We need to understand what ‘Islamophobia’ really means

Canada needs to have a hard look at the hysteria about Muslims in this country. The way people use the word Islamophobia won’t make it easy.

<p>Throughout the second day after the late-night shooting at the Mosque in Quebec city, people continued to add flowers and notes and other objects as memorials for the victims on snowbanks around the perimiter of the mosque. (Photograph by Roger LeMoyne)</p>

Throughout the second day after the late-night shooting at the Mosque in Quebec city, people continued to add flowers and notes and other objects as memorials for the victims on snowbanks around the perimiter of the mosque. (Photograph by Roger LeMoyne)

Throughout the second day after the late-night shooting at the Mosque in Quebec city, people continued to add flowers and notes and other objects as memorials for the victims on snowbanks around the perimiter of the mosque. (Photograph by Roger LeMoyne)
Throughout the second day after the late-night shooting at the Mosque in Quebec city, people continued to add flowers and notes and other objects as memorials for the victims on snowbanks around the perimiter of the mosque. (Photograph by Roger LeMoyne)

Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42, a government information-technology specialist, father of two. Ibrahima Barry, 39, a civil servant for the provincial health-insurance board, father of four. Khaled Belkacemi, 60, a Laval University chemistry professor, father of three. Abdelkrim Hassane, 41, a government information-technology specialist, father of three. Azzedine Soufiane, 57, proprietor of the Assalam halal grocery, father of three. Aboubaker Thabti, 44, pharmacist, father of two.

They are the dead from the Jan. 29 massacre at a mosque in the Quebec City suburb of Sainte-Foy. Among the million Muslims of Canada, they were our people, murdered while at prayer, and the horror of it drew our flags to half-mast and summoned thousands of Canadians to mourn in small candle-lit gatherings and in street vigils from Iqaluit to Victoria, and from Halifax to Calgary.

Of course, there must be a fair trial for the 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette, and it is perhaps not yet especially helpful to draw the most direct cause-and-effect lines between the Sainte-Foy atrocity and the ultra-nationalist and “alt-right” derangement that those who knew Bissonnette identify among his passions. Still, at the same time, a consensus is emerging around the proposition that Canadians, and particularly Quebeckers, are summoned by the murders to pay some heightened attention to the rise of that sociopathology that has come to be called “Islamophobia.”

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A recognition of the usefulness of subjecting anti-Muslim bigotry and hysteria to some close scrutiny was already gaining traction before the horror in Sainte-Foy. Two days earlier, it was U.S. President Donald Trump’s bedlam-inducing executive order aimed at refugees and travellers from several Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa—which grew out of his campaign pledge to at least temporarily “ban” Muslims from entering the United States altogether—that prompted a four-and-a-half-hour emergency debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Last October, after some fits and starts, the House of Commons adopted a resolution condemning Islamophobia in all its forms. Last December, rookie Liberal MP Iqra Khalid tabled a resolution, to be debated Feb. 15, calling for a further condemnation of Islamophobia that would require the Standing Committee on Heritage to study the matter of “eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination, including Islamophobia,” and also proposes a federal data-collection effort on hate crimes.

Khalid’s idea has been warmly received by Liberals and New Democrats. Conservative MP and leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch, unsurprisingly, has staked out an adversarial position, on the absurd grounds that no specific religion should be afforded “special privileges.” The Conservative caucus hasn’t taken a position, but it should. Khalid’s proposal is timely, worthy and necessary. An important first question that should be addressed, however, is what it is we’re even talking about here, exactly.

Getting “Islamophobia” wrong will only entrench everyone in the preposterously deadlocked and polarized place that tends to leave Canadians largely incapable of having a respectful, “non-partisan” and productive conversation about a range of vexing difficulties. The problem is with the word itself.

“Islamophobia” is a neologism that appears to have arisen from a 1991 study by the Runnymede Trust, a pro-multiculturalism British thinktank. The Runnymede study defined Islamophobia as a species of xenophobia, specifically an “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” That’s perfectly straightforward. But over the years, the term has taken on a different meaning, with a different function.

It is defined now by the Oxford Dictionary as a “dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.” Much mischief is made with the term by both the “left” and the “right,” by the habitually appalled and by the consistently bigoted.

It is quite possible for a person to be vaguely indifferent or even affectionately amenable towards Muslims generally and Muslim immigrants specifically, while at the same time harbouring a healthy skepticism about federal refugee policy, or a deeply jaundiced view of Islam, and perhaps of religion in general. It is possible to be a devout Muslim and to hold a great deal of Islamic piety in contempt, as well.

