ODVV Interview: Racism is in no way eradicated...
In 1971, Canada became the first country in the world to officially adopt a multiculturalism policy. The decision was made under the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and in 1982, section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognized multiculturalism as a national agenda. Canada is nowadays a nation of immigrants, and has founded its immigration policy upon attracting educated and skilled foreign workers from different countries to enhance its economy and improve its people’s standard of living. The country is facing challenges such as an aging population and declining birth rate, and is turning to immigrants to fill the gaps. Canada is one of the top four Western nations when it comes to the total number of migrants it has admitted, and for the proportion of immigrants to its overall population.
Since Justin Trudeau came into office in 2015, Canada has been endeavoring to portray itself an appealing and welcoming destination, particularly for people fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East. In the past five years, roughly 50,000 Syrian refugees have settled in Canada. A total of 313,580 people immigrated to Canada in 2019 alone. There are scholars and observers who believe racism in Canada is an artifact of the past, and that the country has eliminated racial and religious inequalities, particularly considering Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s progressive policies and his advocacy for inclusion and diversity. On the other hand, there are those who believe the assumption that Canada is a nation of cultural tolerance is a hype and that its post-racial image is a myth.
Muslims represent an indispensable minority in the mosaic of Canadian society. There are currently over 1.05 million Muslims living in Canada, whose number, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, is expected to rise to 2.7 million in 2030. Even though Canadian Muslims enjoy many advantages in their public life and contribute to the progress of the Canadian society in innumerable ways, they are also a frequent target of racist abuse and discrimination. An exclusive poll by Ipsos for Global News found in 2019 that more than a quarter of Canadians believe it has become “more acceptable” to be prejudiced against Muslims.
Shirley R. Steinberg is a research professor of critical youth studies at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada and an honorary adjunct professor at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. She is currently the Senior Scholar for the University College at the University of Calgary. In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof. Steinberg responded to some questions on the public perceptions of Muslims in Canada, government response to anti-Muslim hate crimes and cyber bullying against Muslims and other vulnerable groups. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: In the run-up to the 2019 general elections, several anti-Muslim groups in Canada concertedly defamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by circulating rumors that he was trying to institute the “Sharia laws” in the country and support radical Muslims, and some went as far as claiming that Trudeau is a Muslim secretly, but doesn’t reveal it. What was behind the emergence of the vitriol campaign against the progressive premier?
A: While we attempt to separate us from American politics and ways of life, we are unmistakably tied to them ideologically and culturally. The Islamophobia garnered in Canada is less frequent, less apparent, but certainly has Canadian roots. I don’t believe many Canadians have a clue exactly what “Sharia laws” are. Certainly, if they did understand, they would not claim it is influencing the government or the populace. My guess is that the majority of Muslims who have immigrated to Canada are from Pakistan, which is not a Sharia-ruled country. Indeed, Sharia law is not practiced, as you know, in most Muslim countries.
Vitriol in national politics isn’t new, and it isn’t unusual. With a frightening turn to the right in Canada, anyone who is considered progressive or liberal, actually, in my opinion, considered sane, would not assume in any way that Sharia law can or could ever be imposed in Canada. This type of buzz is attempted to create division and fear. I contend that Islamophobia exists in recent society in three waves. Pre 9/11, 9/11, and Post-911. I note the first wave as a large chunk of human history, in which Muslims and Arab peoples have experienced prejudices. Certainly, Jack Shaheen notes this in his work, Reel Bad Arabs. I love this book and subsequent film, as we can see almost a century of film documenting fear and loathing of Muslims and Arab peoples. Note that I discuss both Muslims and those from Arab countries. Islamophobia is not nuanced enough to articulate the differences in hatred and fear toward both peoples. This is about fear of “other,” and in countries which assume they are white – even though the whites are also immigrants – the other becomes those who are most often darker-skinned, and not part of the dominant culture of the country. In Canada, with the exception of Quebec, our dominant culture remains white, English-speaking, male, middle-class, urban, Protestant, Christian-identified, and heterosexual. Consequently, in our country “the other” encompasses many people, and I assert it is in the interest of the dominant culture to use the culture of “others” to maintain systemic and political power. Of course, this is right out of Bourdieu, via Gramsci. Ignoring Indigenous, First Nations, and Inuit peoples, dominant cultural Canadians still feel entitled to establish the norms of our country.
