Charles Taylor is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading philosophers. His many books include Sources of the Self, an exploration of how different ideas of selfhood helped define Western civilization, and A Secular Age, a study of the coexistence of religious and nonreligious people in an era dominated by secular ideas. When he was awarded the Berggruen Prize for philosophy* last year, the jury cited Taylor’s support for “political unity that respects cultural diversity,” and the influence of his work in “demonstrating that Western civilization is not simply unitary, but like all civilizations the product of diverse influences.”
The Montreal-born philosopher spoke to The WorldPost on Tuesday about the Trump administration’s new restrictions on travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations, as well as the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque last Sunday.
Are you shocked that something so horrible as the mosque massacre in Quebec last Sunday happened in Canada, which is known for its tolerance?
I’m appalled by this terrible crime. Quebec has not seen this kind of thing before. But we have seen an increase in hostile reactions to immigrants since the infamous Quebec charter was proposed and defeated four years ago [when the Parti Québécois that sponsored it lost the election]. That proposal would have banned conspicuous religious symbols, such as the hijab or niqab, in public institutions.
The same increase in hostilities follows as well in other Western countries whenever political leaders propose to limit the rights of Muslims. In doing so, they encourage Islamophobic sentiment and disinhibit hostile acts. If highly respected leaders share that hostility, why shouldn’t people who hold the same views act on them? U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent actions to limit travel visas from a list of Muslim-majority countries will ramp this up throughout the Western world. His irresponsibility and unconsciousness of what his action entails is unprecedented. We have to protest strongly against this terrible degradation of our social relations.
Your famous “reasonable accommodation” approach to new immigrants and Canadians sensibly adjusting to each other’s differences has been challenged before, as you mention, by the Parti Québécois that wanted to return to more traditional and homogenous Catholic values not unlike François Fillon in France, no less the ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen ― both leading candidates for the French presidency.
Yet, even before the most recent refugee arrivals, “a 2015 Quebec Human Rights Commission survey found that 43 percent of Quebecers believe [they] should be suspicious of anyone who openly expresses their religion, with 49 percent expressing some uneasiness around the sight of Muslim veils.” Now, with the arrival of so many refugees lately, is the Canadian consensus of “reasonable accommodation” fraying further?
First of all, Quebec and Canada are really very different. Overall, things are moving in a positive direction in Canada, certainly better than 10 years ago when we had a commission and wide-ranging public debate about “reasonable accommodation.” It has been a gradual improvement.
'People still have worries and reactions, but they have come to see that following up those sentiments with behavior based on stereotypes creates a worse situation.'
It is understandable that any society reacts with discomfort and anxiety when very different people come in. Moreover, in recent years, as we all know, there has been a huge brouhaha about Islam and the nature of Islam and the pouring out of Islamophobic propaganda across borders. It is thus understandable that people are a bit shaken up. On the other hand, because we’ve had this very deep discussion already in Canada, my feeling is that the consensus is continuing to grow in the right direction. Not that people don’t still have worries and reactions, but I think they have come to see that following up those sentiments with behavior based on stereotypes creates a worse situation. Of course, what happened last Sunday is a tragic illustration of that.
Your distinction between Canada and Quebec raises the question of the French idea of “laicite” as opposed to “secularism” as it has been understood in the Anglo-Saxon cultures. After all, some French authorities last year sought to ban the burkini. And the proposed Quebec charter you referred to was called “Charte de la laïcité.”
When he was Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül once pointed out to me the difference. The French model, he said, “is a Jacobin model of imposing a kind of irreligiousness.” Thus, the implementation of secularism in the Arab and Muslim communities under French influence, he said, “has meant fighting against Islam in the name of secularism.” Alternatively, he continued, “if you use the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of secularism, as practiced in the United States or the United Kingdom, it is something that people should feel comfortable with. All it means is a separation of the state and religion, of the state maintaining the same distance from all religions and acting as the custodian for all beliefs. It is based on respect for all faiths and the coexistence of plural beliefs.”
Are the kinds of policies Trump is trying to enact erasing that distinction?
Yes, I fear exactly this: the U.S. is violating its own constitution, based on the understanding of secularism Gul outlines, and moving in that direction, targeting a whole religion as being dangerous instead of certain individuals.
'The U.S. is violating its own constitution by targeting a whole religion as being dangerous instead of certain individuals.'
At the same time, I have to say it has not all played out yet. Since Trump’s directive less than two weeks ago, there has been tremendous pushback. It is a dangerous moment to be sure, but we have to see what will happen in the end. If it is not very decisively corrected, the U.S. will certainly be moving very far in a direction I never would have expected that it would go.
Canada is known for its friendliness to immigrants. Yet Canada’s immigration rules are much stricter historically than those of the U.S. or Europe — they dissuade the entry of single young men and tend to try to match immigrant skills with what Canada needs rather than focusing on large extended family immigration. Would that approach elsewhere help dampen anti-immigrant sentiment?
This approach of Canada is a distinguishing factor, yes. What fuels anti-immigrant sentiment in so many places is the idea that “they are stealing our jobs.” That problem does not exist generally if you are selecting the people you need to fill holes in your own economy. Surely one of Trump’s greatest appeals against Mexicans is not only that they are taking jobs, but that all that incoming labor lowers wages and therefore threatens the general standard of living.
'Canada is stricter on immigration, but generous on refugees.'
It would not be unwise for other nations to learn from Canada in this respect. But that doesn’t mean, indeed has nothing to do, with discriminating against people because of their ethnicity or religion. Also, Canada has a big component of refugees. We are very generous in that respect, including taking 25,000 Syrian refugees last year. So, stricter on immigration, generous on refugees.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
*The Berggruen Institute is a co-publisher of The WorldPost.