According to Amira Elghawaby, spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the term “Islamophobia” as used in Canada describes the irrational fear or hatred of Muslims that leads to discrimination or acts of harassment or violence. One week after Trump’s rant, on 23 February 2017 in Ontario, Canada, the legislature passed a unanimous motion condemning Islamophobia. The motion was spurred by the shooting deaths of six worshippers and wounding 19 others in a mosque in Quebec. But it was also a response to local incidents in Ottawa (anti-Muslim graffiti, and the spitting at young women wearing hijabs). The Ontario legislature motion was introduced by Liberal backbencher Nathalie Des Rosiers from the Ottawa riding of Ottawa-Vanier. It called on the legislature to “stand against all forms of hatred, hostility, prejudice, racism and intolerance,” and to rebuke a “growing tide of anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiments.” The motion called for a condemnation of “all forms of Islamophobia.”
Canadians across the country had rallied to demonstrate their support for besieged Muslims. Flowers and several hand-made signs were placed outside Masjid Al-Iman mosque in Victoria in the wake of the deadly shooting in Quebec on 30 January. My own rabbi was one of leaders who helped form a circle of peace around a mosque in Toronto.
The Muslim community in Canada, feeling singled out as never before, felt justified in wanting the legislatures across Canada, especially the federal parliament, to go further. Amira Elghawaby asked the federal government not only to take steps to combat Islamophobia and support M-103, a federal parliamentary motion to condemn Islamophobia, but to declare 29 January, the date of the Quebec shooting, a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia.
In the federal legislature, the debate has been different than the one in Ontario. The motion was similar and the non-binding motion M-103 called on the government to “recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear,” The full private member’s motion read as follows:
In the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear; (b) condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination and take note of House of Commons’ petition e-411 and the issues raised by it; and (c) request that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage undertake a study on how the government could (i) develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, in Canada, while ensuring a community-centered focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making, [my italics – do you understand what that means? Is this addressed to the general reader? It is political gibberish.] (ii) collect data to contextualize hate crime reports and to conduct needs assessments for impacted communities, and that the Committee should present its findings and recommendations to the House no later than 240 calendar days from the adoption of this motion, provided that in its report, the Committee should make recommendations that the government may use to better reflect the enshrined rights and freedoms in the Constitution Acts, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau supported the motion, arguing that the Muslim community is currently “particularly vulnerable these days to intolerance and discrimination.” At the federal level, the Progressive Conservative party, or many of its MPs, took a different tack than their Ontario cousins and opposed the inclusion of Islamophobia in a general resolution condemning the rise of that type of speech or action. Federal Conservatives insisted that the federal motion should be opposed because it singles out one religious group over others. Many Conservative MPs opposed the inclusion of Islamophobia in a general resolution condemning the rise of that type of speech or action, fearing a suppression of free speech would result.
Some federal Conservatives supported the motion, such as South Surrey-White Rock B.C. Conservative MP Dianne Watts. Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong also supported the motion. “In light of the mass shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City suburb of Sainte-Foy last month, where six Muslims were killed and 19 injured while they prayed in their mosque, it is appropriate and important that Canadian parliamentarians study the issue of anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic prejudice and discrimination.” He denied the argument that the motion could be used to curtail freedom of speech simply because Islamophobia is not defined. After all, Section 319 of the Criminal Code goes even further and makes it an offence to wilfully promote or publicly incite hatred against any identifiable group which, incidentally, Chong would repeal because the section sets too high a standard on non-hate speech.
Other Conservatives have argued that many definitions of Islamophobia include “dislike” of Islam and its adherents as part of the definition. The motion could potentially put a damper on free speech. Kellie Leitch (Conservative, Simcoe-Gray), another leadership candidate for the opposition party, claimed that she was fighting back “against politically correct nonsense.” Maxime Bernier, Andrew Scheer, Brad Trost, Chris Alexander, Kevin O’Leary and Erin O’Toole, other candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party, also criticized the motion condemning Islamophobia.
