I mean he thought the amount of hysteria was quite ridiculous as well. I don’t think he mentioned the word Islamophobia, but of course he was pretty sensitive to that kind of thing.
CT: There are big chunks of many Western publics that are capable of succumbing to Islamaphobic hysteria. It’s interesting to note that a large part of the French debate on the Stasi Report, which ended up banning the hijab in French schools, has the same sort of hysterical quality. And I think the same hysterical flair can be seen all throughout the West. Not just in Quebec, and not just in Toronto. The same type of Islamophobia is very much alive all throughout Canada and the United States.
TOJ: I suppose you see the potential for violence in this context; so as far as the recommendations made by you and your colleague Gérard Buchard, were there any policy recommendations to specifically address the threat of violence?
CT: Absolutely. There are two main axes of recommendations. First, we really think we have to make sure that the people who immigrate have a real opportunity to integrate. And they don’t really have this opportunity at the moment because their educational and occupational qualifications from their country of origin aren’t being recognized. And second, there are various measures that can be taken to make the ethnic media more aware of and cognizant of each other. And we did see some of this occur in the course of the commission itself. We got Muslims together with others, and everyone learned to some surprise that many of the negative viewpoints people had of each other were in fact wrong and not well-informed.
TOJ: This follow-up question will kind of segue into a discussion about your recent book A Secular Age: As you said, you learned a lot from participating in the Quebec Commission, and I think this must have been quite a unique opportunity for a scholar like you to have your ear to the ground and really hear what people are thinking. And now that you’ve also just finished this massive book on secularism in the West, I’m wondering if you found your description of the spiritual landscape in the West highly confirmed by what you heard or whether there were some surprises?
CT: Highly confirmed, but I think the things I said about the landscape in the book, at least the contemporary landscape, are based on things that are very widely known. For example, let’s take the issue of spiritual fragmentation; there is a much wider gamut of possible positions today— people are moving between positions, combining positions, and inventing new ones—than in the early part of the twentieth century. Now everybody knows that, but in the book, I tried to give an explanation for why this is the case by naming the historical factors. And as I said, my experience in the Quebec Commission confirmed it. There is immense variation in what Quebecers now believe, and conversions are on the rise, including conversions to Islam. I mean the first case to hit the media back in 1994 about a girl not being allowed to wear a hijab in school, well, she was actually a Quebecoise convert to Islam. This is simply one of the phenomena that occurs in a society augmented by immigration and fraught by religious diversity.
TOJ: So in that sense, Quebec is a lot like the rest of the modern contemporary West.
CT: Yeah, exactly.
TOJ: This might be a good time to turn our attention to the American political landscape for a moment. Earlier [see Part I] we spoke about a deep division between secular and religious perspectives in the United States, in which each side sees the other as betraying something fundamentally American. How do you think increasing religious diversity in the United Stages has impacted this divisive political landscape?
CT: One of the phenomena I discuss in A Secular Age is the development of democratic politics based on mass-mobilization and justifying itself by the will of the people—even if it eventuates in some kind of gruesome regime of a dictatorial nature. I’m talking about the kind of politics where this kind of mobilization is the marker, and the marker is very often religious. So certain kinds of Islamism are exactly that. Islamism, in the strict sense that someone like Olivier Roy uses,2 is a position that sees Islam as a kind of formula for governing societies, which then ought to be applied. I think there are terribly powerful, passionate, and adversarial emotions that develop around that kind religiously-defined national identity. And I think the misfortune of the United States is that they’re engaged in a kind of quasi civil war that is marked by this kind of politics of mobilization. I mean it’s possible that they might get pulled out of it; it’s possible that someone like Obama could pull them out of it.
TOJ: But there is still a deep potential for conflict there?
CT: Yes, a deep potential. I mean there are very powerful, well-organized minorities on both sides that would love to have a knock-down drag-out fight about these things.
TOJ: Are you talking about a culture war fight or actual physical violence?
CT: No, no, no, God preserve us, I certainly hope not. I probably shouldn’t just throw around the term quasi civil war, but I mean a culture war fight of an extremely nasty kind.
TOJ: Nastier than we’ve seen before?
CT: Well, I hope that the experience of the last years, and particularly the way in which one of these gangs has wrecked the bus in a spectacular way with Iraq and everything else—I’m hoping that they’re going to draw back from the brink. And it’s significant that neither of the two candidates is going to want to take this kind of politics up. John McCain is the only Republican candidate who didn’t heavily invest in this politics of mobilization. I mean he’s going to start doing it now for drearily political reasons; he’s going to start throwing hunks of red meat.
TOJ: But it’s important also to remember that these culture war battles that were very nasty also did entrench a political agenda that did wreak a lot of actual physical violence in the world
CT: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a very violent outlet, one that thankfully isn’t on the American scene itself.
TOJ: So pulling back from this would obviously have global ramifications. I’m really interested in what potential Obama might have in this regard.
CT: Yeah, I’m really impressed with him. I must say that his first speech on his unfortunate mentor Rev. Wright—and I think it’s such a shame that he had to go on and on and on about this—was really one of the great political speeches, in that he managed to tell some truth about the tension in American race relations while still being able to disengage himself from certain positions he couldn’t be identified with. It’s rare that that happens.
TOJ: I know, and what I find impressive about him, too, is that when there starts to be hints of political trouble like that, he doesn’t recoil and go to the lowest common denominator. He’s actually talking up to people and saying, “Listen, this was my preacher, and I’m not simply going to write him off”—he’s assuming people can understand the nature of a very complex relationship with someone.
CT: Here’s another thing. I mean, every American candidate has to profess belief in God, and I really believe his profession!
TOJ: Oh, I see what you mean, so you don’t doubt the authenticity of his faith even though—
CT: What I mean is that the authenticity of his faith comes through to me. I’m not saying the negative in the other cases [laughter], but it doesn’t come through as clearly, and the candidates are always under a certain suspicion from my point of view because they have to make such a profession.
TOJ: I can’t remember which speech it was—I think it was his “Call to Renewal Keynote Address,” where he described his path to faith; he was very careful to say how he will carry his faith into a pluralistic society, which I thought was also a very sensitive reading of the way faith relates to a public world.
CT: The United States really needs that!
1. Available for download at http://www.accommodements.qc.ca/index-en.html.