Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March/April 2017, pp. 40-41
Canada Not Immune From a Legacy of Fear-Mongering
By Faisal Kutty
Islamophobia is real. President Donald Trump’s executive order banning entry to the U.S. from 7 Muslim-majority countries, and the Jan. 29 terrorist attack on the Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec City, killing 6 and wounding 19 innocent worshippers, should lay any doubts to rest.
Right-wing nationalists were quick to re-victimize the mosque shooting victims by falsely propagating that one of the alleged perpetrators was a Moroccan and that he had yelled, “Allahu Akbar.” The fact that even some supposedly respectable media outlets reported such speculative “facts” is telling. Police have now charged Alexandre Bissonnette, a white French Canadian who by some accounts appears to be a rabid anti-immigrant nationalist, with six counts of murder and five counts of attempted murder.
Sadly, the first Islamophobic killings in North America in the wake of President Trump’s election may have been carried out in multicultural, tolerant and welcoming Canada.
The number of police-reported hate crimes against Muslim Canadians more than doubled over a three-year period (2012 to 2014), according to figures released by Statistics Canada last year. As alarming as these figures are, they don’t tell the full story, because there is no central registry, and any national statistics depend on reports from local police which in turn rely on victims to report.
In fact, discriminatory actions and crimes driven by hate may not be properly captured. Many incidents are not reported because too many believe that nothing will come of it. Indeed, there is growing anecdotal evidence to suggest that reports are not being taken seriously by some authorities, or are classified as other than hate crimes. Some cases are summarily dismissed as parking or zoning issues, “flight safety issues” or simply free speech.
In the case of the mosque shooting, mosque attendee Zebida Bendjeddou told Reuters: “In June, they’d put a pig’s head in front of the mosque. But we thought: ‘Oh, they’re isolated events.’ We didn’t take it seriously. But tonight, those isolated events, they take on a different scope.”
In the days after the massacre there has been much soul searching. Politicians and media pundits are now asking about the source of the hate.
One of the most eloquent statements came from Imam Hassan Guillet, who eulogized the victims at one of two ceremonies. After speaking about the 6 killed, the 17 children left without their fathers, the 6 widows and the 19 wounded, the Imam rhetorically asked:
Did I go through the complete list of victims? No.
There is one victim. None of us want to talk about him.
But given my age, I have the courage to say it. This victim, his name is Alexandre Bissonnette.
Alexandre, before being a killer he was a victim himself. Before planting his bullets in the heads of his victims, somebody planted ideas more dangerous than the bullets in his head.
This little kid didn’t wake up in the morning and say, “Hey guys instead of going to have a picnic or watching the Canadiens, I will go kill some people in the mosque.” It doesn’t happen that way.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, certain politicians unfortunately, and certain reporters unfortunately, and certain media, were poisoning our atmosphere.”
The killings and the spike in hate crimes in the immediate aftermath reveals the underlying bigotry and provides evidence of how too many have been emboldened by rhetoric that has mainstreamed anti-Muslim hate. Demonization of Muslims has a long history in Western politics and popular culture, but it is now reaching a fever pitch. A discourse initially fueled by a well-funded network of professional merchants of hate on the fringe infected a small segment of the Republican party in the U.S. and Harperites in Canada, but has now reached heights never before imagined by most analysts. Trump’s travel ban and anticipated Muslim registry did not rise out of thin air. They are rooted in the culture of fear and targeting of Muslims nurtured by too many in positions of authority on both sides of the border since the early 1990s, but most aggressively since 9/11 in the “war or terror.” This legacy of “othering” and dehumanization prepped the populace enough for Trump to tap into the bigotry and fear.
Canadian politicians and media are not blameless. Even before 9/11 some Canadian politicians had been fueling fear and distrust of Muslims as the West shifted from the “Red Scare” to the “Green Menace,” but the turning point came with the Anti-Terrorism Act passed in 2001 by the Liberal government. This “PATRIOT Act lite” fanned the fear of Muslims to push along the “war on terror.”
The growing distrust and fear of Islam and Muslims was evident in the hysteria and moral panic created when a group of Muslims sought to use religious principles in resolving their personal disputes in 2003. This was mischaracterized by the far-right as “Shariah coming to Canada.” Many, including well-intentioned but misguided feminists, uncritically bought into this narrative and helped legitimize Islamophobia.
