Cover Story: Global and national events raise tensions and fears, and embolden bigots and xenophobes.
Islamophobia is happening in Canada, too
By Samaah Jaffer
On my way to meet Megaphone’s editor Stefania Seccia on a sunny morning in April (to discuss this very article), I glanced outside the window of the Expo Line SkyTrain. A glaring message spray-painted in silver stood out on a fence between 29th Avenue and Nanaimo stations. Only two words long, it read: “Fuck Islam!”
The term ‘Islamophobia’ has recently entered into the public sphere, appearing in numerous headlines, and sparking national debates on the freedoms of speech and religion.
It’s no secret that anti-Muslim bigotry was a defining characteristic of the U.S. Presidential campaign—after which many Canadians rushed to assure each other that “we are so lucky to be Canadian”. Unfortunately, Canadian exceptionalism does not resonate with many who have experienced discrimination and marginalization across the continent.
The day after the U.S. election, I read a Facebook post by someone I knew from high school who was verbally harassed—sworn at, called a terrorist, and asked if she was going to blow up the women who hurled insults at her. In January, the massacre of six men at a mosque in Quebec City by a white nationalist fan of Donald Trump. In March, I was sworn at and called “ISIS” as I walked to work in downtown Vancouver. These separate events are only a few of the anti-Muslim incidents that have occurred across Canada.
Global and national events raise tensions and fears, and embolden bigots and xenophobes.
We witnessed this first hand in the 2015 federal election, during which former prime minister Stephen Harper made the niqab (a face veil worn by some Muslim women that covers the entire face except for the eyes) a campaign issue. In 2015, the National Council of Canadian Muslims reported a sharp rise in reports of anti-Muslim hate crimes and incidents.
However, Islamophobia is an issue rooted much deeper than today’s politics of fear.
Racism by another name
While the definition of the term is contested, Islamophobia is commonly understood as the fear of Muslims and Islam that leads to systemic bigotry, racism, and hatred. It is key to note that Islamophobia affects Muslims and those who appear to be Muslim. Sikh men who wear turbans are often targets of Islamophobia.
More than just a sentiment, Islamophobia triggers action. According to the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline, which was established in Vancouver last year, these actions may include harassment, violence, profiling, discrimination, exclusion, refusal of service, property destruction, threats, and bullying.
The link between racism and Islamophobia has been challenged, since Islam is not a race. Yet, as Itrath Syed, PhD candidate at SFU’s School for Communication and member of the local Muslim community, notes, “[Racialization] is about putting people into a group and then deciding that everyone in that group fits a set of stereotypes and has specific characteristics—and that the group as a whole is all the same.”
One of the greatest proponents of Islamophobia is the idea that Islam and Muslims are a monolith, and that certain stereotypes can be applied to all those who identify as or appear to be Muslim. Usman Majeed, co-founder of Critical Muslim Voices and a long-time community antiracism activist, sees a direct link between Islamophobia and white supremacy.
“As going about overtly declaring nonwhite people as being inherently biologically inferior became socially unfashionable,” says Majeed, “focusing on religious and cultural backwardness of others has become an acceptable substitute.”
Identifying consolidation of power as common purpose, Majeed says, “both white supremacy and Islamophobia are deployed as ideological justification in service of colonialism and imperialism.”
Often misconstrued as a new phenomenon, “the current climate of Islamophobia today,” says aspiring writer-director Dharra Budicha, “is a manifestation of the centuries-old worldview of Orientalism [the perception by the Western world of ‘The East,’ which is often a patronizing, inaccurate, and ‘othering’ of non-Europeans]. Anti-Muslim bigotry today is merely an extension, a continuance, of the West’s ‘othering’ of Muslims and those who are perceived as Muslims.”
Nation of myths
It is useful to view Islamophobia within the context of racism in Canada, which dates beyond its 150 years of official colonialism. Canada is often viewed as a beacon of inclusion, tolerance, acceptance, and pluralism in the world, thanks to the myth of Canadian multiculturalism. While the narrative we’re taught since elementary school attempts to distance our nation of immigrants from the American “melting pot”, the trope of a multicultural “mosaic” often neglects the history of racism against immigrants and Indigenous peoples.
Racism functions to dehumanize demographic groups, painting their cultures, languages, customs, and traditions as backward, barbaric, and even dangerous.
Not only implicit, racism in Canada is systemic and has been legislated time and time again: think of the Indian Act, the Chinese head tax, banning Indian and Black immigrants, the turning away of Jews during World War II, residential schools, and Japanese internment camps.
Although less explicit, the proposed Quebec Charter of Values (2013) and the Anti-terrorism Act in 2015 (formerly known at Bill C-51) are contemporary examples of legislation backing the criminalization of Muslims and those who appear to be Muslim.
One of our newest myths, championed by Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Kellie Leitch is the notion of “Canadian values,” employed with a thinly veiled agenda to further stigmatize immigrants and refugees.
The recent debate over M-103, a motion put forth by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid to denounce Islamophobia (not unlike a similar motion condemning anti-Semitism that passed unanimously in 2015), resulted in much hysteria, threats, and harassment of Khalid and other Muslims. There were numerous rallies and protests premised on the misconception that this motion was making a special accommodation for Muslims.
