Canadian Civil Society II – Islamophobia and Empathy

by

Howard Adelman

This blog continues the discussion of the core values of the Canadian civil religion in contrast to the Trump-Stone ethos now governing the polis in the U.S.  In the previous blog, I dealt with the first four values, but I reprint the whole list as a reference.

Canada                                        U.S.A.

  1. Civility                               Incivility
  2. Compassion                      Passion
  3. Dignity                               Indignation
  4. Diversity                           Unity
  5. Empathy                           Insecurity
  6. Impartial                          Partisan
  7. Egalitarian                       Inegalitarian
  8. Fairness                            Ruthless & even Unfair
  9. Freedom as a Goal          Freedom as Given
  10. False-consciousness       Humans as Falsifiers

Why is empathy, the fifth value above, different from compassion? Compassion is a feeling for the suffering of others. Empathy is a cognitive exercise, getting inside the head of another to understand how and why the individual makes the decisions he or she does. Empathy operates by adopting the point of view of the other as one’s own in order to understand the other’s perspective. This vicarious experiencing of the thoughts, feelings and frame of reference of another was largely evident in the debate leading up to the Members of the House of Commons passing an “Islamophobia” Motion, M-103, by a vote of 201-91 two months ago on 23 March 2017.

Before I analyze the Canadian debate on Islamophobia as an example of empathy for the most part, I want to first explain what Islamophobia is and why I offered “insecurity” as the antonym to “empathy” by tracking Donald Trump’s position on Islam. I also want to do this as an exercise in empathy rather than righteous haranguing against Donald Trump’s self-evidently outrageous statements on Islam.

Donald Trump’s criticism of Islam began long before he launched his campaign to become president and long before he assumed the Office of President of the United States of America. Some statements made five years earlier may have adumbrated one plank of a presidential campaign that would include negative statements about Islam. When Donald Trump took leadership of the Birther Movement, the organized effort to convince Americans and the world that: a) Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.; and b) that Obama was secretly a Muslim, in an interview on 11 December 2011, Trump articulated his more general warnings about Islam and Muslims.

In November of 2015, he uttered the outright lie that, “thousands of people [Muslims] celebrated in Jersey City in N.J. on 11 September 2001.” Though some residents of Jersey City claimed that Trump’s assertion was true and that “we saw it,” no video or photo has ever appeared to verify the claim. According to Trump, “There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it [the destruction of the Twin Towers] a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down. No good.” In December of 2015, Trump put out a policy statement in his race to win the Republican nomination that warned of the “extraordinary influx of hatred & danger coming into our country.”

This is what appeared then on his campaign website:

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on. According to Pew Research, among others, there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population. Most recently, a poll from the Center for Security Policy released data showing “25% of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad” and 51% of those polled, “agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Shariah.” Shariah authorizes such atrocities as murder against non-believers who won’t convert, beheadings and more unthinkable acts that pose great harm to Americans, especially women.

The citation of a notorious Islamophobe, Frank Gaffney and his organization, in itself fostered Islamophobia. Gaffney was even banned from attending the Conservative Political Action Conference when he levelled the same claim against the board members of being Muslim Brotherhood agents that he had accused Hillary Clinton’s aide, Huma Abedin, of being. Thus, Trump’s call on the campaign trail to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., his assertion in an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN that, “I think Islam hates us,” and that, “we can’t allow people coming into the country who have this hatred of the United States,” and his promise to absolutely implement a Muslim database, all offered evidence of his purported Islamophobia. The campaign climaxed in the two failed executive orders he issued when he became president to ban members of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.

However, in Riyadh on Sunday as President of the U.S. appearing before an Arab summit of 50 leaders, he called his foreign policy, “principled realism,” though it is very difficult to discern any moral principles informing the doctrine. He asked for “partnerships” that would “advance security through stability, not through radical disruption.” In a slip of sloppy writing, he contrasted those prospective partners with perfection: “We must seek partners, not perfection.”  The ideal was self-reliance; the compromise was partnerships, partnerships even with predominantly Muslim countries.

Donald Trump made other mistakes in his overtures to these countries. He celebrated the pyramids and palaces of Giza and Luxor, the ruins of Petra in Jordan, all pre-Islam, but conspicuously not the grandeur in art and architecture, science and technology, thought and writing achieved at the pinnacle of Muslim civilization. However, he lauded Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths” and insisted that the war was against terror, against radical Islamicists; the majority of the victims were Muslims. He never used the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” that he claimed Barack Obama had been too cowardly to employ. He continued: it was not a war between civilizations.

