Secularism and Islamophobia: On the strategic use of “neutrality” in the Canadian public sphere


In this blog, Hannah Mckillop explores how the Canadian state use of the term “neutrality” can negatively impact religious minorities in the public sphere.


Hannah McKillop

Neutrality rhetoric is used by Canadian courts and governments to further state-sanctioned ideologies around what it means to be a secular nation. Such ideologies, however, inhibit the freedoms of minority populations who are outwardly religious. Canadian courts cite gender equality, religious freedom, public safety, pluralism, and social connection as central justifications for their “neutral” secular policies. The consequences of such policies, however, are not neutral.

Zunera Ishaq v. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration exemplifies the ways in which conceptualizations of neutrality impact the freedoms of Muslim communities in Canada. After Zunera Ishaq’s citizenship application was approved in 2013, she raised concerns that during the citizenship ceremony she would be asked to remove her niqab to recite the citizenship oath. Her concerns were not unwarranted. At the time, an official government policy required all citizenship candidates to remove face coverings during the recitation of the oath. In the case, the gender equality arguments used by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration exemplify how rhetoric around state neutrality is used to justify policies that disproportionately affect minority populations in Canada.

Though the Court in Ishaq ruled in favor of allowing Muslim women to wear their religious dress during Canada’s citizenship ceremony, the arguments furthered by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration demonstrate how rhetoric around neutrality is wielded to justify discrimination. The Minister argued that because the ceremony is a “public act,” candidates should not cover their faces. All candidates must “recite the oath openly and equally.”[i] That is, without wearing a full-face veil. Here, the Minister is arguing for a very particular sort of openness and equality that, in effect, discriminates against citizens whose religious practices include face coverings. The Minister argued that the policy was “neutral,” even though it disproportionately affected Muslim women like Ishaq.[ii] As Ishaq shows, the Policy’s impact on Muslim women was anything but impartial.

Another example where rhetoric around neutrality is used to justify discriminatory secularist policies is Bill 21. Quebec’s Bill 21 is titled, “An Act respecting the laicity of the State.” In Quebec, laicity is based on four principles: “the separation of State and religions, the religious neutrality of the State, the equality of all citizens, and freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.” Bill 21 seeks to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols while engaging in the public sphere.

Bill 21 cites state neutrality, equality, and freedom to justify banning all religious symbols from the public sphere. Such rhetoric, however, limits the movement of Muslim women particularly in areas of public life that are disproportionately accessed by women, like childcare and educational centres.[i] In Bill 21, the Quebec government upholds a limited conception of equality that does not consider the needs, concerns, freedoms, or agency of Muslim citizens. Rhetoric around neutrality is used by the Quebec government in Bill 21 to justify limiting the freedoms of visible religious minorities in Quebec.

Other arguments used in Bill 21 to justify secular policies are religious equality and religious freedom. As Effie Fokas states, it is counter-intuitive for Western courts to cite pluralism and tolerance to justify restricting public expressions of religious identity.[i] Bans on religious dress force visible religious minorities out of the public sphere, increase prejudice, and perpetuate violence against minority populations.[ii] Legislation governing religious dress, while citing neutrality as justification, targets a very specific demographic – visible religious minorities.

This dynamic is present in Bill 21 when the Quebec government cites “the religious neutrality of the State” as an appropriate reason to justify the ban on religious dress in the public sphere. What does “neutral” really mean in this context? Asking a veil-wearing woman to unveil is not a neutral act. Such an ask is in direct violation of her rights as a Canadian citizen. Does the “neutrality of the State” mean the State should only serve citizens who are not visibly religious? If so, what impact will Quebec’s approach to secularism have on Muslim women?

