Is Canada Islamophobic?

Last week’s headlines were marked by news of an attack on a mosque in the city of Gatineau, Quebec. The mosque was spray-painted and its windows broken, while two cars in the parking lot were almost torched. After a short period of deliberation, the Gatineau police declared the attack a hate crime. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney paid a visit to the mosque, stating that the type of bigotry displayed by the vandals had no place in Canada.

The vandalism, and Kenney’s appearance at the mosque, came at a time when relations between the federal government and Canada’s Muslim community were uneasy at best and hostile at worst. A month earlier, the Minister had decreed that Muslim women had to remove any face veils like burkas or niqabs when taking the oath of citizenship. Some Muslims felt that Kenney was making these women choose between their faith and their citizenship. Higher up on the political hierarchy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper angered many Muslim Canadians in September when he described ‘Islamicism’ as the greatest threat to Canada’s security. Critics accused politicians like Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney of appealing to the mainstream Canadian population’s Islamophobia in order to obtain votes. But are Canada, and its government, really as Islamophobic as some allege?

To a certain extent, allegations of pervasive anti-Islamic hostility in Canada have some basis in fact. A recent survey by the Association for Canadian Studies found that only 43% of Canadians had a ‘very positive’ or ‘somewhat positive’ perception of Muslims. In contrast, 70% of respondents had a positive perception of Catholics and Jews and 60% of atheists. According to a similar poll in 2009 conducted by Angus Reid, a mere 28% of respondents held a favourable attitude toward Islam, compared to 57% and 53% toward Buddhism and Judaism, respectively, and 72% toward Christianity. These results suggest that a considerable portion of Canadian society views Muslims and their religion in a fairly negative light, at least in comparison to other belief systems.

It’s also true that much anti-Islamic feeling in Canada is based on ignorance or plain bigotry. For example, honour killing, a crime in which a woman is murdered by her family members for ‘disgracing’ them by having premarital sex, marrying men not of the family’s liking, or even talking to boys, is often described as a ‘Muslim tradition.’ Even in Canada, however, such crimes have occurred not only among Muslims but among Sikhs and, in at least one instance, Hindus (a Sri Lankan father who tried to run over his daughter because she was seeing a man of another caste). Some so-called Islamophobes seem to be against any non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestant immigration whatsoever. An example is a commentator calling him- (or her-?)self PaxCanadiana who runs a website called the Canadian Immigration Reform Blog. True, he or she rails against Muslim immigrants, but he (she) also deplores the entry of Filipinos, Chinese, and even the White – if not Anglo-Saxon Protestant – Portuguese into Canada.

One might therefore ask whether this apparent Islamophobia extends to the Canadian government, more specifically the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. Much was made of Stephen Harper’s remark about ‘Islamicism’ being the greatest threat to Canada. I am not so sure; it seems that problems like home-grown crime (the bulk of which is NOT committed by Muslims), environmental degradation and child poverty are at least as threatening as Islamicism is in the lives of most Canadians. On the other hand, while ‘Islamicists’ by no means constitute all Muslims, the somewhat uncomfortable truth is that there exists a fanatical element in Islam that has no modern-day counterpart in Christianity or other belief systems. Even ‘arch-atheist’ Richard Dawkins admitted that he knows of no ‘Christian suicide bombers’ or ‘major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death.’ Christianity, he said, might serve as a ‘bulwark against something worse’ (he didn’t spell out what that ‘something’ was). And both Dawkins and Harper are old enough to remember the ‘fatwa’ against writer Salman Rushdie by Muslim leaders for his supposedly blasphemous work The Satanic Verses.

It does not appear that Stephen Harper or his Cabinet have anything against Islam or Muslims per se. They participated in an Eid (major Muslim holiday) celebration on Parliament Hill, for example. Furthermore, both Harper and Jason Kenney spoke out strongly against the vandalism of the mosque in Gatineau, Quebec – whereas neither they nor any other federal official, as far as I’m aware, said anything about the spray-painting of a public nativity scene in St. Catharines. Finally, in 2010 Harper bestowed honorary Canadian citizenship on the Aga Khan, leader of the Ismaili Muslim spiritual community.

So back to my original question – ‘Is Canada Islamophobic?’ – with regard to the Canadian government itself and its main leaders, I would have to say no, at least not based on anything they have expressed or actually done. When it comes to the population at large, my response is more mixed. It’s apparent from polls like the above-mentioned Angus Reid survey that many Canadians are hostile to both Muslims and their religion.

Finally, how can this gap be bridged? Perhaps Muslim Canadians can let it be known that practices like honour killing and female genital mutilation are not Islamic traditions and that not all Muslims embrace capital punishment for apostates, for instance. Non-Muslims for their part should avoid lumping all Muslims together as fanatics or automatically labelling abusive husbands/fathers/brothers from the Middle East or South Asian as ‘Islamofascists’ (a term used to describe, ironically, a Lebanese Christian man named Joseph Hawach who kidnapped his two daughters from his ex-wife and brought them to Lebanon). Good fences may make good neighbours, but talking over these fences might make even better ones. Above all, I’d like to see Muslims and Canadians of other (or no) religions see themselves as fellow citizens of our one country.

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