By Faisal Kutty
Feb. 1, 2017
How does the first hate killings since Donald Trump’s election occur in a place touted for its multiculturalism and tolerance?
Well, Islamophobia is for real. Trump’s executive order banning Muslims from select countries and the terrorist attack on the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec in Quebec City killing six and wounding eight innocent worshippers should lay to rest any doubts.
Right wing nationalists were quick to re-victimize the victims by falsely propagating that one of the alleged perpetrators was a Moroccan and that he had yelled “Allahu Akbar.” The fact that even some supposedly respectable media outlets reported such alternative “facts” is telling. Police have now said the sole accused is Alexandre Bissonnette, a white French Canadian who by some accounts appears to be a rabid white nationalist. Very few are asking, how did he get radicalized?
As someone spending equal time on both sides of the border, I hear Canadians always smugly speaking of how we are so different. Apparently not so much.
The number of police-reported hate crimes against Muslim more than doubled over a three-year period (2012 to 2014), according to figures released by Statistics Canada last year. Meanwhile in the U.S., various groups, including the FBI, have documented an eightfold increase in hate crime since 2000. As alarming as these figures are, they don’t tell the full story (and may be less accurate in Canada) because they are based on reports from local police, which in turn rely on victim reports.
In fact, discrimination and crimes driven by hate are not being properly captured. Many go unreported because too many believe that nothing will come of it. Indeed, there is growing anecdotal evidence that reports are underplayed by some authorities or are classified as other than hate, such as “flight safety issues” or simply free expression.
In the wake of the killings, mosque attendee Zebida Bendjeddou told Reuters: “In June, they’d put a pig’s head in front of the mosque. But we thought: ‘Oh, they’re isolated events.’ ”
Such isolated incidents are part of a pattern that is being ignored. Usually nobody is physically hurt, but the pattern reveals the underlying bigotry and provides evidence of how too many have been emboldened by rhetoric that has mainstreamed anti-Muslim hate.
Demonization of Muslims has a long history in Western politics and popular culture but now we have reached the watershed moment. Initially fuelled by a well-funded network of professional merchants of hate on the fringe, it infected a small segment of the Republican party in the U.S. and Harperites in Canada, but has now reached heights never before imagined by most analysts.
Trump’s travel ban and anticipated Muslim registry did not rise out of thin air. They are rooted in the culture of fear and targeting of Muslims nurtured by too many in positions of power on both sides of the border since the early 1990s, but most aggressively since 9/11 and The War on Terror. Indeed, this legacy of “othering” and dehumanization prepped the populace enough for Trump to tap into.
Canadian politicians and media are not blameless. The cabal of Islamophobes transcend the border and consult the same playbook. The War on Terror fear mongering reached its peak under Prime Minister Stephen Harper when the anti-Niqab rhetoric, banning of Syrian refugees and calls to ban barbaric cultural practices (code for Muslim practices) were central election issues. Now playing into similar fears is Conservative-leadership contender Kellie Leitch’s dog whistle problematic values test.
Quebec also has a long history. More recently, the Parti Quebecois created anxiety in 2013 by proposing a “Charter of Values” aimed primarily at Muslims. Not to let an opportunity slip, Conservative Quebec politician François Legault fed the hate by resurrecting Muslim dress issue last fall.
In 2013, an Angus Reid poll revealed that 69 per cent of Quebecois held an unfavourable opinion of Muslims. In the rest of Canada, this view rose from 46 per cent unfavourable in 2009 to 54 per cent unfavourable in 2013. A 2016 study by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation found only 24 per cent French-Canadians and 49 per cent of English-Canadians had a positive view of Muslims.
Even Americans have a better view, according to a Washington Post article with four polls showing an increase from 53 per cent favourable view in November 2015 to 70 per cent in October 2016. An Ipsos poll in 2016 found that both Canadians and Americans thought Muslims made up 17 per cent of their populations. The reality is far lower, at 3 per cent and 1 per cent respectively.
When Islamophobia becomes a socially acceptable form of bigotry as it has in some circles, we should not be surprised when it manifests in discrimination and even violence. While the shooting may be shrugged off by some as an isolated incident, hate impacts the lived realities of far too many Muslims.
In fact, the situation is getting so serious that even psychologists have started to weigh in on the damaging impact of such an environment, especially on children.
It’s time to address Islamophobia with all the seriousness it deserves.
Faisal Kutty is counsel to KSM Law, an associate professor at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.