ODVV interview: Islamophobia is...
Canada is one of the Western countries, which is believed to have been immune to the rise of far-right populism and nationalism. Its comparatively open immigration policy is designed to attract a group of diverse and educated professionals to join the labor force and contribute to the industrial, scientific and economic improvement of the nation. Along with Germany, it’s one of the world’s generous countries for immigrants.
According to Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, Muslims make up about 3.2% of population in Canada. Of Canada’s 1.1 million Muslims, the majority live in Ontario and Quebec. The first mosque in Canada was built in 1938 in the city of Edmonton. Four years after the founding of Canada in 1867, 13 Muslims were detected among the population through the Canadian Census. The population of Muslims in the country has risen steadily ever since and reached 1,153,677 in 2013.
Despite Canada’s commendable record in peaceful coexistence between Muslims and the mainstream population and while the country is reputed to be a tolerant society where minorities are protected and respected, Islamophobia seems to be a concern that is plaguing the quality of life of the Canadian Muslims and blemishing the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Some scholars say regardless of the tolerant face of the country and government’s open arms for the immigrants to accept and assimilate them, Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice has been woven into the social fabric of Canada and needs urgent remedy to be eliminated.
In an interview with the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, a Canadian law expert said Islamophobia is institutionalized in some of the country’s most important agencies “including those that have an educational function or impact public opinion.” Prof. Reem Bahdi is an associate professor at the University of Windsor’s faculty of law. She is the co-Director of “KARAMAH, The Project on Judicial Independence and Human Dignity”, which is a multi-million dollar initiative aiming to support access to justice in Palestine through research, continuing judicial education and civil society engagement.
ODVV organized an interview with Prof. Reem Bahdi to discuss the rise of Islamophobia in Canada and the role of academic institutions and media in tackling it. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: Figure by the Statistics Canada show that hate crimes against Muslims increased by 253 percent between 2012 and 2015. However, the proponents of the government policies say Islamophobia is not a systemic problem in Canada. What’s your take on that?
A: Governments sometimes diminish systemic racism by depicting it as an aberration or the result of individual conduct that does not reflect broader society. It is true that those who commit hate crimes represent an extreme and visible form of hatred. But, there are other, less visible, more subtle forms of Islamophobia that can have devastating impacts on individuals and communities.
Islamophobia is a systematic problem in Canada. It takes many forms. However, unlike the United States, Islamophobia in Canada is often difficult to document or prove because it is not direct or explicit. Azeezah Kanji and I published a paper last year in which we identify five forms of what we call “Silent Islamophobia” perpetrated by governments, including court. These 5 forms are: i) coding or the targeting of Muslims without naming them; ii) permission or the tacit license to engage in harmful race-based practices; iii) denial or the failure to name Islamophobic tropes that underlie an impugned act or decision; iv) individualization or the presentation of Islamophobia as emanating from extreme and aberrant conduct; and, v) diminishment or the minimization of Islamophobia, partially by creating confusion or controversy about its meaning and impacts. By “silent,” we do not mean that the Islamophobia is not heard – Muslim audiences hear it clearly – or that it is not violent. We mean simply that the Islamophobia of this nature is not declared openly by government actors but rather operates through a lack of words or inactions.
Q: How did the rightist government of Stephen Harper play a role in the growth of anti-Muslim sentiments in Canada? Harper banned the wearing of face veil by the Muslim women, founded a barbaric cultural practices hotline, which obviously targeted the Muslims and talked of Islamism as the biggest threat to Canada. What is the legacy of Harper for the Canadian Muslims?
A: Stephen Harper’s government helped normalize Islamophobia in Canada for the reasons that you suggest. My impression is that the legacy for Canadian Muslims is two-fold. First, it encouraged people to reach out to their Muslim neighbors. But, it also gave permission to some to take on Islamophobia. I have to emphasize that this is an impression only. I have no research to back this up.
Q: In 2017, a mosque in Quebec was attacked by an armed man, who opened fire on the worshippers and killed six Muslim congregants. The National Council of Canadian Muslims suggested that January 29, the day the attack took place, be named the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia. However, the proposal met a big resistance and the Canadian government didn’t go ahead with the naming. What do you think was the main reason behind the failure of this idea?
A: There are several reasons. One is that some resist the use of the term “Islamophobia.” They argue that all forms of hatred should be condemned and that no group should be given “preferential treatment.” Others argue that the term “Islamophobia” lacks precise definition – what about those who are assumed to be Muslim and attacked because they wear a turban or speak Arabic in public? Is this Islamophobia? Others claim that condemning Islamophobia would unduly restrict freedom of speech and deter legitimate criticism of Islam or Muslims.
