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The Tories approach a point of no return

This week’s debate over ’Islamophobia’ highlights the need for the Tories to root out the fringe forces rapidly dumbing down their party
Minister Alexander
Chris Alexander and Kelly Leitch, November 20 2014. (cic.gc.ca)

There are quite a few lessons in civic hygiene that might be drawn from the jamboree of bigot-baiting and mob incitement attending to the shabbily-drafted but otherwise sensible Liberal motion on the contested subject of “Islamophobia” that has preoccupied the House of Commons this week.

Most obvious is that the Conservative Party of Canada has reached an event horizon of indecency. It is a point of no return from which a great many respectable people in the party’s rank and file, along with the Conservative MPs backing a substitute anti-bigotry motion of their own design, can flinch no longer.

While the term “Islamophobia” is a wholly inadequate and often disingenuously-applied description of the gangrene at work here, the Conservatives cannot simply let it go on spreading inward from the party’s fringes.

It is a pathology that several Conservative leadership contenders have been brazenly happy to traffic in, most recently in response to Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s modest but unhelpfully ambiguous anti-Islamophobia motion, which asks the House of Commons for little more than an acknowledgement of the worsening public climate of hatred and fear across the country, and a standing committee to study ways the government might make a dent in systemic racism and religious discrimination, “including Islamophobia.”

RELATED: Liberals back motion condemning Islamophobia

The subject has become that much more urgent in the aftermath of the Jan. 29 mass murder at a Quebec city mosque, where six men were slaughtered while at prayer in what appears to have been a hate crime motivated by anti-Muslim hysteria.

The dirty work of hysterical plot-speculation and its normalization was what party leadership hopefuls Brad Trost, Kellie Leitch, Chris Alexander and Pierre Lemieux were up to on Wednesday night in Toronto at an “emergency rally” organized by a website notorious for its huckstering of the angry and the ill-informed with far-right crank excitements and conspiracy theories. The event was convened at Canada Christian College, a minor institution run by the extremist cleric Charles McVety, a veteran axe-grinder about same-sex marriage and evolutionary theory.

More than 1,000 people showed up at the Wednesday event, and they were regaled with fanciful evidences that Khalid’s motion is part of a plot to elevate Islam above other religions, impose Islamic blasphemy laws on Canadians, extend special treatment to Muslims and persecute Canadians who express criticism of Islam. Trost, Leitch, Alexander and Lemieux were happy to go along with this, tossing in their own spins about terrorism and the stifling of free speech.

There have been so many transparently baseless and jackass alarums raised about Khalid’s motion that it is pointless to enumerate them all here, and in any case they will flourish regardless of the facts. Because of this, it will require a great deal of patience and moral courage among Conservatives to at long last get around to rooting out the idiot bloc in their midst.

Michael Chong Conservative MP He famously tabled the Reform Act, perhaps setting the stage for wider change (Fred Chartrand/CP)
Michael Chong, Conservative MP. Fred Chartrand/CP)

But it can be done. Leadership candidate Michael Chong has been bravely candid about the faddish pseudo-populist stupidities that have dumbed down the party’s leadership race, owing in no small way to the vanity candidacy of television personality Kevin O’Leary. And Chong showed some serious backbone this week by coming out in support of Khalid’s motion.

At the same time, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, Saskatchewan MP David Anderson and Ontario MP Scott Reid have raised intelligent and reasonable objections to the motion, directed mainly at its loose language and reliance on the woolly term “Islamophobia.” Their objections are not far apart from those raised by the eminent human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler, a former Liberal justice minister. Cotler has suggested it would have been better if the motion had referred to “anti-Muslim” bigotry instead of Islamophobia.

It didn’t help that it was only in response to a question in the final minute of an 18-minute press conference prior to Wednesday’s debate that Heritage Minister Melanie Joly revealed her own understanding the term’s meaning. She was asked why the term was left undefined in the motion and what she personally understood the term to mean, and while she failed to explain why the term had been left undefined she offered her own definition: “. . . discrimination against Muslim people and people that are of Muslim faith.” Which is fair enough.

During the debate on the motion in the House, Khalid said she defines Islamophobia as “the irrational hate of Muslims that leads to discrimination.” That’s perfectly fine, too, but what makes no sense was Khalid’s statement that she refused Conservative MP (and party leadership hopeful) Erin O’Toole’s offer to help win unanimous consent for her motion by tightening it up, because that would have meant “watering it down.”

In a parallel topsy-turviness, Joly has objected to David Anderson’s alternative motion, which replicates Khalid’s motion except for the ambiguous term Islamophobia, because it’s a “weakened and watered down version.”

RELATED: We need to understand what ‘Islamophobia’ really means

It’s true to say, as Scott Reid does, that seemingly benign injunctions against “Islamophobia” have been put to the squalid purpose of placing the Muslim religion and the practices of authoritarian Islamic regimes off limits to criticism. But it’s also fair to say that “anti-Muslim bigotry” doesn’t sufficiently capture the full-throated paranoid lunacy animating the nutcase wing of the Conservative support base these days.

“Racism” doesn’t quite cover it. “Hatred” doesn’t quite get at it. Whatever term you like, it’s more than merely ironic that those who make the most hysterical claims about clandestine Islamic conspiracies at the centre of Justin Trudeau’s government are also the ones shouting the loudest that an irrational fear of Islam isn’t even a thing.

It’s not as though the Liberals are blameless in all this. They could have welcomed O’Toole’s efforts at reaching out to find a compromise, but they didn’t. And the Liberals do seem quite content to have the Conservatives squirming and chafing against the appearance that the reason they object to the term Islamophobia is that they themselves are Islamophobic, whatever that might mean. It is not as though it bothers the Liberals that the Conservatives are stuck with the crazy talk coming from several of the leadership candidates these days.

Trudeau may have given away more than he intended last week when he was confronted at a community meeting in Iqaluit about why he reneged on his electoral reform promises. Raising the spectre of proportional representation opening the door to “fringe” parties, Trudeau asked, rhetorically: “Do you think that Kellie Leitch should have her own party?”

Clearly, Trudeau doesn’t want that. For starters, it would mean decent Conservatives couldn’t be tarred so easily with the indecencies committed by the party’s fringe factions. It would mean bigot-baiting the Conservative Party would be that much harder to do. In the meantime, it’s up to the Conservatives to get themselves sorted, and after the sordid events of the past few days, their options are limited:

Isolate, quarantine, amputate or purge.