It has been a while since the xenophobic side of Canadian politics reared its ugly head. With Trudeau’s Liberals taking power in the Fall of 2015 and slowly executing their vision of a postnational state, we were starting to forget the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric that had become routine under former PM Stephen Harper. In case you were nostalgic for juicy politics, all that hysteria and Muslim-bashing has surfaced yet again.
This time it was triggered when MP Iqra Khalid, a Muslim member of the House, introduced a motion (which is neither a bill or law) calling for the government to condemn Islamophobia and to create a committee which will study ways of eliminating systematic racism in the country. The motion was a response to a petition started in light of the increase in hate crimes against Muslims which culminated in the brutal killing of six worshippers at a Quebec mosque; one would think that condemning such hate would be a no brainer. As is often the case in politics, personal interest took precedence over principle. Conservative MPs running for the party’s leadership race made this motion their election issue on grounds that it uses the term ‘Islamophobia’ – a term they don’t approve of. A war of words over use of the term has subsequently engulfed the nation over the last few weeks.
Supporters say the term is generally used to describe the racism, bigotry, and fear directed at Muslims. Like anti-Semitism singles out Jews, Islamophobia is supposed to be a term that highlights the hate and discrimination directed at Muslims. MP Iqra Khaled defined it as ‘the irrational hatred of Muslims that leads to discrimination’; the Oxford dictionary defines it as the ‘dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force’
Those opposing the motion state the term is ill-defined and problematic because it supposedly stifles any criticism of Islam and is an attack on free speech. They fear that anyone criticizing Islam would be declared an ‘Islamophobe’ and thus a hate-monger if this term gets normalized. Conservative MP Kellie Leitch, who is also running in the party’s leadership race, even started a campaign against the motion which centers on the idea that no religion should be given special treatment. Right wing outlets have gone as far to suggest that the symbolic motion is just a veiled attempt at establishing shariah and blasphemy laws in Canada.
Islamophobia is probably not the best word when it comes to identifying anti-Muslim hate. While the term does not etymologically focus on the human aspect of prejudice, in a way that ‘anti-semitism’ for example does, it is not an inaccurate way of describing anti-Muslim hate either. In addition to the widespread use of the term among academics, politicians, and media to describe a specific form of bigotry, the term also captures the unique role played by spreading fear about Islam when it comes to anti-Muslim hate.
Muslims are unique in that virtually all the hate and prejudice directed at them is justified based on some verse of their own scripture.The main tactic used by bigots over the past two decades to propagate hate against Muslims has been by spreading fear about Islam as a religion and painting it as a draconian ideology. Their line of thinking usually goes as follows: Muslims deserve to be feared because their religion preaches violence, they should be feared because the Quran promises them 72 virgins for blowing themselves up, they should be feared because they want to establish Shariah law by dismantling the constitution, the list of lies goes on. Perverting teachings of the faith and spreading misinformation about it have been at the heart of ostracizing Muslims. The mantra goes, ‘Muslims are dangerous because of their religion’; ‘Islamophobia’ is thus accurate in this regard as ‘Islam’ has been conflated with ‘Muslims’ when it comes to justifying hate against Muslims.
What about criticisms of Islam and free-speech? Interestingly enough, virtually every well-known bigot from Robert Spencer to Frank Gaffney to Bill Maher considers themselves to be a ‘critic of Islam’. Where they lie on the political spectrum and the intensity with which they are hateful varies, but they are united in their repulsion to the Islamic tradition. For them, aversion to the Islam as a religion translates to prejudice against those that adhere to that tradition. They’ve coupled their criticisms with active advocacy in the media where they preach to the masses that fear of Muslims is not irrational; in fact, it is only natural given the potential threat they all represent.
It is also interesting to note that these very people would have no qualms about using terms like ‘Islamic terrorism’ or ‘Islamist violence’ to describe the political violence carried out by Muslim extremists. These would not object to the former PM Stephen Harper who declared that ‘Islamicism is the biggest threat to Canada’. Associating ‘Islam’ with ugliness is warmly welcomed and described as ‘calling it what it is’; using the word in a way that could potentially help Muslims is only when the problem arises.
The right to criticize any religion is well protected under free speech laws; a symbolic motion has no impact on that. It is also important to take into account the political climate under which this discussion is taking place. If this innocuous motion was put forth 25 years ago, it would have probably been of no concern to anyone because neither the public nor politicians really cared about their right to be critical of Islam. However, in the current political climate where Muslims are seen a security concern and supposed carriers of a violent ideology, the public has become acutely concerned about being able to criticize the faith. Any perceived attempt to restrict this ability, especially by a Muslim in public office, leads to a public outrage as was witnessed in Canada in recent weeks.
The hysteria over this motion only confirms the prejudice and double standards that Canadian Muslims face; the heartbreaking hate mail received by MP Khalid should be enough to convince anyone. The Liberal party is correct in drafting a specific motion which condemns bigotry directed at Muslims. As PM Trudeau recently pointed out, this debate is needed as it highlights the fact that some people are not comfortable with the idea of condemning discrimination against Muslims; we need to expose this problem and deal with it as a society openly.