Jennifer Selby et al. explore how rhetoric around neutrality that is utilized by secular governments is not gender neutral. Discourse around the neutral treatment of citizens assumes that being a woman in public means expressing or enhancing feminine features like the hair and face.[i] Western discourses about Muslim women assume that they need to be freed from oppressive religion. Secularism is correlated with neutrality and freedom, while religion is correlated with oppression.[ii] Consequently, the personal agency of a veil-wearing woman is difficult to understand.[iii]

Muslim women are expected to adopt a secular framework that suggests they need to be taught the values of Western society. Those who do otherwise are cast as “foreigners” who follow “cultural” practices that are considered undesirable and incompatible with Canadian society.[i] This is evident when the niqab is seen as a personal cultural practice.[ii] Federally, Canada promotes a diverse, multicultural society. Multiculturalism is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms under section 27. Section 10 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms affirms the rights and freedoms of everyone no matter their sex, gender, or religious identity.

When Muslim practices are characterized as cultural, religious freedom protections are not guaranteed. As a result, accommodation requests are sometimes viewed as unreasonable and incompatible with Canadian culture.[i] This counters Canada’s approach towards multiculturalism and diversity. Courts deem that their conception of secularism and state neutrality upholds universal freedoms, despite the negative impacts Muslims (and other minorities) experience from these discriminatory policies. What the majority considers neutral treatment is considered oppressive treatment by Canadian minorities. Canada’s approach to secularism should not include rhetoric that justifies discriminating against visible religious minorities.

In July 2021, the European Court of Justice ruled that private employers can ban workers who wear religious symbols like headscarves. The court argued the ruling aligned with “political, philosophical, and religious neutrality.”[i] As The Guardian notes, the ruling contradicts a 2013 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that allowed crosses to be worn in the workplace. Secularism (and nonreligion by extension) are not necessarily “neutral” ideologies that always promote an equal and open public sphere. Policies that support state neutrality can often inhibit the full participation of certain social groups in society – particularly groups that already face discrimination and marginalization. Studies on nonreligion and secularism must consider how rhetoric around neutrality is used to justify discriminatory policies in the name of secularism.

Hijab-wearing women holding a neon yellow sign with red text that states: “Touches pas à ma Liberté” that translates in English to: “Don’t touch my Freedom”

Photo Source: https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/muslim-women-in-quebec-facing-more-attacks-since-charter-proposal-group-1.1481641


Hannah McKillop is a PhD student in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on the intersections between nonreligion, ethics, and popular culture in North America. Her MA work explored the ritual use of the Harry Potter series on the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.” She is a member of the Student Caucus of the Nonreligion in a Complex Future project.


[i] Jennifer Rankin, “EU Companies Can Ban Employees Wearing Headscarves, Court Rules,” The Guardian, July 15, 2021, sec. Europe, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/15/eu-companies-can-ban-employees-wearing-headscarves-religious-symbols.

[i] Selby, Barras, and Beaman, “Figures That Haunt the Everyday,” 52.

[i] Selby, Barras, and Beaman, 52.

[ii] Ishaq at para. 16.

[i] Jennifer A. Selby, Amélie Barras, and Lori G. Beaman, “Figures That Haunt the Everyday,” in Beyond Accommodation: Everyday Narratives of Muslim Canadians (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018), 44.[ii] Selby, Barras, and Beaman, 44.

[iii] Selby, Barras, and Beaman, 45.

[i] Effie Fokas, “The Legal Status of Religious Minorities: Exploring the Impact of the European Court of Human Rights,” Social Compass 65, no. 1 (2018): 29.

[ii] Jonathan Montpetit, “Muslim Women Report Spike in Harassment, Discrimination since Bill 21 Tabled,” CBC, May 14, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/muslim-women-report-spike-in-harassment-discrimination-since-bill-21-tabled-1.5134539.

[i] “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,” Pub. L. No. Bill 21, CQLR c R-26.2.01 (2019), 12.

[i]  Ishaq v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2015 FC 156 (CanLII), [2015] 4 FCR 297, <https://canlii.ca/t/ggc86&gt;, at para. 37. Hereinafter “Ishaq”.[ii] Ishaq at para. 11.


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