On July 22, the federal government will host a national summit on Islamophobia. All levels of government in Canada will be represented, as will Muslim-Canadian community organizations and leaders, so as to chart a path forward to combat racism and discrimination in Canada.
This path will not be easy. If done in good faith and with integrity, this project will not only require our governments to work on fighting Islamophobia in the broader public, but will also require them to take a hard look in the mirror to face their complicity.
The list of missteps is long, from racial profiling at our borders to disproportionate and highly disruptive surveillance of Canadian Muslim communities in the name of national security. These state practices have permeated our lives at many levels, and have been a drain on our collective psyche for far too long.
Take, as an example, one seemingly mundane and routine government practice: tax audits of charitable organizations by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) – a commonplace and needed part of how our government regulates the country’s charitable sector. We embarked on a study of this practice as it relates to Muslim-led Canadian charities when we heard an increasing chorus of fear and anxiety from them that something was amiss in the way such audits were unfolding. Those organizations had a simple question: Is this normal?
What we found was a simple answer: No.
We set to work investigating what was happening, and a year later released our co-authored study, Under Layered Suspicion: A Review of CRA Audits of Muslim-led Charities. The only evidence we had access to were the audit files provided to us by three charities who lost their charitable status after a CRA audit – none of our Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) requests directed to the CRA yielded any files; in fact, we are still waiting for that information to this day.
Despite the obstacles we faced when it came to government transparency, we were able to glean valuable insights through a deep analysis of the audit files we had in our possession. By examining in close detail how auditors read and research, how they select evidence and how they interpret information, we found that these were no ordinary audits of charities – they were, in one way or another, informed by Canada’s whole-of-government policies on anti-terrorism financing and anti-radicalization.
This, in and of itself, is not an issue. It is imperative that the government undertake activities to combat terrorist financing. However, what we found was that the Canadian government identifies 100 per cent of terrorism-financing risk with groups that map onto Canada’s racialized communities, and 80 per cent (or more) of that risk maps directly onto Canada’s Muslim communities. This fact is drawn directly from Finance Canada’s 2015 assessment report to the global Financial Action Task Force.
We identified a bizarre approach that has been adopted by the CRA that to us signalled deeper systemic problems: mosques that had charitable status yanked through six degrees of alleged fault (for example, an imam who once spoke at an impugned mosque had made allegedly discriminatory remarks years before in another setting); charities that were questioned because they celebrated the Eid holiday at a time that didn’t sync with when the CRA thought they should have celebrated Eid; and humanitarian organizations that came under watch during the Harper regime.
Our findings have since been validated by a second report, issued by the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG). That report focuses on a bureau within the CRA – the Review and Analysis Division (RAD) – which integrates the CRA with the national-security apparatus. It also attempted to gather statistical data on RAD audits as it mapped a disturbing trend of the disproportionate focus of such audits on Muslim-led charities. While the ICLMG’s findings require further validation, the lack of transparency of these audit processes requires immediate review and action by the government.
The reality is, as we show in our report, government-sponsored structural discrimination creates the conditions for a bureaucratic culture of Islamophobia to fester in the everyday, ordinary activities of government officials. We cannot hope to combat Islamophobia in this country as long as our own government enables it so overtly, without any oversight or appropriate checks and balances.