Canada Struggles with Growing Islamophobia
On the surface, Canada has avoided much of the anti-Muslim/ anti-immigrant sentiment that has gripped Europe and the United States.
There are just more than 1 million Muslims in Canada, the 2011 census indicated, comprising 3.2% of the population, which makes them the second largest religious group in the country. Ottawa has accepted more than 30,000 Syrian refugees in the past year and offered them support in establishing a new home in Canada.
During the most recent federal election in 2015, participation by the Muslim community was at all-time high and 11 Muslims were elected to parliament, an increase of seven from previous years. A recent survey indicated that Muslims are the most patriotic of any group in Canada, with eight out of ten respondents saying they were very proud to be Canadian.
On the other hand, there are signs of a growing problem, as reported violence against Muslims doubled from 2012-14, Statistics Canada said. The most recent and violent examples were the death in January of six Muslims and the wounding of 19 others, as they prayed at a mosque in Quebec City.
Then came a heated debate over a motion introduced to parliament by Iqra Khalid, a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, which condemned Islamophobia.
Lawmakers in Canada’s House of Commons easily passed the motion on March 23, paving the way for future measures to combat Islamophobia. The motion asks the government to “recognise the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear” and “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination”.
The motion has divided public opinion: A poll from the Angus Reid Institute showed 42% of respondents would have voted against the measure and just 29% percent would have approved it.
Conservative and far-right factions in Canada claimed the motion was an attack on free speech. Khalid became the object of an online hate campaign and read aloud in parliament some of the violent and hate-filled messages she had been sent.
In some ways it is not surprising that there is animosity against Muslim Canadians. The previous Conservative government led by Stephen Harper was openly anti-Muslim and during the 2015 election ran on a platform that included several provisions aimed directly at the Muslim community, including a proposal to establish a hot line that would have allowed Canadians to report on the “barbaric cultural practices” of their neighbours.
One of the leading candidates to replace Harper as head of the Conservative Party, Kellie Leitch, has proposed creating a citizenship test that would be given to new immigrants to the country to make sure they have “Canadian values”.
Leitch, who has openly courted the racist vote during her campaign, apparently thinks she has a winning formula based on Donald Trump’s success in the United States and recent polls showing about 30% of Canadians having “unfavourable” feelings towards Muslims.
The survey, carried out late in 2016 by the Forum Research Poll, indicated this was particularly a problem in Quebec, where the mosque attack took place. Nearly half the population of the province, 48% of those asked, expressed animosity towards Muslims.
Much of the discrimination towards and stereotyping of Muslims in Canada, particularly women and young people, can be attributed to a misunderstanding of Islam, stated a study of Canadian Muslims published in April 2016 by the Environics Institute for Survey Research. Canadian Muslims tend to be more religious than other Canadians, a trend that is increasing as younger Muslims see their faith as an important part of their identity as Canadians.
This trend is viewed negatively by a sizeable minority of the population, particularly those who hold conservative views.
Yet, in a more positive vein, the Environics study showed that the Canadian-Muslim community says its religion is accepted by most Canadians and a large majority say that Muslims in Canada are treated far better than Muslims in other Western countries.
Trudeau has been a strong supporter. Trudeau’s move to grant temporary asylum to Muslims stranded by Trump’s attempted ban and his recent forceful statements against Islamophobia in Canada were warmly welcomed by Canadian Muslims.
Yet there is reason for concern and for more positive action from government and law enforcement agencies. The Montreal police chief told the media in February that violent anti-Muslim rhetoric is on the rise in Quebec, particularly among known racist groups outside Montreal.
“A lot of those groups have an Islamophobic discourse fed by hate speech,” he said. “They reject living together. If we do nothing, it’s going to get dangerous.”
Tom Regan, a columnist at factsandopinion.com, previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is the former executive director of the Online News Association and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1992.
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