First, let me say thank you to the committee for inviting me to speak to you today. In the interests of time, I'll cut through some of the introductory remarks I was going to make.
I do research on Islamic law and the treatment of Muslims and Islam in Europe, North America, south and southeast Asia. It's in the context of that that I'm bringing my insights to this particular discussion.
I hope to demonstrate today that Islamophobia is already immersed in the everyday business of governing in Canada. To illustrate this systemic dynamic, I will examine three examples of government activity.
My first example is the 2011 polygamy reference in British Columbia. This case arose out of a criminal investigation of polygamous behaviour by the leaders of the FLDS community in Bountiful, B.C. The facts of the case are widely known. Since the 1990s, investigations and prosecutions stalled on the constitutional validity of the Criminal Code prohibition on polygamy.
The reference asked the court:
|| Is section 293 of the Criminal Code of Canada consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
In a general, neutral, factually unspecific way, this question asked about polygamy without any context-based qualifications. In doing so, the reference released the court and government lawyers from the factual shackles of the racially white, economically affluent, religiously Christian community of Bountiful, B.C., creating space to discuss an Islamic and, therefore, alien practice of polygamy.
The British Columbia attorney general hired my colleague, Mohammed Fadel, while the court-appointed amicus hired me to provide an affidavit on polygamy in Islamic law.
The court reviewed our affidavits, both of which addressed the historical, textual, and black letter law on polygamy as found in Islamic legal texts and as regulated in Muslim majority states. Importantly, the court recognized the absence of any empirical data on what Muslims actually do in Canada. In the reference, an overt determined idea of Islam was deployed to characterize polygamy as foreign and un-Canadian.
The reference raises two questions relevant to our inquiry about Islamophobia as a systemic enterprise.
Question number one is, in the absence of any meaningful data on Muslim practices in Canada, how was my affidavit relevant to a question about charter rights that pertained to individuals? Fundamentally, two unstated assumptions were operative, first, that if a religious text states something, Muslims must adhere to it and care about it or somehow follow it. This assumption illustrates why simply using anti-Muslim hate ignores the workings of Islamophobia and is systemic.
The second assumption was that Muslims, of course, slavishly adhere to their texts on polygamy, given long-standing European images of harems in Islamic lands and the oversexed Muslim male, which informs the majoritarian settler culture of Canada.
Moving on to question number two, how is my affidavit linked to systemic racism? The Bountiful, B.C. defendants were white, affluent, and adherents of a Christian denomination. They were racially marked as part of the majoritarian image of the settler Canadian state. The reference was able to re-characterize the Bountiful, B.C. community as foreign and dangerous by associating it with Islam, despite the fact that Muslim marital practices in Canada were factually irrelevant to the proceedings.
To be clear, I am not criticizing the final legal determination of the reference. Rather, I use this example to show how a whole host of ordinary, bureaucratic, discretionary—and most importantly—symbolically rich decisions made in the course of daily governmental business enable the systemic enterprise of Islamophobia. Moreover, it is plain that in this context I too inadvertently participated in the systemic enterprise of Islamophobia, but this is exactly how systemic bias works; it co-opts all of us.
My second example concerns the 2015 statute of Canada best known by its short title, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. The act targets certain marital practices such as forced marriage and polygamy, both of which are associated with certain communities of colour and religious practice, particularly the Muslim community.
I focus here on the title, which is the product again of discretionary governmental decisions that are pregnant with symbolic power and meaning. In the short title, the term of interest to me is the word “barbaric”.
“Barbaric” and its related terms have long been applied to Muslims and Islam, and informed the 19th century imperial ideal of “the white man's burden”. Pope Urban II used the term “barbaric” in his 1095 speech inaugurating the first crusade against Muslims in Jerusalem, and “barbaric” lays in the backdrop of Rudyard Kipling's 1899 poem, entitled The White Man's Burden.
It hardly needs to be explained that those who invoke the term “barbarity” against others implicitly consider themselves to be its opposite—superior and civilized. For Pope Urban II, barbarity lay in the fact that, among other things, Muslims had no law, or at the very least, no good law.
