What a difference a day makes: The reframing of Canadian Muslims has begun


By Amira Elghawaby
The Globe and Mail | October 22, 2015

Women in headscarves are smiling everywhere. They are in the subway station in Montreal with brightly coloured headgear and cell phones to match. They are at a rally in Ottawa, up close with the prime-minister-designate as they snap selfies that will trend on Twitter. They are walking with their heads held just a little higher, returning smiles offered by random passersby.

What a difference a day makes. The same women who were expressing feelings of fear and discomfort just walking to a mall, or to school, are now the same women whose text emoticons are high-fives, fist bumps, and smiley faces as they share videos of Justin Trudeau bhangra dancing.

It is as though Canadian Muslims, and Canadian Muslim women in particular, stepped out of one frame and into another.

The previous frame had been imposed on them, without their consent and despite their protests. Throughout the election, Canadian Muslims watched as they were vilified as “other,” practitioners of “barbaric cultural practices,” and making choices alien from “Canadian values.”

This othering led to a documented spike in anti-Muslim incidents, including verbal and physical attacks on visibly Muslim women in both hijab and niqab, along with increased Islamophobic online postings and comments.

Yet this deliberate framing throughout the election period was nothing new. Canadian Muslim communities have endured years of it. Whether it was making sweeping generalizations about an entire faith – claiming that “Islamicism” was the greatest threat facing Canada – or suggesting that Canadian mosques could be harbouring radical extremists – a decade of Stephen Harper changed perceptions about Canadian Muslims in deeper and perhaps more hurtful ways than even the aftermath of 9/11.

Back then, Prime Minister Jean Chretien made it a point to visit Ottawa’s main mosque soon after those horrific attacks, memorably doffing his shoes and joining the congregants in a public show of solidarity.

Little of that was on show during the Harper years. After the deadly attack at Parliament Hill by a deranged individual pledging allegiance to violent extremist ideology a year ago, the Prime Minister went nowhere near a mosque.

The local police chief, on the other hand, reached out to community leaders to reassure them that the force was on alert in case of any backlash. Mr. Harper preferred to amplify the incident as a terrorist attack and underplay the details of the perpetrator’s life, including the fact that he was a homeless drug addict who had no formal connection to international terrorist groups.

Many Canadian Muslims grew accustomed to the negativity. Every terrorist plot or act, in Canada or abroad, was attributed to “jihadi terrorism,” even though Canadian intelligence services advised against using such terms as they “succeed only in conflating terrorism with mainstream Islam, thereby casting all Muslims as terrorists or potential terrorists,” as noted by the authors of a 2010 RCMP report titled Words Make Worlds. Even government advisors tried (but failed) to do away with such terminology.

Once these negative frames were set, they were difficult to challenge. As the acclaimed author and cognitive scientist George Lakoff discusses in his recent book, Don’t Think of an Elephant!, frames are activated unconsciously by our choice of language. The title of his book demonstrates that even by trying to negate a frame, you activate it.

Canadian Muslims stepped out of those unfair frames every day as they continued to lead typical lives, yet the national framing and its impacts could not be ignored. A poll found that the number of Canadians holding negative impressions of Islam and Muslims had climbed to 54 per cent in 2013 from 46 per cent in 2009.

Is this now over? Probably not: There is a small but growing cottage industry of anti-Muslim bloggers and commentators who seem bent on suggesting that Islam and Muslims are inherently anti-democratic and dangerous. This may be helping to feed a nascent anti-Muslim movement in this country.

Yet a change in tone and rhetoric from the highest office in the land is certainly something to smile about. That alone will help change the picture, or at least refocus the lens.

Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).