Barbara Kay, a national columnist, argued that there are many more anti-Semitic incidents, let alone statements, targeting, Jews. 181 hate-motivated crimes targeting the Jewish religion were reported in 2013; there were 65 crimes motivated by hatred against the Muslim religion. (There will be more on anti-Semitism in a subsequent blog.) Breitbart News went even further and noted that the motion never mentioned anti-Semitism or anti-Christian discrimination and suggested that the latter occurs far more often in Canada than victimization of Muslims, but provided no data to back up such a claim.
In the federal legislature, a Conservative motion virtually identical to Khalid’s, except that it excised the term “Islamophobia,” was defeated 165-126 as Liberals, New Democrats, Bloc Québécois and Green Party leader Elizabeth May, voted against the motion.
There have been a few indications that labeling something as motivated by Islamophobia could result in curbing free speech. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation objected to Mark Steyn’s 2006 book, America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, precisely on such grounds. Steyn was not content to rail against Islam, or, more precisely, its radical interpretations, but expressed the fear that, because of internal weaknesses, largely attributed to bleeding heart liberals and their moral and cultural relativism promoting multiculturalism, combined with an increase in the Muslim population and demographic decline of native non-Muslim populations, as well as the economic unsustainability of the social democratic state, a day might come when the call to prayer from a muezzin on a loudspeaker would become widespread. In a much more fearsome scenario, Talibanic enforcers would cruise Greenwich Village burning books and barber shops. The Supreme Court was imagined as having decided that Sharia law did not violate the “separation of church and state.” Steyn also dismissed the fear of climate change as an imminent danger as irrational.
While many condemned the book as Islamophobic, Christopher Hitchens gave it a rave review. George W. Bush recommended it to his staff. Ironically, promoters of Islamic exceptionalism agreed with Steyn in condemning Western relativism. The movers of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.fmreview.org/sites/fmr/files/FMRdownloads/en/FMRpdfs/Human-Rights/cairo.pdf), the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, could be included. That human rights doctrine criticized the Western tradition of human rights as sometimes conflicting with Sharia law. This Islamic iteration of human rights included the usual litany that required protection and actions to be condemned – “discrimination on the basis of race, colour, language, belief, gender, political affiliation, social status and even religion.”
The defence of the freedom of speech in Article 22(a), however, was conditional not absolute. Expression cannot be “contrary to the practices of Shariah,” “the sole source of human rights,” not human nature. Article 24 states: “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia.”
Conflicts arose over the definition of gender rights since women have specific duties to perform and men are given primary responsibility for the social and financial protection of the family. Equality is only guaranteed to men. Women do not have the right to marry a non-Muslim or to have more than one spouse and cannot initiate divorce without the consent of their husbands. In Iran, a Muslim woman can only marry a non-Muslim man if he can produce evidence that he had converted to Islam. Most specifically, Article 10 of the Declaration calls Islam “the religion of unspoiled nature” and prohibits conversion to another religion or atheism if compulsion or economic incentives and exploitation or even ignorance is allegedly used, leaving the barn door wide open for condemning virtually any conversion from Islam as an abuse of human rights.
This is not simply an abstract principle. As a 2014 U.S. State Department report documented, societal discrimination against non-Muslims is rampant in Muslim-majority countries. In 2013, in Iran, though the sentence of death as provided in law is no longer used, converts have been sentenced to an average of over three years of served time, lashes and fines for “apostasy.”
For someone committed to the Western tradition of human rights, the Cairo declaration on human rights not only has many lacunae, but provides a rationale for the abuse of human rights under the guise of protecting human rights and explicitly states that the Declaration is intended to limit the application of the UN universal declaration of human rights. There is, therefore, a difference between criticisms of Islam, dislike of Islam and discrimination against individual Muslims. The latter is forbidden in the Western human rights tradition. The former two are clearly not forbidden, and, further, are protected. You have a right to criticize Islam. You have a right to dislike Islam. You have no right to discriminate against Muslims.
Since the term Islamophobic is not restricted to discriminatory behaviour, but includes attitudes such as “dislike,” there is a real and not just a rhetorical problem. However, there is also a problem in cases where criticisms and dislike of Islam are used as justification for discrimination against Muslims.