Q: In a 2019 report, the Pew Research Center asserted that the Canadian government enforces minimal restrictions on the followers of different religions. Last year, however, the province of Quebec introduced the Bill 21 which prohibited government employees including teachers, judges and police officers from wearing religious symbols, including hijab, at workspace. Do you think such legislation will be extended to other provinces? Considering that the Canadian constitution protects religious freedom, don’t you believe such legislation is somewhat questionable?
A: I am dismayed at the statistics, and am in the midst of analyzing the data collected by Think For Actions, a grassroots group started in Calgary, Alberta, which is working to diffuse Islamophobia and racism of all kinds. The interviews deal with Bill 21, legislation put forth in the Province of Quebec, which was passed in June 2019, commonly called “The Secularism Law,” which clearly indicates a racist, Islamophobic, misogynistic intention to eliminate religious symbols, garments in public. This would include public workers who would be forbidden to wear such symbols or clothing. Controversial in its intent, it, in my opinion, is legalized racism and religious oppression; shocking to most of the world, given Canada’s reputation for human rights and equality. Just three years ago, a mosque shooting in Quebec City left six worshippers dead, and the province of Quebec has little acknowledgment of Islamophobia.
As a Canadian, I am humiliated and angered at this law, and believe it is an insult to Canada; the notion of Muslim women being told what they are allowed to wear, the patrolling of jewelry around peoples’ necks, the question of turbans on Sikh men, the list goes on and on. What on Earth kind of province is Quebec? Who are these people? What does this law serve? Clearly, in my opinion, Muslims have been targeted, and Muslim women, to be clear. Many other religions are not so identifiable, and this is important to note. And yes, I am very concerned about the safety of our Muslim sisters and their ability to live their lives as free and safe Canadians. I do not feel any country that claims to be a democracy can legislate a law like this. The law is draconian and not Canadian. I also want to note that along with Islamophobic acts, there is also a rise of anti-Semitic acts and violence; they both go hand in hand. As “people of the Book,” I believe that Muslims and Jews are often the target of hatred, specifically when times get rough and society is disrupted.
No, I don’t think there is a possibility that this absurd and hateful law will cross to other provinces, and I never want to be wrong on that thought.
Q: As reported by Statistics Canada in May 2019, a total of 364 online hate crimes were reported to the police between 2010 and 2017, which were proved to be criminal violation. Muslims constituted 17 percent of the victims. Is the cyberspace safe for Canadian Muslims? Do you agree that Islamophobic contents, which are commonly disseminated across different online platforms, result in the spread of violence and underpin the radicalization of young people?
A: I agree, and I don’t agree, in that I believe that cyber hate crimes and bullying make the environment unsafe for all Canadians. Of course, I believe that Islamophobic contents exist on online platforms, but so do horrendous misogynistic, homophobic, and racist cyber hate crimes exist. I would have to see who the other 83% of the victims were, but this exists and it is again, anti-Canadian and we need some sort of way in which to disallow these crimes. I was a victim of a cyber-bully, and unfortunately, the police were unable to assist in much of anything. These crimes are so easily masked by a lack of sophistication in law enforcement in exactly how to maintain a safe internet.
Q: A study by Environics Institute for Survey Research and Canadian Race Relations Foundation found in 2019 that the majority of Canadians believe racism doesn’t exist in the country. Based on this survey, 8 out of each 10 Canadians are of the opinion that race relations in Canada are “very good.” Does this point to the fact that racism has been eradicated in the Canada?
A: In no way is racism eradicated in Canada, not even close. We have well over 5,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada; we have white supremacists disrupting legal civic rallies and anti-racist work. Canadians often convince themselves that we are the “nice and tolerant” country, [and] it’s the Americans who are racist. I can tell you, that I love Canada, but I am pained to acknowledge the amount of hate and anger which resides here. I witness it far too often.
Q: How is the representation of Muslims in the Canadian media? A 2017 research by the University of Georgia indicated that violent attacks by Muslim citizens receive, on average, 449% more coverage in the US media than attacks carried out by other groups of people. Is the situation the same in Canada and do the media reinforce anti-Muslim tropes?
