You don’t have to travel far to see why an innocuous little motion of motherhood statements expressing concern about prejudice towards Muslims, debated by parliamentarians this past week, was simultaneously needed and intensely controversial.
When the editor of this paper penned a piece several weeks back about the recent massacre at a Quebec City mosque the comments posted online were embarrassing. One can only hope that the people weighing in were trolls from elsewhere and not our neighbours.
One commenter lamented the “diluting [of] Canada.” Another went much further, positing that Muslims ought to take the shooting as a “warning” that “Canadians will never accept your religion.”
Other stories, published here in our quiet little corner of this vast country, about Syrian refugees and hopes of building a local mosque — innocuous stories that ought not to provoke a lot of controversy — have led to similarly disproportionate and appalling reactions in the comments section. The Yukon is home to only 40 Muslim families, but apparently, we are not immune to prejudice towards them.
Yes, anti-Muslim bigotry has become a real problem. According to a 2016 poll conducted by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration only 43 per cent of us have a net positive view of Muslims. That is substantially lower than the number who have positive views of Jews (68 per cent), Aboriginals (61 per cent) or even the generic “Immigrant” (also 61 per cent).
In this climate it was both surprising and unsurprising that a parliamentary motion, M-103, expressing concern about the phenomenon and calling on the heritage committee to study what might be done about it, would trigger so much controversy. It’s surprising because it seems so patently obvious that this is a problem that our leaders ought to consider, and unsurprising because so much of the opposition to the motion was symptomatic of the phenomenon itself.
The Conservatives derided the motion for singling out one particular religion and proposed to amend it to make it more inclusive of all faiths — none of which have been the target of any recent mass shootings or seem to provoke the same visceral response every time they are mentioned in the media.
Hate is not a simple phenomenon. It exists at different times, in different locations within different social contexts, driven by different factors and experienced by its targets in different ways.
Anti-Muslim bigotry is distinct in many ways from the anti-Indigenous racism that has long been endemic in Canadian society. Or the anti-black racism that still taints the United States, with its history of slavery and segregation. Or anti-Semitism, which, while taboo in most circles, is somehow still a thing within certain segments of the population.
Denouncing a particular form of hate at a particular juncture in history within a certain social context is appropriate and reasonable, and the notion that the motion should be religiously neutral is bewildering.
Critics of the motion also expressed concerns that it is a slippery slope towards restrictions on unpopular speech. But the motion — which isn’t actually a law — doesn’t do that. And there are other ways to combat phenomena like anti-Muslim bigotry without such blunt tools as new hate speech laws that the heritage committee can study. There is no good reason, at this point, to believe that this is where we are headed.
There are certainly elements of the motion that one can quibble with.
Introduced months before the Quebec City shooting, the motion was retooled in that context as the phenomenon reached chilling new heights. As is often the case with backbench motions, it is hardly a model of artful wordsmithing.
It calls for a whole-of-government approach to fighting discrimination while “ensuring a community-centered focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making.” No, I don’t have any idea what that means either.
There is also the critique offered by former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, who said he supported the motion in principle but would have preferred the phrase “anti-Muslim bigotry” to “Islamophobia.”
That would have been my preference as well (you’ll note I’ve yet to use it thus far in this column). “Islamophobia” as an English neologism does have an unfortunate degree of imprecision, and has been hideously abused in rows over satirical material such as Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or the infamous Danish cartoons of Muhammad.
Religions are but sets of ideas and principles that we ought to be free to debate, discuss and, yes, even fear if we ultimately conclude that it is warranted.
But people are people — sentient beings with their own individual thoughts and emotions who are driven by a multitude of social influences and interpret their religion in their own way.
This is a point that people so often miss. Religious adherents are so rarely the caricatures we build up around the very darkest interpretations of their faith. Their actual views are far more nuanced and complex.
Opponents of resolution M-103 fail to see this. The lives of six people were violently snuffed out in an instant. The provocateurs at Ezra Levant’s race-baiting outlet The Rebel can continue to “just ask questions” all they want, but the most plausible explanation at this point is that the shooter’s motivations were rooted in hatred and contempt.
If a small group of families can’t build a house of worship here in the Yukon without bringing the haters out of the woodwork then “Islamophobia” or “anti-Muslim bigotry” or whatever you choose to call it deserves the condemnation and study of our parliamentarians.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.