There is something sadly ironic about the vigils held yesterday for the victims of the Sunday mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque.
For even has Canadians stood with their Muslim brothers and sisters in a show of support and solidarity, parliament is getting set debate on a motion to have the government study ways to combat “Islamophobia.”
The motion was put forward by Mississauga—Erin Mills, Ont MP Iqra Khalid, and it asks the federal government to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination,” and “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.”
Before I dive into this, there are some important caveats to note here.
Some folks, in the press and on social media, are claiming the Liberal government is attempting to criminalize Islamophobia. It isn’t. For those who skipped the “how laws are made” class in primary school, this is a motion, not a bill. Bills can become laws, motions can’t. It is not even a motion asking for the creation of a bill. It is asking for a study that might, at some point I suppose, create a recommendation that could create a bill.
In other words, read up on your Canadian civics and take a deep breath. Justin Trudeau is not about to show up at your door to throw you in jail if you say “I think Islam stinks.”
While a law that shares M-103’s wording would be an unjustified and highly objectionable infringement on free speech – one I would overtly oppose – I’d argue critics of the motion aren’t seeing its real problems.
Second, we should not forget that racism exists in Canada. I grew up in western Canada and saw how First Nations citizens, in ways both overt and subtle, had to deal with systemic racism. Canada is an amazing place that is, generally, welcoming and diverse. (Again, look at the vigils this week as recent evidence). But we’re not perfect and we should always be aware of where and how we fall short of our ideals.
All this said, Khalid’s motion is deeply flawed, myopic and, frankly, troublesome in its unspoken assumptions. It will do little combat discrimination generally, nor discrimination against Canadian Muslims specifically where it exists, and may further blind our government to the actual issue of Islamist radicalization.
Contextually, M-103 is a reaction to an online petition of the government, Petition E-411, which asks the government to recognize “that extremist individuals do not represent the religion of Islam,” and to condemn “all forms of Islamophobia,” and claims that there is a “notable rise of anti-Muslim sentiments in Canada.”
There are two problems here. The first, found in both the motion and the petition, is that Islamophobia is not defined. What constitutes “Islamophobia”? A general fear of or discrimination of Muslim believers? What about criticism of the faith? As an atheist and secularist, I have deep reservations about many of the theological constructs of Islam. Does challenging the theology of Islam (or any other religion if we use the language in the motion) constitute Islamophobia?
No set of ideas, including deeply held religious ones, are immune to debate, criticism and even mockery in a society that upholds freedom of expression. As Noam Chomsky once said, if you are in favour of free speech, then you are in favour of free speech for those point of views you despise. Otherwise, you are not in favour of free speech.
The second problem is the claim that extremists do not represent the religion of Islam. This is, at best, a misrepresentation of what is happening in the Muslim world globally and downplays the need to take it seriously.
Certainly, groups like ISIS do not represent the majority view of Canadian Muslims any more than the KKK represent the majority view of Canadian Christians.For instance, a 2016 Pew Research study showed that 86% of American Muslims – who we can safely consider as comparative to Canadian Muslims culturally – believe that acts of violence in the name Islam is never or rarely justified.
But, as Canadian Muslim reformer Raheel Raza and head of a British anti-extremist think tank (and Muslim reformer) Maajid Nawaz often point out, there is a war going on for the soul of Islam between moderate and extremist believers globally. CNN political commentator Fareed Zakaria calls radical theology “a cancer of extremism in Islam.”
When I interviewed Nawaz in 2016, he broke down the issue by pointing out there is no single, monolithic entity called “Islam”. Like all religions, it has sects and divisions which are separated along theological and philosophical lines.
There are jihadists, organized or acting alone, who are willing to murder, even at the cost of their own lives, to further their cause. According to the Clairon Project, using data from Pew studies and other sources, out of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, there are as few as 45,000 jihadists and perhaps as many as 200,000. All of them are religiously motivated.
There are Islamists who, like jihadists, want to create a repressive theocracy, but aren’t about to strap bombs to their chests. They will use governmental institutions, even democratic ones, to reshape society to their liking. In other words, all jihadists are Islamists, but not all Islamists are jihadists. Their numbers run into the millions.
And then there are millions of more Muslim fundamentalists who, like their Christian counterparts, hold very repressive, socially regressive world views, but aren’t seeking to tear down society to suit their religious preferences or necessarily establish a theocracy. So, all Islamists are Muslim fundamentalists, but not all fundamentalist are Islamists. (To highlight this point, the Pew study shows that most people in several nations with large Muslim populations, including those with a large number fundamentalist Muslim citizens, do not view ISIS favourably. This shouldn’t be surprising since most victims of ISIS’s brutality are Muslim.)
So it is simply not credible to claim that extremists have nothing to do with Islam because Canadian Muslims do not share the political or religious ideology of their more radical counterparts. Millions of other Muslims around the world do.
This is important to note because Islamist and jihadist ideas are spread through propaganda and many so-called “home grown” Islamists are radicalised through encounters with recruiters and materials online.
Raza and Nawaz told me in 2016 that if a radicalised person attended a conservative or fundamentalist mosque in Canada, that person might hear key elements of his or her new world view during sermons. The leaders of the mosque don’t need to have any ill intentions in such a case, but the theology itself will speak to and reinforce the world view the radical has adopted.
The point here is that that a government which adopts the logic behind Motion M- 103 and Petition E-411 is choosing to ignore reality. That is no way to deal with a serious problem.
The motives of M-103 are not nefarious and, of course, we should always combat racism and discrimination when it arises. However, no government can stamp out discrimination. Ottawa cannot legislate tolerance.
We have hate crime and anti-discrimination laws on the books in Canada. We track hate-crime statistics. The most recent data, which goes back to 2013, shows a decrease in hate-crimes in Canada. If the so-called “Trump effect” has reversed this trend, there isn’t any solid data to demonstrate that yet.
Beyond these legislative tools, if we are to combat discrimination, we as Canadians have to do so by engaging and debating one another and embracing the ideals of a diverse, multicultural democracy.
There isn’t, insofar as I can tell, an issue of widespread “Islamophobia” in Canada. A nation weighed down by a general hatred of Muslim Canadians would not have shown the outpouring of support it did during those vigils.
There is, however, a problem with radicalization fueled by Islamist propaganda on the internet that either inspires handfuls of people to join the ranks of ISIS or commit acts of terrorism at home.
What would be vastly more helpful, and constructive, would be a motion from a Liberal MP asking parliament to improve resources to combat radicalization and partner specifically with Muslim reformists like Raza and Muslim moderates who currently are struggling alone in the war of ideas against Islamists.
If we are willing, as a nation, to stand with our Muslims neighbours in a time of crisis, then we ought to be willing to stand with them to fight those who kill in the name of their deity.