On the other hand, there is a difference between condemning Steyn’s book as Islamophobic and banning the book. The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights defined Islamophobia as a rights violation without ensuring that the criticism of Islam was guaranteed as a right. It is clearly possible, especially given the record of Islamic states, that individuals educated as Muslims might be more prone not only to condemn a book like that of Steyn, but ban it.
In Canada, we can be proud that many Muslims occupy important political positions and are excellent representatives of all their constituents with no indication that they confuse “dislike” and “criticisms” with their condemnation of Islamophobia. In addition to former members of parliament – Rahim Jaffer, Wajid Khan – these include Ontario Liberal MPPs: Shafiq Qaadri, Etobicoke, Omar Alghabra, Mississauga Centre, Khalil Ramat, London-Fanshawe, as well as the Attorney General of Ontario, Yasir Naqvi. In the federal parliament, we find Yasmin Ratansi, Liberal Don Valley East, and Maryam Monsef, Liberal, Peterborough, who is Minister of Status of Women in the Justin Trudeau government. Perhaps most notable of all, and with a reputation as possibly the best mayor in all of Canada, is Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary. Not one can be justly accused of subordinating Canadian law and the Western human rights tradition to the Cairo Declaration of human rights and Sharia law.
But there are also Muslim citizens of Canada who are not terrorists or supporters of terrorism, but who believe that Canadian law should be subordinated to Sharia law. I am critical of them just as I am critical of Jews and Christians with whom I disagree. I am critical of some Jewish and Christian religious practices and some expressions of each of those faiths. But it is also true that some aspects of Islam pose a much greater challenge to the Western liberal tradition than twenty-first century Christianity and Judaism. It is my right as a Canadian to offer well-intentioned and constructive critiques of religious practices or ideologies. However, I see no core inconsistency between a defense of the right to criticize and a suspicion of some Islamic beliefs and practices and a condemnation of Islamophobia.
There is a real problem that when Islamophobia also includes a dislike of Islam as well as an irrational fear of and prejudice against Muslims. There is a danger that the term can be misused. Irwin Cotler may be correct in stating that the term anti-Muslim prejudice might be preferable to Islamophobia. But a term and phrase is best understood in terms of current practices and real life situations that threaten the lives and well-being of Muslims. Also, although I too might have quibbles about a motion opposing Islamophobia and even harsher criticisms of some aspects of Islam, which should not be interpreted as resentment of Islam, I strongly support a motion condemning Islamophobia for I radically disagree with the contention that some Conservatives made that, “there no phobia of Islam in Canada.”
When federal Conservatives opposed the motion because it singles out one religious group over others and feared a suppression of free speech would result, it is important to recognize that the motion singles out one religious group precisely because this religious group was singled out. Also, the fear of suppressing free speech is rubbish. If you are rigorous enough, there will be no suppression. Only those who are drawn to slippery slopes may have to face the consequences. Bensoussan is but one example. He could have easily extricated himself from his predicament.
As far as Islamophobia goes, its practical acceptance as anti-Muslim sentiment is equivalent to the acceptance of anti-Semitism as anti-Jewish prejudice, in spite of the fact that Arabs are also Semites, inviting the facetious argument that anti-Semitism should be extended to cover Arabs as well. Is the term anti-Jewish prejudice preferable to anti-Semitism?
I see no evidence that the support for a motion condemning Islamophobia in any way puts the slightest dent in our belief in freedom of speech. Further, when a man is president of the United States who offers repeated evidence of being Islamophobic, it is all the more important to condemn Islamophobic expressions. I believe that the Canadian Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) opposing the federal motion on Islamophobia on grounds that the motion, “requires us to silence legitimate concerns or suppress a public conversation about those strains of Islam that pose a real and imminent threat to Jews around the world” is not only unjustified but irrational. The motion in context has no such requirement.
The motion M-103 is not the source of “alienation and dissonance” as CIJA is wont to believe. In my estimation, CIJA’s opposition has its roots in understandable Jewish fears. I can understand where CIJA is coming from as I explore the new face of anti-Semitism in my next blog.