It’s been a couple of days since Canada passed M103, the non-binding motion in Parliament condemning Islamophobia and other forms of systemic racism. On right and left wing outlets alike, the motion has attracted a lot of coverage and opinions, and unleashed protests, counter-protests, demonstrations and online petitions.
While liberal commentators have restricted themselves to reporting on the details of the motion, conservative commentators, advocates for Muslim reform and free speech advocates have unleashed a tidal wave of fury and disapproval, regarding the vote as merely another sign of PM Trudeau’s naivety when it comes to Islamist extremism and related issues. What is clear however, is that the debate about this motion also reflected a divide between Canadians and the leadership, with 71% reporting they do not favour the motion in an Angus Reid poll. With conservative leadership splitting over the issue, it is also impacting Trudeau’s popularity itself, a truly disturbing sign when liberals are looking to Canada as one of the rare countries that has decisively rejected right wing politics.
From a progressive standpoint, it is very difficult to justify or praise the intent and purpose of this motion. It is true that it is a non-binding motion, and therefore cannot be used to punish or imprison people, but even so, such a motion passing easily in the House of Commons is sending a message that does not bode well for western liberal democracy. Three problems with the motion are immediate and obvious.
One is the problem of defining Islamophobia. Now there is a much criticised definition of Islamophobia, but the fact remains that many things can be included within the definition of Islamophobia. It is readily obvious that with the exception of a few words/ actions, everything else could be labelled as Islamophobic by some and validly denied by others. With a term that defines a general, feeling of fear or dislike, it is always hard to exhaustively list the number of behaviours that fits the term accurately. For authorities to deny that this definitional problem does not exist is disingenuous.
Critics, reformers and many non-Muslims in general have repeatedly signalled their displeasure and foreboding at being tagged as Islamophobic if they express any sentiment against the religion or its political consequences. In fact, in the weeks following Trump’s election, many commentators observed that the easy and casual use of the terms racist, xenophobe and Islamophobe by those with a liberal leaning further alienated people at the centre. There was a general and perhaps justified perception among some who felt their criticisms were legitimate, but found themselves hamstrung and not able to express their criticisms without running the risk of being painted as an unreasonable bigot. Particularly when the fear relates not to a ‘thing’ such as hydrophobia, or to a very narrowly defined ‘circumstance’ such as fear of heights, but is instead a fear of a ‘philosophy,’ a school of thought or a general aversion, the definitional problems multiply.
There is simply no way, from a definitional standpoint, to explicitly list the acts that are considered Islamophobic. Even if the motion had used more explicit terms such as anti-Muslim bigotry, focused as it is on the person instead of the faith, the definitional problems persist, since it remains easy to caricature any expression of hostility or of opposition as ‘anti-Muslim bigotry.’ At the end of the day, therefore, it is perceived as an attempt to deter criticism of Islam.
Readers may feel compelled to point out that this was a non-binding motion adopted by Parliament, and not a legal provision seeking to penalise individuals for Islamophobia. That may be true, but to equate such a motion to a mere platitude is also dishonest. Introduced as a Private Member’s motion, it required a vote as per the procedures of the Canadian Parliament and a vote, a clear indication from the federal legislative body that the Government intends to pay very specific attention to the problems mentioned. If the intention were simply to express that Canada remains committed to religious tolerance and openness, and condemnation of hate speech, a speech or a pledge would have sufficed, and such indications have been made. Yet, it was felt that an additional and specific commitment from the Parliament on this issue was required, and hence the motion. One can derive but one inference from this particular action – that the Canadian Government intends to suppress all forms of allegedly ‘Islamophobic’ behaviour with special vigour.
The enshrining of Islamophobia as a particular cause for concern has also caused resentment among other marginalised groups, some of whom feel even more consistently victimised. Some have argued that Black and Jewish Canadians face far more alienation and are victimised by hate crimes. They have expressed their displeasure with the motion, noting that their plight has rarely, if ever, rated such focused attention from the Parliament. The motion has also angered some who feel less attention is paid to the plight of forgotten indigenous girls. This is not to enter into an endless stream of accusations of partisan attention, but understandably, there are some who felt aggrieved by the ‘special’ treatment of Islam and advocated for a more sincere concern towards all religions.
Readers may yet be inclined to dismiss the above as nitpicking on technicalities. But this motion, far from helping Muslims, may indeed be doing them a disservice. A phobia or ‘dislike’ of a certain group cannot be outlawed, or wiped away by suppression. Reasonably or otherwise, it appears, from the steps taken by the Government that some Canadians have reservations towards Islam or Muslims, whether it be borne out of ignorance, wariness, fear, or mere caution. Suppressing these expressions of a faction of people under the guise of condemning ‘Islamophobia’ or fostering a climate where some feel uncomfortable expressing their reservations or criticism is certainly not going to help, or magically convert those into positive impressions.
If the political upheavals of 2016 have taught us anything, it is that there is a large, discontented proportion of the population in western countries that are feeling sidelined by Liberal politicians, and that some are turning towards populist alternatives as being more receptive to their concerns. Shutting down the debate on these issues is also only bound to cause even more resentment and anger among its opponents, who perceive it as yet another attack on freedom of speech, and validates their allegations of Muslims having a ‘protected victim status.’ If there is an undercurrent of alarming Islamophobia in Canadian society, it should be addressed through open and honest engagement, and a willingness on both sides to introspect the measures that can mitigate a sense of intolerance. Vague condemnations and selective highlighting of victimisation is highly unlikely to help.
Lawyer, activist against sexual violence and exploitation. You can follow her on twitter @lblwcri.