How can we reconcile these assertions as President with Donald Trump’s claims as a campaigner? Was Trump guilty of Islamophobia, but quickly abandoned the belief after he became president and made his first foreign trip abroad to Saudi Arabia? Let me try to understand the position, but only after reviewing the debate on Islamophobia in Canada.

On 26 October 2016, the Canadian Parliament gave unanimous consent to a motion by NDP leader, Thomas Mulcair, condemning Islamophobia:

That the House join the 69,742 Canadian supporters of House of Commons e-petition (e-411) in condemning all forms of Islamophobia.

In his speech, the Hon. Thomas Mulcair (Outremont, NDP) said:

Mr. Speaker, hate crimes targeting Muslim Canadians have tragically become more frequent in recent years. Each time we hear of another, it weighs heavily on our hearts. We know that Canada is fundamentally a country of peace. Nous célébrons la diversité et les différences. Cela fait partie de qui nous sommes mais ces valeurs doivent être protégées. Les étincelles de haine doivent être condamnées. Nous ne pouvons pas rester sans rien faire. L’histoire nous l’a bien appris. Nous devons lutter contre la haine perpétrée à l’endroit de n’importe quel groupe de personnes en raison de leur religion, de leur ethnie, de leur langue ou de leur orientation sexuelle. We must actively fight hate perpetrated against the Muslim community and denounce, in this House, lslamophobia in all of its forms. Au nom de tous les néo-démocrates, je tiens à offrir mon appui à la communauté musulmane de Sept-Îles et à rappeler à toutes les communautés musulmanes du Canada que nous sommes avec elles.

What took place between the passage of this motion and three weeks earlier, on 6 October, when an almost identical motion was defeated by a handful of Conservatives members shouting, “Nay”?  Did Parliament deny the Canadian-Muslim community the recognition and empathy it deserved in the defeat of that motion? Was it subsequently moved by a petition with almost 70,000 signatures and/or the third attack on a newly-built Sept-Ȋles mosque that took place just four days before the motion passed? Was the defeat of the 6 October motion itself an act of Islamophobia that even went beyond the claim that it was an indication of a lack of empathy? Or was the vote of a handful of Conservative members of the House likely motivated simply by partisanship, as Mulcair claimed?

Ironically, the vandalism was probably not a hate crime. At the time of the unanimous passage of the motion, a man turned himself in to the police confessing responsibility for the crime. He said that he had become drunk that night in the bar next door to the cultural centre and did the damage, but he was too drunk to even know at the time that he had committed the crime. Nor, given the subsequent debate on a bill against Islamophobia, was the earlier dissent on the motion likely motivated by either partisanship or Islamophobia. It was more likely the Conservatives did not fully grasp the meaning and intent of the concept “Islamophobia’. They gave evidence that they had not been sufficiently empathetic to the position of the Muslims.

Why would they want to vote against a bill that condemned a form of hatred? One possibility is that they regarded Islamophobia as a term that did not mean “dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.” It was not anti-Muslim or anti-Islam at all. Islamophobia literally meant fear of Islam, Islam – phobia.  Fear is different than hatred. One can irrationally fear all Muslims even though very few are terrorists, but there is no necessary connection between fear of the other and hatred of the other.

However, the Ontario Human Rights commission offers a definition of Islamophobia as: “stereotypes, bias or acts of hostility towards individual Muslims or followers of Islam in general.” In the UK, the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia in its 1997 report, Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, defined Islamophobia as “an outlook or world-view involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination.” The concept is made up of the following eight recurring views of Islam as:

(1) a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change;

(2) separate and ‘other’ without ‘values in common with other cultures,’ being neither affected by them nor having any influence on them;

(3) ‘inferior to the West,’ ‘barbaric, irrational, primitive and sexist;’

(4) violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism and engaged in a ‘clash of civilizations’;

(5) a political ideology used for political or military advantage;

(6) rejecting out of hand ‘criticisms made of the West by Islam’;

(7) hostility justifying ‘discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society’;

(8) seeing anti-Muslim hostility ‘as natural or normal’.

In contrast, antisemitism is defined as hatred aimed at Jews. Islamophobia has a wider range than hatred. There was a fear that the vagueness of the term and its broader cast would have the potential to stifle debate. Some even claimed that this was the only reason for introducing the bill, to stifle criticism of Islam even further. According to Dennis Prager, “The term “Islamophobia” has one purpose — to suppress any criticism, legitimate or not, of Islam.” Critics, specifically from the Jewish community, claimed that Motion M-103 put forth by Mississauga-Erin Mils MP, Iqra Khalid, would allow a person criticizing Islam to be subjected to criminal charges. A final reason offered was that, in contrast to B’nai Brith’s extensive collection of data and documentation of violence, harassment and vandalism against Jews, the equivalent documentation against Muslim and Islamic institutions was sparse.