Fast forward to 2015 and the zero tolerance act. The use of “barbaric” and the provisions on polygamy make it hard to miss how this act symbolically targets an imagined racialized Muslim community that is full of bad law and culture, all of which run contrary to the law of a civilized Canada.
My third and final example focuses on the newly formed Canada Centre for Community Engagement and the Prevention of Violence, which aims to address radicalization, violence, and extremism. Its senior director, Ms. Ritu Banerjee, addressed this committee on its first day of hearings.
Programs like this, generally called “countering violent extremism”, or CVE for short, were created in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. The myth is that these programs do not exclusively target Muslims, and it is true that they often invoke the spectre of right-wing militant groups. Indeed, in her submission Ms. Banerjee made no reference to Islamic extremism or terrorism but only to right-wing extremism.
She nonetheless spoke volumes about the systemic ways in which Islamophobia operates within the everyday operations of government. For instance, she supportively referenced Project Someone. Project Someone's website contains various social media projects that deal with grand ideas like empathy and critical thinking. There's one project, however, that is entirely composed of critical analyses of ISIS videos. Project Someone thereby perpetuates the all too common idea that links Islam and terrorism, for the purpose of combatting radicalization. That's not at all surprising.
The Brennan Center of Justice at NYU school of law has surveyed analogous programs in Europe and the United States and come to similar conclusions.
CVE programs rely on the Muslim extremist as an analytic paradigm for potentially extending that analysis to any other group, whether right-wing militant or indigenous protestor.
In these three examples I not only situate myself in the systemic enterprise of Islamophobia but also criticize projects led by different parties in government. I do this to suggest that combatting Islamophobia cannot be a partisan issue, however tempting it may be in order to achieve future electoral gains.
The opportunity this committee presents is to open ourselves up, however unpleasant it may be, to show what accountable leadership looks like, and to model it for all of Canada.
Thank you. I will add that I specialize in Islamophobia studies and anti-racism.
I have been researching Muslim communities in Canada since the late 1990s. More recently, I completed a six-year national study on the impact of Islamophobia on the 9/11 generation of Muslim youth in Canada. I conducted in-depth interviews with 130 Muslim youth across the country to examine how Islamophobia and the ongoing war on terror have affected their sense of identity, citizenship, and belonging. I'd like to share with you some of what I have learned from the research I have been doing for the past two decades.
I will begin with terminology, since there seems to be a lot of confusion during these proceedings about what Islamophobia is and isn't.
Some expressed discomfort with the term “Islamophobia” being used in Motion 103, arguing that employing this language in a non-binding motion will somehow contravene Canadian laws and undermine free speech. However, Canada has robust hate speech laws that govern what can and cannot be said within the boundaries of lawful dissent.
While the law permits a critique of religion, the demonization of a particular faith is different. This type of hate-mongering and vilification becomes mapped onto its adherents and can lead to Islamophobic violence. We have already seen this happen when Alexandre Bissonnette walked into a Quebec City mosque on January 29 of this year during evening prayers and shot dead six Muslim men in cold blood.
With these stakes in mind, I want to offer my working definition of Islamophobia that I have developed to capture its complex dimensions. The definition I use extends from “a fear or hatred of Islam and Muslims” to acknowledge that these attitudes develop into individual, ideological, and systemic forms of oppression that shore up specific power relations. This broader definition outlines the sociology of Islamophobia as being dynamic and multi-faceted, and not simply about negative beliefs or attitudes.
I locate anti-Muslim racism under the broader umbrella of Islamophobia as a manifestation. While violence, hatred, and discrimination are enacted against Muslim bodies, these acts rely upon the demonization of Islam to sustain and reproduce their racial logic. One does not exist without the other.
In this conceptual framework, individual acts of oppression include name-calling, vandalism, or assault. I remember that after the 9/11 tragedy my son Usama was called a terrorist, bullied, and threatened because of his name, identity, and faith. The 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide have borne the collective guilt and responsibility of the 9/11 attacks in ways that other communities never face when the perpetrators of crime are white. The tragic massacre in Las Vegas on the weekend is an example of this white exceptionalism, where the perpetrator is seen as a deviant individual whose actions have no bearing on the rest of his social group.