Muslims have also experienced discriminatory profiling at the hands of law enforcement and national security — from being “randomly” selected for additional screenings at airports and borders by the CBSA, to being increasingly surveilled. In 2016, the RCMP was charged over the entrapment of John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, who were coerced and assisted by police in an attempted terror attack on B.C.’s legislature building. The government is also following in the footsteps of the FBI, channelling resources to Countering Violent Extremism programs that are enacted on the assumption that radicalization is an issue in Muslim communities.
Islamophobia is experienced differently, across various income levels, genders, age, and racial identities. Children face bullying and name-calling in schools by fellow students and teachers, women who wear the hijab (a headscarf worn by some Muslim women as a way to observe modesty) are harassed in public places, individuals with Arabic sounding names face discrimination in their places of employment or when seeking housing.
Rahat Kurd, writer and co-founder of Critical Muslim Voices, identified two defining elements of her early experiences with Islamophobia: “First is a quasi-intellectual attempt to legitimize some contained, polite, genteel form of suspicion and prejudice against an entire global religious community. People forge careers out of this, advising governments on policy, writing books, going on speaking tours, and so on. [Secondly,] there is the unleashing of a much more vulgar bigotry on the street, with verbal and physical assaults.”
Budicha recalls her first memory of Islamophobia as a fourth grade student at an inner-city school in Vancouver. Soon after 9/11, her best friend, a young Filipino- Canadian, approached her and said: “My dad said I’m not allowed to play with you anymore ... because you’re a terrorist.”
“Post 9/11, some lunch periods were spent alone at a table because no one was interested in sitting next to me,” said Budicha.
"Other times, I’ve had peers circle around me during recess and bark incredulous questions about my hijab. At a business conference a few years ago, a woman proceeded to accuse me of being brainwashed (at the hands of my father) for wearing the hijab—all on an escalator.”
Many racialized Muslims face an intersection of marginalizations.
As Budicha notes, “The anti-Muslim hate I encounter is often doused with sexism and anti-Black racism. When someone is hurling Islamophobic insults at me, it’s sometimes on the account of my womanness—the individual wishes to rescue me from the oppressive grips of the religion itself. When I encounter an Islamophobic, anti-Black racist, calls for me ('hey nigger!') to 'go back to where you fucking came from, you terrorist' denote that because of the colour of my skin, I couldn’t possibly be Canadian.”
Yasmine Youssef, the coordinator of Nisa Homes, a transitional home for immigrant, refugee and Muslim women, is constantly concerned for their residents, many of whom are new to Canada and have left abusive relationships.
Some of the women have experienced extreme Islamophobia in other shelters.
“One woman was praying and another resident came and peed on her prayer mat,” said Youssef. “Several residents had their hijabs pulled off, others weren't given food during Ramadan because it was after dinner hours or weren't given food at all because the shelter didn't want to try getting halal [permissible for Muslims to consume] food.” Islamophobia and the media
Islamophobia and the media
While there has been an increase in conversations on Islamophobia in the media, it has also played a large role in shaping stereotypes and misconceptions.
“My first memory of Islamophobia is from the media,” says Itrath Syed, whose research deals with the construction of Muslim communities in the media.
“From a very young age I saw that Muslims were always and only depicted as the bad guys on the news and in movies and television. I had a real sense from a young age that the depictions of Muslims that were in the media was not my experience of being Muslim and living in a Muslim family and a Muslim community.”
Syed is critical of the increased coverage of Islamophobia in the media, since “discussion of Islamophobia in the news often [doesn’t] have Muslims involved in the conversation. There is a lot of discussion about Muslims and less from Muslims.”
Fear and belonging
As new immigrants continue to arrive in Canada from Muslim majority countries, there are many Muslims who are growing up within this intense climate of xenophobia.
While dealing with the usual challenges of adolescence, and surviving in Vancouver, we’re often expected to explain ourselves, our faith, and to justify our existence in this country.
As Usman Majeed reflects, it’s not easy to “constantly counter Orientalist misconceptions and myths about Islam, sometimes even from friends.
“Islamophobia is sometimes so rampant I feel like I need to be a perpetual expert on Islam, able to pull out fancy facts and arguments from my back pocket at any given moment,” he says.
We’re not all experts on Islam, nor do we have to be. We’re entitled to our own individual interpretations and practices, and it gets tiring to constantly be the “good Muslim” who answers all the pressing questions. As Palestinian-American writer Sarah Yasin put it in a BuzzFeed article, “Even insisting that all Muslims are good, or explaining what Islam really means, helps reinforce the same bad idea: that it is valid to talk about all Muslims in the same breath.”
At the same time, it’s vital for Muslims in Canada to understand and acknowledge their part in this settler-colonial nation, and to reflect and actively work towards building solidarity with the Indigenous communities whose land we occupy. As Rahat Kurd emphasized,
“Understanding the history of racism is a key step that allows Muslims to form alliances and solidarity with other marginalized groups.”
Let’s change the narrative
Last month I noticed the fence between 29th Avenue and Nanaimo had been painted over with a dark brown, covering the Islamophobic slur. Initially relieved to not have to pass by the statement on my commute, the erasure felt dismissive. While the words disappeared, the fear and hate were not addressed.
As I’ve become more vocal about experiences of Islamophobia, a number of friends have reached out to ask what they can do to help. I believe it’s going to take all of us to change the narrative, and our voices are our biggest assets.
Don't wait for someone to make racist or Islamophobic comments—but when they do, don't stay silent. Call them out. Have many conversations about the reality of systemic racism and Islamophobia. Have them often, have them in public. Have them even if they make you and others uncomfortable. Have them with your parents, children, friends, and coworkers.