Discussions on being a Muslim in Western countries are often approached from the perspective of concerns about national security or the integration of Muslim minorities. The ideologization of Islam may also take place on a subconscious level. We view the world, others and ourselves from an ideological imaginary, as an interpretative framework and without being aware of its origins and limitations. The positioning of Muslims in the West today may also center on the promotion of a specific Islam and the deconstruction of another. Being western and Muslim could oblige Muslims to promote modern Islam and to deconstruct radical or Wahhabi Islam.
In this interview, Charles Taylor, who is considered one of the world’s leading philosophers and experts on interculturalism and multiculturalism, explains his understanding of the present and future situation in Quebec, and by extension in Canada, and discusses the role interculturalism plays in redefining and renegotiating Quebec’s collective identity.
The interview was conducted by Hicham Tiflati. Hicham is an Islamic studies instructor and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Quebec at Montreal and Project Coordinator at the New Muslim Public Spheres in the Digital Age (SSHRC).
Hicham Tiflati (HT): The issues of representation and interpretation are a real concern for excluded groups in the West and elsewhere. When looking at social studies textbooks from the 1970s and 1980s, one could say that Muslims and other excluded groups had a very low representation (Douglass, 2009). Some of the inaccuracies in these textbooks included, but were not limited to, misconstrued names of the founding individuals, the representation of Islam as Mohammedanism, upside-down images of Arabic script, the presentation of Islam only within the Arabian context, and the reinforcement of stereotypes about the role of women in Islam. Concerning this issue, in your 1992 essay “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition” you propose a “greater place in our textbooks for women and for people of non-European races and cultures. You state that excluded groups need an image of themselves and a hero that resembles them (Taylor, 1992, p. 66). Do you think minorities (especially Muslims) today see extensions of themselves in our public schools?
Charles Taylor (CT): Well very often they do. But regarding Muslims, some Westerners were used to see them only on TV, so they had a fictitious view of them that is not hostile. Then these Muslims moved from that position to being people you see next door, but under a cloud of a stereotypic projection on them that prevents you from ever seeing who they really are, which make them look dangerous. So it’s not a promotion, it’s not an improvement but it’s a different situation. One situation is about these weird views of the portrayal of them as these people from India and Arabia. The next situation is about those who are residents and citizens of the society, but they are under this terrible cloud. That was the situation of the Irish in the 1940s in the United States, and that’s what is happening to Muslims today to a larger degree. Now, the official schooling policies are often against that. They want to give the best possible picture of this general idea that these immigrants have a right to be presented the way they really are, but that fight against this incredible wave of Islamophobia, which I think the media don’t make enough of that as they are spreading a horrifying picture of Islam, not taking into account how diverse the Muslim world is. And a lot of that is affecting the lives of Muslims here. So even if at schools there is this nice and clean idea about Muslims and their beliefs, there is another story coming out of social media and the “bad” public media that pick up that stuff and pass it on.
HT: Richard Dawkins calls on us to reconsider the consequences of faith education, which, he argues, deceives parents and indoctrinates and divides children. He sees that faith-based schools consist a menace to modern society. What do you think about the role played by religious schools in the west is in general, and by Islamic schools more specifically?
CT: Religious schools can play a very positive role by presenting a view of their faith as one faith among others in their society, which is a positive thing that will help integration in that society. They can also play a very bad role in producing closed attitudes. For instance, in the present Muslim world, the Wahhabi outlook and some madrassas (i.e. in Pakistan) are training students in incredible narrowness such as anti-Sufis and anti-Shia. The outcome is these movements in Pakistan that are ready to blow up Shia mosques. I am not saying that all these schools are producing Jihadists but, as far as I know, they are producing a very narrow version of the faith. I remember how Catholic schools that we had in the past were and I know that these schools were not creating people who were ready to open up and ready to talk to others.
HT: How do you see the work of “immigrant” Islamic schools?
CT: Firstly I am for allowing confessional schools because we have them and we can’t just shut them down. But I think that students going to Islamic schools have one big disadvantage, which is the lack of mixing we see in public schools. And secondly, these movements hostile to Western culture don’t help these children to integrate because, whether one likes it or not, Western societies these days are founded on certain normative basis (i.e. democracy, human rights, non-discrimination, etc.) that are deeply anchored in them. So they are not helping these kids in these kinds of schools to fruitfully and happily integrate. Unless they break with all of that, which most of them are probably doing anyway.
HT: How about these institutions whose “raison d’être” is grounded in a “Faith-based” or “God-based” epistemology as a parallel or as an alternative to the secular epistemology (Zine, 2008).
CT: It’s nonsense. It’s intellectual nonsense. But we have the same thing with extreme Protestant sects in the United States, these young Creationists who don’t believe in evolution and so on. So all these things are negatives in our world but the positive thing here in Quebec is that we had this Commission under Proulx a few years ago about schooling, and it produced this excellent idea, which is familiarizing students with a whole range of faiths and a whole range of non-faiths (laic type ethical views). One the main recommendation of this commission led to the creation of the Ethics and Religious Culture course (ERC). I am not very happy with how the course is being taught, the actual application of this idea is very imperfect, but the idea itself is superb. For instance, Regis Debray, who is a French leftist and an atheist, is suggesting this. He said we have all this different understandings of life in our past and also in the world today and we have to teach our kids so that they are to some extent proof against terrible stereotypes of the other, so when they are going to be fed by social media or through other means they would know it’s non-sense. If you have the most rudimentary idea of the huge variety of Islamic civilization, you disregard generalizations about Muslims. So that’s part of what we have to be doing in our schooling.
