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Islamophobia sells in Canada

Stephen Harper's re-election campaign is built on demonizing Muslims

March 2, 2015 2:00AM ET

Canadians will vote in the country’s 42nd general election on Oct. 19. In the lead-up to the vote, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made several calculated decisions to capitalize on popular Islamophobic sentiments to secure another victory for the Conservative Party.

Harper has latched onto international events to marginalize Muslims for voters. For example, on Jan. 8, Harper responded to the attacks in Paris on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, by claiming that an “international jihadist movement has declared war.” He then pledged to propose a new anti-terrorism legislation once the parliament resumes regular session in late January.

His bill, the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015 or Bill C-51, will transform Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), from an information gathering service to one that proactively attempts to thwart terrorist plots in Canada and abroad. The act will also lower the threshold for monitoring suspected national security threats, including adding a vaguely defined category called terrorist “sympathizers.”  

The bill passed in the House of Commons on Feb. 23 and is now being sent to Committee. In an open letter to Harper, several civil liberty organizations, former CSIS employees and former Canadian prime ministers have expressed concern about the lack of oversight and effective review mechanisms for the law. If Canada’s past anti-terror legislations are any guide, Muslim communities will likely see increased surveillance and profiling under Bill C-51. Previous counterterrorism laws have resulted in the infringement of Muslims’ civil liberties through arbitrary detention and inclusion in no-fly lists, as well as secret surveillance. Harper is not even pretending Bill C-51 will be any different.

 “Our Government has never hesitated to call jihadi terrorism what it is,” he said of terrorist groups, introducing the bill.“And just as we are not afraid to condemn it, we are not afraid to confront it.” Asked how security forces will distinguish between radicalized individuals and teenagers “messing around in the basement,” Harper said, “it doesn't matter what the age of the person is, or whether they're in a basement, or whether they're in a mosque or somewhere else.”

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Muslim Lawyers’ Association (CMLA) have demanded an apology. “The Prime Minister's comments ... implicated Canadian mosques as venues where terrorism is advocated or promoted,” the group said in a statement. “The words used by our elected leaders have a profound impact on public perceptions.” Harper’s response gives unwarranted credence to a common misconception. There is overwhelming evidence, including a 2011 CSIS report, showing the lack of connection between mosques and individuals suspected of terrorism.

However, since the October 22 shooting in Ottawa, several mosques across the country have been targeted by violent Islamophobes. Harper’s statements and failure to condemn the string of vandalism against mosques in Canada have perpetuated this dangerous conflation.

Canadian voters have fallen prey to rampant Islamophobia in the media and exaggerated claims of security threats.

Harper’s fear mongering is not limited to warning of potential terrorists. He has also used his platform to curtail the rights of Muslim women. A 2011 law introduced by Harper’s Conservative immigration minister requires Muslim women to remove niqabs during citizenship ceremonies. Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani woman, who postponed her citizenship ceremony in January, is suing the government. Ishaq says the ban fails to accommodate her religious beliefs. In a ruling on Feb. 6, Canada’s Federal Court sided with Ishaq and struck down the ban, saying it was unlawful.

Harper’s government has since appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. “It is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family,” Harper said on Feb. 12. The Conservative Party has also released an online petition asking Canadians to show support for the ban. “In Canada, women are full and equal members of society — including when they take the oath of Canadian citizenship,” reads the petition.

Harper’s campaign against the niqab has received some pushback from the Liberal Party. “It’s unworthy of someone who is prime minster for all Canadians,” Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, said of Harper’s comments. “Harper’s approach frays away the edges of our multicultural fabric … (by) stoking and pandering to fears rather than allaying them.” Only about 100 women are affected by the ban each year so it is unclear why Harper personally retorted to such xenophobic fear mongering.

Harper’s attempts to win over voters by demonizing Muslims are working. Most voters have fallen prey to rampant Islamophobia in the media and exaggerated claims of security threats. An internal government poll in 2012 found that 80 percent of respondents support banning the niqab during citizenship ceremonies. Similarly, a new poll by the Angus Reid Institute found that 82 percent of Canadians surveyed support Harper’s Bill C-51. In fact, 36 percent of the respondents felt that the bill does not go far enough. The bill also gained support from all Liberal members of parliament, who voted along with Conservatives to pass the bill through the House of Commons.

Unfortunately, Trudeau is unable to remain consistent in his opposition to those pandering to Islamophobes. This is indicative of the general political climate in Canada. Opposition parties have failed to offer a strong alternative and challenge Harper’s overreaches. The network of grassroots movements is not enough to counter the normalization of Islamophobia within Canada’s mainstream politics. Our political leaders have the responsibility to empower alienated communities instead of capitalizing on their oppression for electoral gains.

Davide Mastracci is a master of journalism student at Ryerson University, and an associate editor at the Islamic Monthly. His work has appeared in various publications including the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Montreal Gazette. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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