June 22, 2012 | National Post

Assessing the State of Islamophobia in Canada

As noted previously on this blog, last Saturday night I appeared as a panelist at the “Message of Peace: Countering Islamophobia” conference, hosted by the University of Toronto’s Muslim Students’ Association and ICNA Canada. Because the format was Q&A, I wasn’t able to deliver a lengthy speech. But here were the talking points I’d prepared on the subject:

  • Contrary to what some pundits argue, I do believe Islamophobia is a real phenomenon. Which is to say: I do believe there are some Canadians out there who have an irrational fear of Islam. For these purposes, I define “irrational fear” as a fear that goes beyond (a) the very real, legitimate and widely shared fear of Islamist terrorism; and (b) the very real, legitimate and widely shared concern about retrograde Islamist attitudes toward women being imported into Canadian society.
  • Outside of outright bigots (of which all Western nations have a few), Islamophobia in Canada largely is confined to a small cadre of hyper-conservative culture warriors (Perhaps a few of them will out themselves in the comment section below). In fact, overall, I think Canada likely ranks as one of the least Islamophobic nations in the Western world (just as it is one of the least anti-Semitic nations in the Western world). This is not because Canadians are particularly wonderful people — but, rather, because we happen to have a generally well-educated and well-integrated Muslim minority population. Unlike many of the nations of Europe, there is no Canadian equivalent of the impoverished, ghetto-like Muslim cités on the outskirts of Paris, or the no-go (for non-Muslim) areas in central England. There are a few radical mosques in Canada with some bad apples, but they are well-penetrated by intelligence agents and informants.
  • The comparison between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, widely touted by some Muslim activists, is inexact. That is because most real hard-boiled anti-Semites — the Nazi-style ones, at least — see Jews as flawed on a biological level. Which is to say, they see Jews as a filth or a bacillus, infecting an otherwise healthy larger society. But in my experience, that is generally not true of post-9/11 Western “Islamphobes,” whose concern with Islam is focused almost entirely on its status as a hegemonic ideology and force for world conquest. Unlike anti-Semites, they have no interest in the biological aspects of Muslims. Indeed, my experience at hard-right American political events (such as an “anti-Shariah conference” I attended in Tennessee in 2011) is that Muslims who convert to other faiths or who are willing to bad-mouth Islam are perfectly welcome among culturally conservative Islamophobes.
  • On Saturday night, there was a fair bit of media-bashing from the other panelists — most of it unjustified, in my opinion. I particularly object to the claim, which I have heard from other Muslim media critics, that journalists such as me don’t apply the “terrorism” label to killers who aren’t Muslim. For instance, one of the panelists put up a photo of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho — who typically is not described as a terrorist despite the fact that he killed 32 people (and wounded 17 more) during his April 16, 2007 rampage. But as I pointed out, that’s a bogus argument: Terrorism is defined by reference to the intentions of the killer. True terrorists have political or religions motivations. Cho, on the other hand, was a mentally ill loner whose suicide note and manifesto were comprised of nothing more than disjointed expressions of self-pity. The same principle applies to Jared Loughner.
  • In any event, I think that in most cases, the media’s role in influencing attitudes about this or that group of people tends to be overrated. Most ordinary citizens form their opinions about groups based on their own (sometimes fleeting and insubstantial) social interactions with members of those groups. For Muslims (or Jews, or Blacks, or gays, or anyone really) looking for ways to improve their group’s standing among the general public, there really is no substitute for becoming a good ambassador on a personal level. By the same token, gestures and cultural habits that project an aura of isolation and standoffishness (the Burka or Niqab being obvious examples) will turn Canadians off, regardless of how many upbeat pro-Muslim features are run in the mainstream media.
  • When the discussion turned to what strategies should be adopted by Muslim groups seeing to fight Islamophobia, my number-one tip was: Avoid the subject of Israel. Never mention it. If the goal of your group is to promote the reputation of Islam in general terms in Canadian society, pretend the Middle East doesn’t exist. I say this for a few reasons. First: It’s a deeply divisive subject that tends to raise tempers on both sides of the debate. On this score, I told a story about a disastrous National Post editorial board meeting with the Canadian Arab Federation, in which the entire discussion was hijacked by the visitors’ toxic attitudes toward the Jewish state. It’s one of those subjects that sucks all the extra oxygen out of the room. And at the end of the day, you never really end up changing anyone’s mind. Second, the more you talk about Israel, the greater the chance that a member of your organization will say something truly nutty about Jews or Zionists — or perhaps say something flattering about Hamas or Hezbollah. And, again, when that happens, it’s all anybody comes away from the table talking about. Just look at what happened to the Canadian Islamic Congress after Mohamed Elmasry went on Michael Coren’s TV show in 2004 and agreed to the proposition that “everyone in Israel, irrespective of gender, over the age of 18 is a valid [military] target.”
  • Finally, I said that the Muslim community in Canada needs to form a moderate, professional, authoritative NGO that brings together the alphabet soup of smaller groups that already exist; and which gives journalists and politicians a one-stop shop for liaising with Muslims on an organizational level. Moreover, such a group will have to be ruthless about weeding out anyone who a connection, however tangential, to terrorism or groups that promote it. One of the biggest impediments to Muslim community organization in the United States over the last two decades has been that some of the leading figures once sat on boards of organizations that were later implicated by terror investigations — and this fact is then cited by critics to disparage any future project these people are involved in.
  • The lesson is: Radicalism, or any connection thereto, is toxic for community groups — especially Muslim groups. Organizers ignore that principle at their peril.
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