Quebec must consider “the other” in values debate

Norman Cornett at the Jazz Festival

The murderous attacks by Muslim fanatics against cartoonists in France, Denmark, and Holland who dared to deride Islam raises a fundamental question: should there be limits to free speech when it comes to the cherished values and sensibilities of religious and ethnic minorities, including Muslims and Jews?

In most countries with Muslim majorities, the law prohibits “blasphemy,” but, as Norman Cornett points out, this clashes with our values.

“Western, post enlightenment, secular society places Freedom of Expression at the top of our hierarchy of values,” the former McGill professor of religion said in an interview.

But, he adds, massive immigration is changing the ethno-cultural composition of Europe and Canada and often immigrants bring with them a different set of values.

Unlike Quebec, with its rapid shift over the years to a secular society, “most of the world is not secular,” he noted.“Yes, they buy into modern technology, but that does not mean that they necessarily buy into Western values, and post-modern society in which truth does not exist.”

In post-modern thinking, “truth is a construct, it’s all relative,” observes Cornett, an advocate of the dialogic method in his teaching. This view is anathema to those in the rest of the world for whom truth has definition.

Because of lower fertility rates and longer life expectancy, our ageing society needs and will continue to depend on immigrants to sustain our way of life, and when they come, they have “their baggage,” he noted.

“They come with their cultures, religions, and languages, and we need to lay out very clearly what the social contract is,” he said, using the term coined by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

“We have to spell it out and say, ‘here are the privileges and rights, and there are the responsibilities’.”

The Bouchard-Taylor Commission, after a lengthy series of hearings, came up with a series of proposals, but the former Liberal government of Jean Charest put them on the shelf.

The Parti Québécois under Pauline Marois came up with its Charter of Values but they “tried to make political hay out of it, and that was disastrous.”

“The PQ did not deal with the reality on the ground, but played out a political agenda,” said Cornett, who campaigned against the failed charter.

It proposed a ban for all state employees on wearing of visible religious symbols, including the Jewish kippah, Muslim hijab, and Catholic cross. Those who refused to comply would be fired.

Bouchard-Taylor said this should apply only to judges, crown prosecutors, police officers, prison guards, and the president of the National Assembly. Premier Philippe Couillard has not spelled out his position, but promised something by the next election expected in 2018.

There are those who believe a charter is not necessary, but Cornett disagrees.

“We’ve got to talk, foster, promote, and develop dialogue.”

The Swedish cartoonist, Lars Vilks, believed targeted in one of the Copenhagen shootings last month, has gone into hiding. In 2007, he portrayed the Prophet Mohammed as a dog and lives under police protection. “The dog is an animal that is lower than a snake’s belly, as they would say in the U.S. southwest. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the dog is the lowest of the low,” Cornett noted. In drafting a social contract for Quebec, legislators should “consider to what extent we want to promote alterity — the state of being radically alien to the dominant cultural orientation. “My concern as an academic is to what extent we are promoting alterity when we present the Prophet Mohammed as the lowest of the low, as a dog.

“In Charlie Hebdo you see the prophet in one of the cartoons referring to Muslims as ‘des cons’ (idiots).”

Cornett does not condone the violent and deadly reactions by the perpetrators in Denmark and Paris, but urges Quebec to follow its own path, different from the French understanding of laïcité.

“We need to come up with something that respects our roots and deals with the reality of so many different cultures, religions, and ethnicities and their worldviews. Let’s have the debate. Let’s forge the social contract.”

In spite of a profound commitment to free speech, he notes that French authorities intervened last year to prevent the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné from performing in several cities, arguing that his “show” represents a danger to public safety.

Prof. Cornett will be welcoming Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi to one of his dialogic sessions around the time he performs at the Astral March 26, part of the Jazz en Rafale Festival. For details, click on Cornett’s website,

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