Multiculturalists are mistaken about liberalism

May 31, 2022

By Sam Haroun, writer

Le Devoir, May 31, 2022

They call themselves liberals, but they have an elastic idea of liberalism when it comes to freedom of religion, as if freedom of conscience, the matrix of all freedoms, is exercised differently depending on its field of application: freedom of expression, assembly, demonstration, etc., are subject to regulations set by law. Freedom of religion, on the other hand, enjoys such a privilege in Canada, a country of institutional multiculturalism, that any attempt to limit the freedom of expression (wearing religious symbols) of religion in the slightest is automatically labelled as Islamophobia or systemic racism (a fetish term used by those who oppose Quebec’s Bill 21, which prohibits the wearing of religious symbols by four categories of public and para-public employees).

Yet Bill 21 deserves neither such honour nor such indignity: it is open to criticism like any other law, some finding it insufficiently restrictive, others finding it inquisitorial and fussy. It is excessive to assert that a law limiting the wearing of religious symbols in the state space, to which all users of all beliefs should identify, is contrary to individual freedoms.

Finally, the ethnocultural approach that classifies people according to ethnic and religious criteria and that is the hallmark of multiculturalism alters the freedoms of individuals since it locks them into their respective ethnocultures and creates differences in rights and duties according to the pressures exerted by one or the other. In this respect, let us see what great liberal thinkers think and say on these subjects.

John Locke to the rescue of Bill 21

The father of political liberalism, John Locke (1632-1704), wrote in his Treatise on Toleration (1686) that the prohibition of the wearing of religious clothing as a distinction from the rest of society is perfectly compatible with the enjoyment of liberties. Not that “the wearing of a cope or surplice is of such a nature as to endanger or threaten the peace of the state”, but an essential factor in the preservation of “civil unity” must be taken into account.

I would be forgiven for quoting John Locke at length, but his richly nuanced thinking demands it: “So that if they are restrained, it is not because they have this or that opinion as to the manner of divine worship, but because it is dangerous for many men to manifest their singularity in this way…. …] The same would be true of any mode of dress by which an attempt is made to distinguish oneself from the government […]; when it spreads and becomes a rallying sign for a large number of people who thereby enter into close relations of correspondence and friendship with one another, might not the government take umbrage at it, and use punishments to prohibit this fashion, not because it is illegitimate, but because of the dangers it might cause? “

For Locke, religious or ethno-cultural diversity should not interfere with civic solidarity or the cultural unity of the state: therefore, we cannot use our liberties to evade our common responsibilities.

John Stuart Mill against the assemblage of ethnocultures

“Free institutions are almost impossible in a country of different nationalities. In a country without a sense of community, especially if different languages are spoken, the common public opinion necessary to the operation of representative government cannot exist” (Considerations on Representative Government, 1861). Stuart Mill (1806-1873) believes that in a society where ethnocultures are recognised as such with special rights (multiculturalism), suspicions, rivalries, and clashes between ethnocultures are likely to increase and undermine the trust that is essential for civic peace.

In this sense, diversity and socio-cultural integration do not mix well. Let us remember that the above-mentioned authors are not the horrible Jacobins of the French Revolution who were quick to guillotine God the Father at the slightest opportunity, they are liberal thinkers concerned with promoting individual freedoms within the framework of a well-understood liberal democracy. On balance – and except for its provisions relating to the OQLF’s ability to search a company’s internal documents without a warrant – Bill 96 (*) is necessary to ensure the cohesion of the nation.

In Canada, which has enshrined multiculturalism in its Constitution, there is admittedly no state religion, but religion is in the state, and “each community” forges its own culture and allegiance as it sees fit.

Translated by Michel Virard

(* Bill 96 is a more recent law regarding language rights)

Michel Virard