However, after the recent attacks in Edmonton, where the assailant was identified as a Somali-Muslim refugee, there have been reports of violence and harassment against visibly marked Muslim women. In an act of gendered Islamophobic violence, one woman had a glass bottle smashed on her head while on public transit, while other incidents are now coming to light. The tragic attack in Edmonton followed a series of coordinated anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rallies by white supremacist groups across the country, and now provides further impetus for Islamophobic backlash. We must be vigilant to quell these cycles of violence.
Hate crimes against Muslims are increasing at an alarming rate of 253% from 2012 to 2015. It's not only Muslims who suffer from Islamophobic harassment and violence, but anyone perceived as Muslim. For example, Sikhs who have been misidentified as Muslims have been attacked, along with their gurdwaras. A recent example is NDP leader Jagmeet Singh being misidentified as Muslim and publicly harassed.
Now, systemic forms of oppression are regulated through institutional practices like racial profiling or the denial of jobs and housing opportunities. In 2002 I conducted a study of homelessness among Muslims in Toronto and found that after 9/11 landlords were refusing to rent to people with Muslim-sounding names. The ability to access safe and affordable housing should be a human right unhindered by racism and discrimination.
Canadian policies also create systemic oppression and should be examined in light of this motion. My colleague has done a good job of outlining that, so I will move on, but also I want to mention how Bill 94, the Quebec charter of values banning the niqab from the public sphere, had a strong effect on creating and promoting gendered forms of Islamophobia. Interrogating the role of the state in reproducing systemic racism should be an important mandate.
Racial and religious profiling has targeted Canadian Muslims. The youth I interviewed internalized this surveillance and carefully monitor their actions to make sure they're not mistaken as terrorists if they go up north to play paintball or are seen playing violent video games. My younger son received a call from CSIS the day after he was elected president of the Muslim Students' Association of his university, as have other MSA presidents.
The 9/11 generation of Muslim youth find their identities politicized and policed at a very early age. Public Safety Canada needs to be made aware of how Islamophobia is a breeding ground for recruitment into radical Islamist groups, and they should also be advised of the destructive counterproductive effect that countering violent extremism initiatives have created in other countries.
There are, of course, ideological underpinnings that shore up all of these practices, things like Muslims as terrorists and pending threats to public safety that are popularized in media, pop culture, and public policy.
In conclusion, I want to make some concrete recommendations to make the priorities of motion 103 actionable.
First, I would like to recommend that research on and documentation of Islamophobia, systemic racism, and religious discrimination be promoted as a funding priority through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and that funding priorities for the Canada Council for the Arts and Canadian Heritage should include these areas to help generate counter-narratives to the misrepresentation of racial and religious groups.
Finally, the Council of Europe's model for youth centres that provide peer mentoring and training around human rights, anti-Islamophobia, anti-racism, and combatting all forms of discrimination should be viewed as a best practice.
Thank you. I hope the discussion moving forward continues to build on the possibilities that Motion 103 opens for creating a more just and inclusive society.
Mr. Chair and honourable members, thank you for this invitation to appear before the committee to share the perspective of the NCCM on this committee's study of the issue of systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia. Due to the shortened nature, we will be submitting a written brief as well to supplement our oral testimony today.
Briefly, the NCCM is an independent, non-partisan, and non-profit grassroots organization whose mission is to protect human rights and civil liberties, challenge discrimination and Islamophobia, build mutual understanding, and advance the public concerns of Canadian Muslim communities. The task set before you, according to the wording contained in the motion, is to:
||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.
This is an important task that is timely and essential to the ongoing well-being of Canadians and newcomers. Systemic discrimination and religious discrimination have a long and sad history in Canada, with many current expressions including anti-indigenous racism, anti-black racism, and anti-Semitism. All of these require attention and the concern of this committee.
