A flagrantly anti-Muslim article has appeared in L’Echo, a French-language Belgian business newspaper. The piece, published on 5 January 2020, reported about the reaction of Muslim communities in Quebec to Bill 21, a law that was passed in June 2019. This legislation bars civil servants in positions of "authority”, such as judges, teachers, police officers, and other public figures, from wearing religious symbols — like the hijab, kippah, turban, and cross — while at work.
The BBC reports that several religious groups and organisations, like the National Council for Canadian Muslims, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B'nai Brith, and the Anglican dioceses of Quebec have come out in opposition, as well as some school boards and unions. However, the article in L’Echo focuses only on the Muslim communities, calling them “radical” for contesting the law.
Starting from the headline “Quebec secularism put to the test of militant Islam”, every paragraph, as well as the photo, contain Islamophobic tropes.
The expression “militant Islam” in the headline is generally used to refer to Islamist terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda or ISIS, thus suggesting that secularism in Quebec is threatened by dangerous extremist individuals.
The opening sentence (“the rage of Muslims of Quebec and of the very multicultural English Canada”) starts to construct a binary between Muslims as angry, irrational people, and non-Muslims as calm and analytical people.
Throughout the article, the reporter is not accurate when describing the protests and the number of organisations that took a stand against the law. On the contrary, the article presents words that indicate growing figures that might fuel fear: “demonstrations have been multiplying”, “campaigning with many other Muslims”. In one of these sentences, the journalists adds “despite the law being approved last June”, suggesting that as the law has already been approved, the women are protesting for nothing.
The second paragraph, which describes and quotes a Muslim lawyer’s opinion on the law, is not only Islamophobic but also blatantly sexist. In fact, it presents elements of gendered Islamophobia, a term used to refer to the specific forms of discrimination and stereotypes that Muslim women face for being at the intersection of two different identities, being woman and being Muslim. In this paragraph, Nour Fahrat, Quebecois lawyer, is introduced as “the ‘égérie’ of the anti-secularism movement”.‘Égérie’ is a word generally used to refer to celebrities who are the ‘face’ or the ‘ambassador’ of fashion or beauty brands. By doing so, the reporter belittles the political activism of the interviewee. Nour Fahrat is described in a demeaning way: “Black hijab, surprising lips that have been excessively botoxed, this 28-year-old lawyer claims her ‘feminism’”. By saying that it’s “surprising” that the lawyer has lips that are “excessively botoxed”, the reported is explicitly expressing a stark judgement on her choices and implicitly saying that Muslim headscarf and cosmetic surgery are in conflict between each other. Furthermore, by putting “feminism” in quotation marks the author suggests that Muslim women, or women who have undergone cosmetic surgery, cannot claim to be feminist, or participate in struggles for women’s rights.
Two paragraphs below, a woman named Fatima Ahmad is quoted. About her, we only know that she is a 23-year-old student who wears the full-face veil and that she feels like “a second-class citizen with limited rights”. And yet, in the article, she’s associated with fundamentalist Muslims (“musulmanes intégristes”). The journalist makes no attempt to define religious fundamentalism, implying that it can be discerned from physical appearance, in this case, the full face veil. The article states, “If, like Fatima, Muslim fundamentalists denounce a harmful climate in Quebec, the vast majority of Quebecers, good children, see in the niqab only a lack of taste”. This suggest that Fatima’s response is an isolated overreaction, and makes an unsubstantiated claim about the opinions of “the vast majority” of Quebecers, defined as easygoing people, in which attitudes towards the niqab a more an issue of taste than discrimination.
In the second part of the article, the journalist keeps proposing a binary distinction, this time going beyond Muslims and non-Muslims to include “English-speaking Canada against Québec”. The piece states that English speakers believe that the secularism law is an attack to religious freedom as well as multiculturalism. For the reporter, however, this reveals “differences between the English and French speaking worlds that are irreconcilable”. The article also gives voice to conspiratorial views which claim that Canadian English-language media inculcate Quebec with their “insidious propaganda”, purposely neglecting that they have two different judicial systems. By creating this distinction, the reporter suggests that any criticism against Bill 21 is reproducing the hegemony of English specking Canada over Québec, and that this multicultural foreign power, where Muslims are abundant, is a threat against “the French way”.
In the last paragraph, the reporter states that even if some Muslim women disagree with the wearing of the Muslim head covering, “those Muslims who are against secularism” might succeed if they file a complaint to the Supreme Court of Canada. Here the journalist implies that those who resist secularism are attempting to bypass the will of French-speaking Canada. Despite focusing entirely on the reaction of Muslim women to the law, the article does not explore the disproportionate effect the law has on women who wear the headscarf and the niqab. It reproduces the stereotype of “Muslims vs secularism”, and neglects to acknowledge the ways in which the law impinges on the right to equal opportunity in the workplace.
At the end of the article, the reporter makes a distinction, once more, between Muslims who are against the law and the “pure laine”, or pureblood, Quebeckers – an obsolete, and racist, word used in Canada to refer to those whose ancestry is exclusively French-Canadian. When stating that “pure laine” Quebeckers will be angry if, as it is expected, Muslims win the case at the Supreme Court, the reporter is assuming two things: that only Muslims in Quebec are against the law, and that you cannot be Muslim and having French-Canadian ancestry or, even worse, that you cannot be Muslim and be a “pure” Quebecker.
Finally, the photo used to illustrate the article does not fit well with the content. If the piece is about the opposition of Muslims to a law that forbids the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace, why put a photo of Muslim women dressed for celebration? Readers are also left to wonder if the women depicted are the “fundamentalists” mentioned in the piece.
How could this article have been written in a more inclusive way?
- State that different religious groups, not only Muslims, are against Bill 21
- Explain the disproportionate impact of the law on Muslim women who wear head coverings
- Do not use the term “fundamentalists” to describe Muslims who are opposing the secularism law. It would also be more professional to clarify what the reporter means by “fundamentalism”
- Be more accurate when reporting about the numbers of Muslims protesting. If numbers are not available, it would be better to abstain from using words that fuel fear, and provide the names of the organisations campaigning against the law
- Avoid damaging and negative Islamophobic stereotypes, such as the depiction of Muslims as an angry and irrational group which is destabilising the rule of law
- Refrain from the use of sexist language when describing sources
- Avoid making unsubstantiated claims about the views of “the majority”
- Double check that the language used is inclusive throughout. Avoid discourse that normalises the idea of a true, or authentic Quebecer.
- Use a photo that represents the issue around the Bill 21 law. For example a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf in a workplace where she will be prevented from working with the secularism law, or a photo from one of the demonstrations mentioned in the article