Going against the advice of his own attorney general and the recommendations of former attorney general and women’s rights advocate Marion Boyd, who was asked to look into the issue, the Liberal government led by Dalton McGuinty “banned” the use of religious principles in arbitration. Disturbingly, it was the first time in Ontario history where a law was changed without any concrete evidence of harm, merely on speculation and without any resistance from two opposition parties. Many politicians conceded that they had never seen as much international opposition to a provincial law due to the fear of shariah.
The fact that Canada had its battle with the shariah law phantom long before any American states entered the fray is illustrative.
The fear mongering reached its peak under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who, gearing up to the October 2015 elections, ratcheted up Islamophobia by pandering to public unease about Muslims. In addition to going after Muslim charities and organizations (defaming, for instance, the largest Muslim civil rights group, the National Council of Canadian Muslims [NCCM]), and even religious symbols, his jihad against “radical Islam” and search for terrorists under every Muslim bed profoundly altered the Canadian landscape.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Indeed, this bastion of multiculturalism and tolerance witnessed a slew of legislative and policy directives overtly or covertly targeting Muslims and Islam in the last few years. These include:
A controversial provision of the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act (which had become law back in June 2014) came into effect on May 29, 2015. It allowed the government to revoke Canadian citizenship from anyone who was born outside the country, or was born in Canada and holds another nationality or is eligible to obtain another nationality. This can now be done unilaterally, without any involvement of a judge or other independent arbiter, for fraud or national security reasons. The Liberal legislation to repeal these provisions is working its way through the legislature.
The Anti-terrorism Act, 2015 (known as Bill C51) was enacted on June 18, 2015 amid major controversy. The legislation amends existing legislation and raises a plethora of constitutional issues (including freedom of religion) and significantly alters the security landscape.
On June 18, 2015, Parliament also passed the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. On its face the law appears neutral by raising the age of marriage, criminalizing forced marriages and banning “honor” killings. Indeed, as Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom opined, its provisions on “honor” killings, polygamy and the focus on immigrant “Muslim” practices clearly point to political pandering. It is all the more absurd given that forced marriages, “honor” killings and polygamy are already illegal under existing laws.
On June 19, 2015, the Conservatives also introduced another bill known as the Oath of Citizenship Act, which mandates that citizenship applicants must show their face during the Oath of Citizenship ceremony. The infamous “niqab ban” came a few days after the province of Quebec introduced Bill 62, known as the Religious Neutrality Bill, which seeks to ban face-covering religious garments for public servants and citizens who wish to use government services. The impetus for the federal legislation was the Federal Court of Canada ruling that it was “unlawful” for Ottawa to order new citizens to remove their face-covering veil or niqab when taking the oath of citizenship.
As if these were not enough, Prime Minister Harper also called for the banning of Syrian refugees.
Now playing into similar fears is Conservative-leadership contender Kellie Leitch with her problematic values test.
Quebec also has a long history of Islamophobic policies. The Parti Quebecois generated anxiety in 2013 by proposing a “Charter of Values” which targeted mostly Muslim religious symbols. Not to let an opportunity slip, conservative Quebec politician François Legault resurrected the issue last fall, feeding into this fear of Muslims.
In 2013, an Angus Reid poll revealed that 69 percent of Quebecois people held an unfavorable opinion of Muslims. In English-speaking Canada, this view rose from 46 percent unfavorable in 2009 to 54 percent unfavorable in 2013. A 2016 study by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation found only 24 percent of French Canadians and 49 percent of English Canadians had a positive view of Muslims. An Ipsos poll in 2016 also found that both Canadians and Americans thought that Muslims made up 17 percent of their populations. The reality is far lower, at 3 percent and 1 percent respectively. This perception partly drives the fear.
When Islamophobia becomes a socially acceptable form of bigotry as it has in some circles, we should not be surprised when it manifests in discrimination and even violence. While the shooting may be shrugged off by some as an isolated incident, hate does impact the lived realities of far too many Muslims in Canada.
Faisal Kutty is counsel to KSM Law, an associate professor at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana, and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. Twitter @faisalkutty.