A: Ignorance is our greatest enemy. People are tribal, they stick to whom they know, and feel safe with sameness. It is difficult for many to reach out of their comfort zone and attempt to create an intercultural relationship. I recently had my undergraduate students discuss Islamophobia and racism. I asked them to do quick smart phone and tablet research in class, asking them to investigate the amount of gun deaths in the US in one year. The numbers varied in past years to average about 35,000 deaths a year. I then had them research the amount of deaths labeled as “terrorism” in the same amount of time. The number for the past 19 years, since 9/11 was less than 4,000. That’s about 665,000 to 4,000. Yet, Muslims are considered the terrorists.
My work is centered on critical media literacy, how the media portrays cultural groups, and specifically those who are Muslim or Arab. In my work, I have traced back years of TV and film, looking at the caricatures and stereotypes used in portraying these two groups. Reactions to Muslims and Arabs are often defined as barbaric, primitive, and zealous. Women are assumed to be oppressed, beaten, silenced and exploited. Many Canadians I have interviewed make remarks which clearly show their ignorance: I don’t want Sharia law in Canada, without any idea of what Sharia law is, and what groups and countries exercise it. Media has a history of exploiting news, and when it is different or unique, then perpetrators become the poster child of different racial and ethnic groups. I see Islamophobia as an evolving hatred which has changed and morphed in three distinct eras. I look at what I call, “first wave Islamophobia” as the pre-9/11 hatred and fear of Islam and Arab peoples. Based on folk tales, media, and ignorant assumptions, this is similar to racism against black people and anti-Semitism in that the media has created the ways with which one creates assumptions and conclusions about people, so this would be the barbaric, primitive, zealous definitions.
“Second wave Islamophobia” was birthed the morning of 9/11. It had been coming, but was in full fruition after that morning. It became an act of hate motivated by fear, anger, and shock at the loss of lives in the Twin Towers and the vulnerabilities of those who felt they were attacked. Indeed, I was teaching in New York City during the attacks and within a day, my Mexican students, my Indian students, and my Muslim students were reporting attacks and violence. This lasted for over a decade; 9/11 gave free reign for the United States to enter countries, pillage oil, and destroy societies supposedly as a way to ensure the US wouldn’t be attacked further, but instead became a way to steal, occupy, and oppress countries which had no involvement with those attacks. “Third wave Islamophobia” is our present. It has become the excuse for retribution for just about anything, the stock market goes down, any crime by a Muslim is terrorism. Again, I see a parallel with anti-Semitism as it has often been said if anything in a society goes wrong, people go after the Jews. Third wave Islamophobia seems to be the catch-all way to blame Muslims and Arabs for anything. Unwarranted, unreasonable, if something is wrong, blame them. The righteous indignation from 9/11 has been turned into wholesale hatred and fear of our neighbors and friends. It frightens me.
Q: Have you observed positive changes in the living conditions of and attitudes toward Muslims following the Quebec City mosque shootings on 29 January 2017, which prompted the passing of the Motion 103 by the House of Commons, in which the parliament demanded the government to condemn Islamophobia and quell the climate of fear and hatred? Is fighting Islamophobia one of the priorities of the government today?
A: I think the question is answered by how it is asked. When it has to be demanded to condemn Islamophobia, the hatred of Canadian Muslims, we have a problem. Hatred of any kind should be immediately condemned. We have attempts to discuss Islamophobia in school curriculum, but more often than not, education about Islam is relegated to bringing in a prayer rug and showing “Aladdin.” Indeed, some of the most intelligent and meaningful attempts to change Islamophobia in Canada come from the non-profit sector, like Think for Actions, who work to do research and name Islamophobia. There are also some smaller groups of women who have organized to create intercultural groups in Canada to work towards anti-Islamophobia. One of my favorite movements is a group of Muslim women who have backpacks, bags, and pins which say, “Ask me about my hijab.” Women taking hatred into their own hands and offering to discuss and educate about why they wear a veil. Do I feel our government is making an effort to fight Islamophobia? Not really.
Do I feel Canadians want to be in an anti-racist society, equitable and intercultural? I hope so. I certainly work with groups who feel this way, groups of all cultures, but we need more.
By: Kourosh Ziabari