As we know and have heard, Islamophobia is specifically mentioned in the motion while other specific examples are not. Some have made and continue to make an issue of this. From our perspective, as an agency working on the front lines of this issue and receiving regular and increasing numbers of complaints of anti-Muslim discrimination and harassment, the specific reference to Islamophobia is absolutely appropriate. This is in line with other actions that the government has taken including unanimously adopting a motion in 2015, M-630, which specifically condemned anti-Semitism.
This committee's study is also important because of the devastating attack on January 29 at the Islamic cultural centre in Quebec, which left six worshippers dead, many injured, and families shattered. This was the single most horrific mass killing at a place of worship in Canadian history, and it occurred in the context of well-documented growing expressions of hate and discrimination against Muslims. You have heard the statistics from my colleagues.
The singling out of Islamophobia does not diminish the importance of all forms of systemic discrimination but, rather, is a recognition of the current ground realities and an important signal that the government recognizes the urgency of the situation.
There has also been significant and unfounded fearmongering regarding the usage of the term Islamophobia in the motion and in the work of this committee. Islamophobia has been defined in a clear manner by leading human rights institutions in the western world and in Canada for decades. Islamophobia is hate, hostility, prejudice, and discrimination directed towards Muslims. The Ontario Human Rights Commission defines it as follows, which the NCCM subscribes to:
||Islamophobia includes racism, stereotypes, prejudice, fear or acts of hostility directed towards individual Muslims or followers of Islam in general. In addition to individual acts of intolerance and racial profiling...Islamophobia can lead to viewing and treating Muslims as a greater security threat on an institutional, systemic and societal level.
Of course, all terms have limits and “Islamophobia” is no different. From various viewpoints its limitations could be identified, but it would be unacceptable to expect that the term Islamophobia should be held to a higher standard of clarity than are other equivalent terms such as anti-Semitism. It has a clear meaning and it has gained wide usage both inside the Canadian Muslim communities and in wider society for many years.
Hate expression in Canada is only limited by Criminal Code provisions, which establish a very high bar for conviction, and by human rights legislation, which prohibits discrimination and harassment in limited domains of life, such as employment, housing, and services. Outside of these fairly narrow contexts, hate expression is perfectly legal in Canada.
However, hate expression and racism are not harmless. Many studies have demonstrated that such expression undermines the mental health and well-being of the groups affected and contributes to the alienation of members of these groups. Hate expression and racism are major contributors to the experiences of discrimination and harassment. It is also important to recognize the issue of intersectionality, in which individuals who bear a number of different markers can face a number of different forms of discrimination. For example, black Muslim women face gender-based discrimination, race-based discrimination, and religious discrimination. Although hate expression outside of its identified legal limits is legal and a necessary consequence of the protection of free speech, it must be understood that it is toxic to the social cohesion of Canadian society and it places tremendous burdens on the targeted minority groups.
By way of concrete recommendations to the committee, the NCCM submits that the following actions and policy steps should be undertaken.
First, Parliament should declare January 29 a national day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia in Canada.
Second, just as the federal budget was rightly subjected to a gender-based analysis, this lens should be expanded to include a diversity, equity, and inclusion analysis. When spending decisions are tied to policy and the rationales that underpin it, they can have far more broad-reaching impacts than attempting to address social phenomena after they occur.
Third, the federal government should create an anti-racism directorate within the Department of Canadian Heritage to work with provincial counterparts, such as the Ontario Anti-Racism Directorate. Such a directorate should take the lead in developing a national action plan against racism, with adequate funding to support communication, education, and accountability mechanisms around hate expression, discrimination, and racism.
Fourth, while Criminal Code restrictions exist on hate expression, little is understood about these in the wider society and even among police organizations. It is essential that these restrictions be better communicated to the general public and advocacy efforts in support of their application be enhanced. Additionally, better training about these provisions, their application, and their enforcement needs to be provided to police services across Canada.
Fifth, law enforcement should be required to retain and undertake regular and ongoing training in bias-free policing as well as victim-based approaches to dealing with hate crimes. This should be conducted by adequately trained anti-hate personnel and units, or by recognized outside experts.