HT: In your magnum opus, A Secular Age (2007) and with your general theory of secularization, you aim for a reinterpretation of the place of religion in modern societies by arguing that the secularization thesis was mistaken from the start. If the role of religion is being reinterpreted are we witnessing a kind of re-enchantment in the West?
CT: Yes but in quite a different way. It’s not a re-enchantment that will bring us back to the belief in relics or witches. I think there is this great hunger for a relationship to the universe around us, which is more meaningful to us, and so on. And I think that this is carried around now by the romantic movements (romantic poetry, arts, etc.) There is a very interesting work done on this by a German sociologist, Hartmut Rosa, who is writing about run away acceleration in our societies and how people feel alienated because of that. He uses the expression “resonance”. So it’s not a re-enchantment of simply going back. It’s another kind of response of a totally meaningless world.
HT: In your book “Sources of the Self” (1989), you aimed at reinterpreting modern society’s self-interpretations in the belief that more accurate self-understandings will lead to different modes of being. Concerning modes of collective being, you suggest in your report that as long as some of the French Canadian Quebecers experience a keen sense of insecurity concerning their past and concerning the survival of their culture (i.e. anxiety over values, language, customs, collective memory and identity) there will be less sensitivity to the problems of others (Bouchard and Taylor, 2008, p. 35-125-185-208). Are we witnessing any positive changes in Quebec society since your report?
CT: Yes. The change is very slow but it’s undoubtedly there. For instance, if you look at media discussions in 2007/2008, and you look at the media discussion around the Charter of Values in 2013/2014, you see a very big difference. It is true that now and then, you get the split in terms of print media such as Quebecor, and it’s true that this time the other side was very clear about its rejection of the charter. The more sophisticated media didn’t go along totally with the ADQ (Action Démocratique du Québec) and so on, but it was much more guarded in its condemnation of that in 2007/08 than it was in 2013/14. That’s a really enormous change. And I felt this directly myself when I was interviewed by Radio Canada and so on. I really felt that these people are accepting the message I am trying to deliver rather than just considering me as one partisan among others. That’s one thing. The other thing is, I think, the figures of those who are for the Charter were lower than the figures that we would have had in 2007/08, particularly in the atmosphere of panic that was created around the ADQ (Action Démocratique du Québec) and so on. I also think that part of the difference there was the discussion we presided over in the past (Bouchard and Taylor, 2008) mainly the forums where everybody came and talked freely. Back then, some people said terrible things about Muslims, and then Muslims got up, and I have to say this, the quality of the spokespersons of the Muslim side was at a level that absolutely took my breath away. They never got angry, they just quietly argued, and that had quite an effect on a lot of people. For instance, someone said to Muslims “what are you doing here, go home, you have no place here.” A Muslim got up and said: “I am Tunisian and my wife is Moroccan. We met here, we got married and we have children. Okay, you say go back home, I will return to Tunisia, my wife will return to Morocco, and my children to…”, and he stopped there. That was immensely powerful. He didn’t get angry, never lost his cool, didn’t rub the argument or cursed like the other guy. He just asked the question “et mes enfants?” (and my children? ), with immense dignity. And you could feel something is sinking. This was live on television.
HT: Where do you see Muslims in the future in Canada in General and in Quebec more specifically?
CT: I think they are going to break through because they have these spokespeople that are incredibly highly qualified. And I saw that in the fight around the Charter too. Instead of just complaining, they got out and got mobilized. The reaction of the Muslim community was let’s get there, organize ourselves and get votes. Not just lay back and complain about not being seen here. Certain constituencies were turned around by the immigrant vote, largely by Muslims but also others who felt threatened. And the Parti Québécois lost the 2014 elections. This kind of positive response is what makes a big difference.
I also think that Muslims will become a larger proportion of the population, the fact that there is more mixing and people are getting to know each other, the fact that we will be able to fight back against certain prejudices. I know all sorts of people who were much closer in 2007/08 to be carried away with this and now feel a little bit ashamed of that. Things are slow but they are improving. I guarantee that in 20 years no body will propose a Charter.
HT: How about a referendum?
CT: I think the majority of the québécois de souche would like an independent country. But if they are asked to go through all the drama and the potential dangers, they would say no thanks. And that’s why the Parti Québécois lost last year’s election. So an actual move towards independence is not on the cards. And if the Parti Québécois wants to do well they have to be “un Parti du bon gouvernement”.
Bouchard, G., Taylor, C., & Québec (Province). (2008). Building the future, a time for reconciliation: Abridged report. Québec, Qué.: Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d’accomodement reliées aux différences culturelles.
Douglass, S. (2009). Teaching about religion, Islam and the World and public and private school curricula in Haddad, Y. Y., Senzai, F., & Smith, J. I. (2009). Educating the Muslims of America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Taylor, C. (May 01, 2012). Interculturalism or multiculturalism?. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 38, 413-423.
Taylor, C., & Gutmann, A. (1992). Multiculturalism and “The politics of recognition”: An essay. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Zine, J. (2008). Canadian Islamic schools: Unravelling the politics of faith, gender, knowledge, and identity. Toronto [Ont.: University of Toronto Press.
 Jean-Pierre Proulx presided a commission on the role of religion in Quebec schools. The final report was handed to the Quebec government in 1999. The Proulx Report can be accessed at: http://collections.banq.qc.ca/ark:/52327/bs40898