Getting it wrong can do great harm, because the slipperiness of language occurs in tandem with the slovenliness of ideas. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for instance, recently sustained a nasty self-inflicted wound to its reputation in this way. Long a turn-to organization for research on political extremism, the SPLC published a list of what it described as 15 “anti-Muslim extremists ” that included the unambiguously bigoted American hothead Pamela Geller and the notorious paranoid Frank Gaffney along with the impeccably credentialed Maajid Nawaz, a high-profile reformist Muslim. Nawaz works with the Quilliam Foundation, a British anti-extremism think tank named after the founder of Britain’s first mosque.

The imprecision of the term Islamophobia is almost invariably bound up in dead-end arguments that allow both “counter-jihad” activists and jihadists alike to conflate Islam, the religion as it is practiced by the overwhelming majority of Muslims, with Islamism, the totalitarian ideology that has produced several virulent strains, including the ghastly fanaticism of Daesh, otherwise known as Islamic State.

What can appear at first glance as an unexceptionally “progressive,” if otherwise dreary, point of view can conceal something else entirely. As in, this: “The West has at its disposal tremendous media facilities for the education of the public, but until now, these facilities of information, education and entertainment have been largely used purposely to misinform, to miseducate, and to instill hatred against the Islamic peoples.” Who said that? The infamous Nazi Ernst Zundel. It’s from a screed of his, published by the hideously anti-semitic Swedish webzine Radio Islam.

The conflation of Islam with Islamism allows anti-Muslim bigotry to flourish. Bigots and lunatics routinely conflate passages from the Quran with the faith of innocently devout Muslims. It’s easy work to find all sorts of bloodcurdling passages in the Quran that can be lifted and rigged to slander Muslims of all kinds. Like these: “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks. . . Oh believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends. . . Oh believers, fight the unbelievers who are near to you; and let them find in you a harshness.”

Taking that to mean that Muslims are just waiting for the chance to embark upon rampages of neck-smiting and wickedness is to surrender to racism and dementia. Even more unpleasant, this one’s about Jews: “I shall give you my sincere advice: First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. . . Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”

That one’s from a lurid 16th Century tract composed by the prophet of Protestantism, Martin Luther. Shall we all start freaking out about Lutherans now?

The “left” has happily entertained its own hysterical conspiracy theories: the United Nations reconstruction of Afghanistan was really an American imperialist war for oil (Afghanistan, alas, is rich mainly in sand) is one. “Al Qaeda was created by the CIA” is another. Sometimes, the idiocies of the “left” and “the” right are indistinguishable or interchangeable, even in the arguments about President’s Trump’s vulgar excesses.

Who said this? “If they want to build a wall that’s up to them. If they want to throw out illegal immigrants or keep out Muslims that’s up to them. It’s their business.” It could have been the execrable Trump-admiring Brexit rabblerouser Nigel Farage. But it was the disgraced British MP and “anti-war” loudmouth George Galloway, who not long ago was a frequent celebrity guest on fashionable CBC chat shows and a darling of Toronto Star columnists.

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During Tuesday’s emergency House of Commons debates on how Canada should respond to Trump’s anti-Muslim executive order, the wisest counsel came not from NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who did a splendid job attempting to wrest something useful from the government benches, nor from rookie Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen, who had nothing to offer in response.

It came from Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel, who is not what you would call a popular person at the Conservative Party’s fringe, where shouting about Muslims is the loudest.

“It is facile for us to believe that there are not others on this planet who disagree with our way of life. There are those who hold views so extreme that they kill in the name of their God. They rape in the name of their God. They subjugate and bring terror in the name of their God. No religion and no nation is immune to this,” Rempel told the House.

“Yet there are those who seek to bring light and beauty to the world. They seek to bring peace, prosperity, and tolerance. Every religion and every nation has these people. They are Muslim and they are Christian. They are Sikh and they are Hindu.”

By closing our arms around the grieving widows and the children and the loved ones of those six martyrs in Sainte-Foy this week, we Canadians might just have allowed some light and beauty to emerge from this horrible thing. Yet there remains an unspeakable hatred of Muslims, and hysteria about Muslims, abroad in the land.

We need to get this right. We owe it to the dead, and we owe it to the living, to face this scourge with decency, with compassion and with honesty, to muster what is right and good about Canada to the cause of seeing to it that those six men did not die in vain.