Warning: if you believe Canada is a pretty, picture postcard Islamophobia-free zone, then I recommend you stop reading this column. You’re about to be profoundly disappointed, shocked or both.
Scratch its inviting surface, and you will discover quickly that, as in most other Western democracies, Islamophobia is not only alive and rampant in Canada, but it has long been a defining characteristic of at least one of its major political parties and large swaths of the country’s corporate media.
The most recent evidence of this unassailable fact has been on unsavoury display in the still raw residue of the massacre of six Muslim Canadians at prayer in a Quebec City mosque earlier this month.
Immediately after the terrorist attack, politicians went about the ritual of decrying the murders, while praying for the victims and their grieving families and urging their countrymen to rally around the Muslim community as a sign of unity and support.
Meanwhile, after a burst of attention to blunt any criticism that it took a terrorist attack on Muslims in Canada by a white, reactionary male as seriously as attacks in Paris, Brussels or London, much of the establishment media promptly went on its way, as the carnage in a mosque receded comfortably into the rearview mirror.
But difficult questions remained unanswered. Chief among them: What to do about the Islamophobia that was stoked into a raging bonfire by some of the very politicians and media that were pleading – with all the faux solemnity they could muster – for harmony and understanding?
Wisely sceptical of the flowery rhetoric, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) – a prominent voice for Canada’s Muslim community – has written an open letter to politicians of all persuasions, urging them to take concrete steps to confront Islamophobia and racism and discrimination that exists plainly in their midst.
Among its sensible recommendations, the NCCM said that more money needed to be spent to report and gather data on hate crimes and train police; that, following the province of Ontario’s lead, other provinces should create an Anti-Racism Directorate and establish a mandatory high school course on systemic racism and its corrosive impact on society.
Finally, the NCCM threw its powerful backing behind a largely symbolic, non-binding motion sponsored by a governing Liberal MP, Iqra Khalid, that calls on the House of Commons to condemn Islamophobia and all religious discrimination in the aftermath of the Quebec City attack.
For context, it’s important to note that after a few hours of perfunctory debate, Canadian parliamentarians unanimously adopted another Liberal MP’s motion in 2015 condemning the “rise of anti-Semitism around the world”.
Not surprisingly, Khalid’s motion has faced a much different, tumultuous and instructive fate.
Rather than be approved swiftly and unanimously, Motion 103 has morphed into a running spectacle that has not only dominated Canada’s political agenda, but has exposed the puss of Islamophobia still oozing from Canadian politicians and media that only a few weeks ago were expressing sympathy for men murdered during evening prayers because they were Muslims.
Leading the hysterical charge in opposing the motion is Canada’s Conservative Party and the bevvy of candidates who are vying to lead it. All but one of the leadership candidates have signalled their vehement opposition to the motion, claiming that, among other phantom horrors, it would stifle freedom of speech and possibly act as a precursor to the invocation of “Sharia Law”.
This is, of course, lunacy. But it is lunacy that has coursed its malevolent way through the core of the Conservative Party for a long time and not, as some have suggested, emerged only lately from the swamp of Islamophobia to take up residence at the party’s radical “fringes”.
This is a revisionist lie. Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent much of his tenure fuelling and satisfying the not-so-latent Islamophobia that was politically appealing to his legion of supporters by making the niqab a racist dog-whistle and lauding “Old stock Canadians”.
Harper not only stocked his cabinet with ministers who shared his embrace of what amounted to hate politics, but also plucked them from obscurity, gave them a national profile, all the while defending and championing them.
Perhaps Harper’s signature legacy in this sorry regard was first encouraging, and then promoting, the political career of Kellie Leitch – who, in turn, repaid her patron’s largesse with unrivalled zealotry and loyalty.
During last year’s election campaign, Leitch fronted the unveiling of a Harper-approved “tip line” for reporting so-called “barbaric cultural practices” – a thinly-disguised, bureaucratic euphemism for Islam.
And, today, as a prominent and popular Conservative leadership candidate, Leitch keeps channeling her former boss’s odious modus operandi while attending a “Freedom Rally” stuffed with avowed Islamophobes who are convinced Motion 103 is an Islamic-inspired plot to undermine Canadians’ rights and freedoms.
“It’s great to be in a room full of severely normal people tonight,” Leitch told the adoring crowd. “Canadian values are not fringe, and together, I know, we are going to fight for them.”
Leitch is Harper without the filter.
Cheering her on is an equally hysterical mob of largely right-wing journalists who have pounced on Khalid and her motion, chomping at the bit of Islamophobia while insisting, unconvincingly, that their objections to Motion 103 are motivated solely by their oh-so-sincere concern that it would grant one religion “special status” over all others.
Khalid put an emphatic lie to this transparently spurious reasoning after rising in the House of Commons to read out a sampling of the relentless torrent of hate, death threats and Islamophobia she has endured in the days since proffering her motion.
She has been called a “terrorist” and a “camel humping” “scumbag” who should be shot by a “Canadian patriot” or deported “like a disgusting piece of trash.” She has advised her staff not to answer the phone and to lock the office door behind them.
Undeterred, Khalid rightly excoriated the remnants of Harper’s Conservative caucus for its “cynical, divisive tactics … to try to start a fake frenzy around the word Islamophobia, instead of tackling the issue at hand.”
So, the next time you’re inclined to praise or even consider moving to Canada because it’s allegedly a welcoming haven from the bile and divisiveness in the age of Donald Trump, it might be best to remember these obscenities before you act on your impulses. – Al Jazeera
Andrew Mitrovica is an award-winning investigative reporter and journalism instructor.