Ironically, a Muslim academic, Ingrid Mattson, who holds the Inaugural Chair of Islamic Studies at Huron University College in London, Ontario, said that as much as hatred targets Muslims groups, there were many more antisemitic attacks in Canada. I was not able to ascertain whether Amira Elghawaby, the Communications Director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), who was also at the conference, agreed or whether she would simply say she does not know because the Muslim community is not as adept at collecting data as the Jewish community.

First tabled on 5 December 2016, M-103 passed in March by a vote of 201-91 and was referred to committee for further review. Why had it been subject to so much acrimonious debate? Why did opponents view it a slippery slope to limiting freedom of speech or even introducing Sharia law into Canada when that law ran counter to Canadian values and laws? Why did almost the whole Conservative caucus, with the exception of Michael Chong and Bruce Stanton, oppose the bill? Why were not these opponents swayed by the 29 January mosque shooting in Quebec City where six Muslim worshippers were killed? And why, according to an Angus Reid poll conducted between 13 and 17 March 2017, did only 12% of Canadians support the bill? 31% saw M-103 as endangering free speech, another 31% viewed it as a motherhood motion without any effect, and 17% viewed the bill and the debate as a waste of time.

Khalid’s motion required the government to undertake three initiatives:

  • Condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination;
  • Quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear;
  • Develop a government-wide approach for reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination, including Islamophobia.

The latter would require the heritage committee to create and maintain a data base on hate crime, much as B’nai Brith does for the Jewish community with respect to antisemitism in its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents. Data collection on Islamophobia, in contrast, is sparse.

However, an effort to collect such data, however valuable, might also cause one to pause, especially if the data is to be assembled by government. For, in the age of digital communications, incidents of antisemitic remarks have expanded exponentially, suggesting a rising tide of antisemitism based only on the number of incidents recorded. As B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn opined, the comment section of any news media includes a plethora of comments condemning Zionist plots and Jews for murdering children. In addition to genuine acts of antisemitism – spray painting swastikas on gravestone, vandalizing synagogues and Jewish community centres – there are a plethora of crackpots now publishing antisemitic symbols and spreading hate.

The same can be said of hatred aimed at Muslims. Haroon Siddiqui gave a speech at the Aga Khan Museum that blamed the media, in particular, the National Post and the Postmedia newspaper group, for contributing to Islamophobia by looking for terrorists under every minaret and writing up every Muslim who makes an outrageous statement suggesting militancy or malevolence. On the other hand, given the incident yesterday evening in Manchester, one should not be surprised at the fear that a Muslim could be a terrorist. Should Harvey Levine, the Quebec Director of B’nai Brith, be condemned when he asked Montreal police to investigate two incidents of Muslim imams allegedly calling for the killing of Jews?  It should be no surprise that Levine had concerns about M-103.

Cannot the same be said about motions condemning antisemitism – that they go overboard and sweep up genuine criticisms in their compass? What is the difference between some strong criticisms of Israel and the xenophobia allegedly evident in statements and articles critical of wearing the niqab and the fearmongering that accompanied it. A motion was passed unanimously by the House of Commons, the Irwin Cotler motion, that noted “an alarming increase in anti-Semitism worldwide,” incidents that included a singular and virtually exclusive preoccupation with the alleged misdeeds of the Israeli government and even the denial of the right of self-determination for the Jewish people and the right of Israel to exist.  When does legitimate criticism of Israel become antisemitic?

There is one notable difference between the antisemitism and Islamophobia. The latter starts with fear and expands towards hatred. The former starts with hatred that fosters fear. But there are far more commonalities. And, in the final analysis, whatever the fears of creeping infringements on freedom of speech in both cases, whatever the ambiguities, whatever the comparative quantitative and qualitative analysis of victimhood, whatever the contradictions when some Muslim groups seem to be main purveyors of antisemitism and some Jewish organizations are major critics of the open-ended nature of the focus on Islamophobia, if one empathetically enters into the mindset of the pains and fears of members of either group, whatever the qualms, support for motions condemning both antisemitism and Islamophobia usually follow. Even when it does not, one must appreciate the relative civility in which the debate was conducted and honestly get inside the mindset of the person in opposition.

Which brings us back to Trump. I do not think he hates Muslims. I do think he used hatred and fear as means to advance his own political agenda. He should be condemned for manipulating people based on their irrational fears and hatreds rooted in their insecurities and, thereby, contributing significantly to a rising tide of Islamophobia.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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