How To Move Forward From The M-103 Islamophobia Debate

This article was originally published on March 28, 2017 in the Huffington Post.

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If you’re like me, Canada’s debate around Islamophobia has left you drained and disillusioned.  Both the Liberals and Conservatives treated this important social issue as if it were political football, seeking to gain cheap yardage with seemingly little concern for the lives involved. Muslim Canadians deserve better.

Many Canadians might be surprised to learn that back in October, Canada passed an anti-Islamophobia motion by unanimous consent.  House of Common petition e411, sponsored by Liberal MP Frank Baylis was the basis for this motion.  Sadly, at the time, Liberals didn’t have the political courage to propose a motion on Islamophobia before the House.  Instead, it was NDP leader Thomas Mulcair who showed the sensitivity and political resolve to present this motion, and did so successfully on October 26. 

Back in October, the Conservatives didn’t ask for a definition of Islamophobia before giving consent to the motion.  But anyone could have looked up the Google or Oxford definition: “Islamophobia: Dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.”

Of course, the value of motions is purely symbolic.  So when the October 26 motion got literally zero coverage in mainstream Canadian media, Muslim Canadian leaders were rightfully frustrated.  This shunning of the news of the motion by Canadian media could even be considered a form of Islamophobia in and of itself.

Perhaps disappointed that a motion that received unanimous consent received literally no attention from the Canadian public, Liberal MP Iqra Khalid submitted her own motion on Islamophobia – M103 – in early December.  Her motion went beyond the October 26 motion in that it suggested a study on religious discrimination in Canada, and systematic collection of data on hate crimes.  Religiously motivated hate crimes span multiple government disciplines, and statistics in these areas are notoriously inconsistent.  If this motion were passed, at least Parliament’s attention on this issue would last more than three seconds.

Most Canadians heard about Khalid’s anti-Islamophobia motion when it finally came up for debate on February 15.  That’s when Conservative leaders and voters went bonkers over the motion, suggesting all sorts of outrageous scenarios: some about religious favouritism; some about free speech; and some about how Canada’s criminal code would somehow get replaced by Sharia law.  In a case of collective amnesia, the Conservatives also forgot they had already unanimously supported an anti-Islamophobia motion in October, and now demanded to know how the Liberals defined Islamophobia. Chatelaine’s Sadiya Ansari wrote an article that addresses all of these fallacious concerns, and more.

But the Liberals acted in an equally partisan manner as they responded to the Conservatives’ objections.  They too had forgotten that they hadn’t had the political courage to put forth the motion in October.  Liberal Heritage Minister Melanie Joly was exquisitely inarticulate as she tried to justify the motion as written, and the football began in earnest when the Conservatives proposed a counter-motion that didn’t “single out” Islam for special protection.  (Those familiar with the “Black lives matter” vs. “All lives matter” discussion will understand the cynicism in this Conservative move.)

The NDP, as well as Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong had no issue supporting both motions.  But the Liberals suggested that the Conservative motion would render M-103 moot, refused to vote for it, and ensured its defeat.  By doing so, the Liberals could be blamed for entrenching the misconceptions around the motion, and prolonging groundless fears about condemnation of Islamophobia. 

If the October 26 motion had gone unnoticed, M-103 and its aftermath were to dominate Canadian headlines for weeks.  But if you think the brouhaha over M-103 is finished, you’re wrong.  According to the motion, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage is due to report its findings and recommendations on the issues within 240 days.  So if the partisan footballers have their way, M-103 and outlandish reactions to Islamophobia could be headline news again before the end of the year.

It’s fair to ask why the committee on heritage is supposed to research issues of racism, discrimination, hate crimes, and crime data.  If you’re like me, you might have thought Heritage Canada was focused on the Canada 150 celebrations this year – and that’s what its Webpage suggests.  Why isn’t Immigration and Citizenship involved in the process, where expertise in integration and assimilation of newcomers and refugees is centralized?  And why isn’t Justice enlisted, where you have all the experts in legal interpretation, and the collection and synthesis of crime data?  It’s fair to question why M-103 puts any responsibility under heritage.

The answer may lie in the fact that the Minister of Heritage, Melanie Joly, is trying to enhance her own visibility and credentials among the Muslims of her own riding: a highly ethnic, highly Arab, highly Muslim riding.  She was repeatedly at Khalid’s side during M-103 photo ops, although neither she nor Heritage have any expertise or history with religious discrimination.  It may also explain why one CTV reporter felt compelled to report at one press conference that, “Joly jumped in several times during the press conference to answer questions directed at Khalid, even when reporters asked for Khalid to respond.”

Some argue that forcing the question has exacerbated the tensions around Islamophobia in Canada.  But recognizing and acknowledging a problem are the first steps to resolving it.  The discussion on Islamophobia and religious discrimination will continue, whether as a result of M-103, or for other reasons.  But hopefully next time, it will take place without the partisan politics and opportunism that have haunted the past two months.  Muslim Canadians deserve no less.

 


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