Canada must call Islamophobia what it is – racism

By Sehrish Amjad
The Ottawa Citizen | August 30, 2017

Canadian officials were in Geneva this month to answer critical questions about the country’s human rights record.

The appearance before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination comes every four years and is an opportunity for racialized communities to hold our governments to account for their action, or inaction, on promoting racial equity in a pluralistic society. This year, there was a painful omission.

Canada omitted identifying Islamophobia as a form of racism in its official report. This reinforces harmful narratives that can render Islamophobia invisible.

All too often, when someone perceived as Muslim is discriminated against, assaulted, harassed or disparaged, offenders and their supporters are quick to shrug off accusations of racism, arguing that Islam is not a race.

This is an overly simplistic understanding of the social construct of race itself.

“Since all racisms are socially and politically constructed rather than reliant on the reality of any biological race, it is perfectly possible for cultural markers associated with Muslimness (forms of dress, rituals, languages, etc.) to be turned into racial signifiers,” points out British academic and author Arun Kundnani.

In identifying anti-Muslim discrimination to be the leading form of contemporary creed-based discrimination in Ontario, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has noted that visible minorities are sometimes broadly targeted based on outward appearances, and “perceived” associations with Islam.

This helps explain why members of the Sikh community have sometimes been targets of anti-Muslim attacks. It also explains why, according to a poll conducted by the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants and Mass Minority last year, opposition to Syrian refugees was higher among those who held unfavourable impressions of Islam, demonstrating a popular misconception that all Syrian refugees are Muslims.

When a woman wearing a scarf is assaulted on the bus, and told to go back to her country; when a Sikh temple is burned to the ground; when a turbaned man is faced with additional scrutiny at the border, it is the perception of the offending party that serves as the motivation of the Islamophobic, racist action, not whether or not those victimized are in fact Muslim.

And while it may be challenging to understand these complexities, the government must not forsake the complex extrinsic and systemic discrimination faced by racially diverse Canadian Muslims in any discussion of racial discrimination.

Over the past four years, there has been an appalling 253 per cent rise in the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes, according to Statistics Canada. It’s a trend that has been corroborated by the growing number of hate crimes and alleged human rights violations that are reported to our organization on a regular basis.

These numbers don’t take into account the intersectionality of hatred.
Individuals can be attacked for various identities; our statistics must further capture this.

The stereotyping of Muslims as a racially homogeneous group cannot be overlooked. The Ontario government has made progress by establishing an anti-racism directorate and committing to the study and eradication of systemic racism, including Islamophobia.

The Alberta government is exploring similar ways to address the phenomena and the federal government is gearing up to study Islamophobia and other forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination in the fall. All governments should make this a key priority.

It has been 13 years since Canada adopted an action plan against racism before the World Conference Against Racism. This unfulfilled plan must be reinstated and adequately resourced to meet these ongoing challenges.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged that Islamophobia is a problem in Canada – our government institutions must do the same.

Sehrish Amjad is a former human rights officer at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).