For example, in its oral presentation to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, representatives of B’nai Brith urged members to “exercise great care in any definition of Islamophobia, if indeed any is attempted… we must ensure that no one can hide behind the idea that any criticism of Islam represents Islamophobia.”
Behind all of this is the question of whether we take Muslim lives seriously. A report by Noor Cultural Center, for example, found that Canadian media spent disproportionately more time reporting on bombings in the United States and Europe, where Muslims were the perpetrators, than the Quebec Mosque Shooting. There were also qualitative differences in the reporting.
Q: It seems that Canada is one of the few Western countries that has been immune to the rise and growth of far-right extremism and nationalism and the Trudeau administration is a progressive government that has opened its arms generously to immigrants, especially the Syrian refugees. Can Islamophobia tarnish the moderate face of the Trudeau government?
A: Yes. But, the problem is Islamophobia is often a subtle form of racism that is difficult to identify or prove in individual cases. It is easier to see when one stands back and looks at the big picture. Prime Minister Trudeau is not explicitly Islamophobic like his predecessor. However, the silent Islamophobia that we identify above has not been addressed under Trudeau.
Q: Media report that Islamophobia is a serious problem on the Canadian university campuses. What do you think about it? Have the Canadian universities been able to combat discrimination against the Muslim students and prevent mistreatment of them?
A: I don’t know of any strategy or report that suggests that Canadian universities are taking a systematic approach to combating discrimination against Muslim students. If there is no strategy, or even recognition of the problem by universities, then they cannot combat discrimination against Muslim students.
Q: On the legislative level, there’s no law for combating Islamophobia in Canada. Is there any chance the Canadian Parliament may consider tackling Islamophobia through passing legislation as one of its priorities in the future?
A: There are laws for combating Islamophobia. Canada has human rights legislation that prohibits discrimination in important areas like housing and in the provision of services. At least some instances of Islamophobia can easily be addressed through these laws. My research has shown, however, that human rights adjudicators, including judges, do not always understand or address Islamophobia when they see it. We also have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees equality. But, Charter litigation is very expensive and, in my opinion, courts have made it very difficult to prove Islamophobia. Ontario’s Anti-Racism Act (2017) requires the government to maintain an anti-racism strategy and “consult with members and representatives of communities that are most adversely impacted by racism, including Indigenous, Black and Jewish communities and communities that are adversely impacted by Islamophobia.” But, this law has not been used effectively either. So, the laws exist but they have had limited impact.
Q: How do you think it’s possible to present a fair and balanced image of Islam to the Canadians? Which entities and organizations should play a role to educate the public about the realities of Islam?
A: Presenting a fair and balanced image would mean depicting Islam in all of its complexities. This is possible of course. It would require a commitment by a number of organizations and entities to do that. Schools, civil society organizations, media, elected officials, police and others. Sometimes, the public is the best educator, however, because those who are responsible for public education harbor their own forms of racism. Consider our national security agency, CSIS. A recent lawsuit filed against CSIS by five intelligence officers and analysts offers a glimpse into the dialectic or the mutually reinforcing relationship between individuals and government decision-making. In this case, individual CSIS officers are alleged to hold stereotypical and racist views of Muslims. The lawsuit depicts a culture of institutionalized Islamophobia and discrimination, alleging that “racist, sexist, homophobic and discriminatory behavior has become the accepted culture and norm” at the agency. For instance, a gay employee received an email from a manager warning he should be “careful your Muslim in-laws don’t behead you in your sleep for being homo,” and was told repeatedly that “All Muslims are terrorists.” The case has settled but I raise it to point out that the idea of educating the public is not always the problem. Islamophobia is institutionalized in some of our most important agencies, including those that have an educational function or impact public opinion. Education is important but it is not enough. We need other strategies, including ensuring good representation within institutions.
Q: Do you think the advocacy groups and local communities and national organizations are able to fight Islamophobia effectively? Are such organizations able to influence governments to adopt more serious policies to protect Muslims and shield them from Islamophobia?
A: Advocacy groups, local communities and national organizations are short on time and resources. They do what they can but they can only do so much, especially when Islamophobia comes from the halls of power and takes subtle forms. The burden should not fall on these groups. Discrimination, inequality and intolerance is a problem that we all have to understand and address.
By: Kourosh Ziabari