Thank you, Madam Chair and honourable members, for inviting me to appear before this committee to speak about systemic racism, religious discrimination, and Islamophobia.
I'd like to begin by acknowledging that we are meeting on the traditional unceded territories of the Algonquin Nation.
I appear before you in various capacities. I am an associate professor of gender and Islamic studies at the University of British Columbia. I am the Canada research chair in religion, law, and social justice. I am a Canadian and I am a Muslim. I was born in Toronto. I wore a hijab from when I was five years old. Then I wore a niqab for 10 years, from grade 10 to the end of my master's, through public high school and undergraduate and M.A. degree programs at the University of Toronto. So I appear before you as a scholar, as a brown Muslim South Asian Canadian, who has experienced, I would say, more than my fair share of systemic racism, religious discrimination, and Islamophobia.
Growing up in Toronto, I learned about Canadian multiculturalism. I was a proud Canadian at the same time that others—kids in school, teachers, doctors, cashiers, strangers driving by in cars—told me, in a million subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that I wasn't actually Canadian, that I should go back home, and that I was a terrorist. These people did not believe that the colour of my skin or my religion belonged on the cultural mosaic.
I have always been grateful that I was born and raised in a nation-state that did not force an artificial binary between my religious and national identities; that I was allowed, legally, to be Canadian and Muslim; that I did not have to choose; that in the end I was able to have my journey with my faith, and that this journey has not revolved around state oppression. But I've also always been acutely aware of the Canadians who have hated me and have resented the state for protecting my rights—the right to free speech and the right to religious freedom, which is to say the right to dress as I please. These Canadians have curled their lips, hurled insults at me, refused to render me services, and even made death threats against my family.
None of these countless experiences have made it into any documented hate crime reports. It takes an incredible amount of energy to just survive these experiences, never mind thrive in the face of them. To have a hate crime recorded is no easy task, as those of us who have encountered the police know well. Reporting demands tremendous emotional labour from victims. When my parents reported the death threat calls we were receiving in the middle of the night, that were filled with hateful language against Muslims and Arabs, the police, over the phone, told us not to worry about it. The police told my mother that they were probably just fooling around, making prank calls. So we, the children, slept huddled around her in the living room of the house, afraid that someone might actually come and kill us while my father was away, working the night shift.
Madam Chair, it is deeply painful for me to watch discussions about Muslim Canadians, even when we are the victims of violence, revolve around Islamic extremism and radicalization. The questions raised for me by this persistent move are as follows: Who is Canadian? Whose security matters in Canada? Who deserves to feel safe? Whose extremism is alarming? What kind of radicalization can be tolerated? When a self-declared Trump- and Le Pen-supporting white nationalist, far-right white supremacist, white male radicalized on the Internet walks into a mosque and executes Muslims in the act of prayer, and a motion is tabled to study the roots of Islamophobia to prevent such acts of terror given the alarming rise in Islamophobia, how on earth does a discussion come to be framed around Muslim extremism and radicalization?
It is wrong-headed to treat those in need of protection from crimes as the perpetrators of crimes, to blame the victim, to shame the vulnerable. We can only do this if we believe and behave as if Muslims and Islam are fundamentally and inherently violent. This is Islamophobia.
As a scholar, I see my role here as recommending to the committee a theoretical framework for their mandate and offering clarification around key terms that are central to these hearings. Let's start with “intersectionality” and its relevance to racism and discrimination.
What is beautiful about intersectionality is that it is a theory rooted in experience. It was coined by black scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who noted that women of colour experience compounded discrimination, as their colour, gender, class, sexuality, etc., weigh down upon them cumulatively. Their oppressions are compounded, while people with privilege, white men, for example, experience compounded privilege based on their colour, gender, class, sexuality, etc.
Intersectionality argues that as multi-dimensional humans moving through time and space, we are always at varying and fluid intersecting influences of power. For example, white women might face oppression because of sexism, but they enjoy the privileges of whiteness. Similarly, patriarchy may privilege a man of colour, but his colour puts him at a disadvantage in a racist system.
None of these influences—race, class, gender, sexuality, religion—are essential to who we are. Their meanings are not defined. They are not inevitable. Rather, they are constructed. We as a society create meanings around and sustain them collectively and individually. We decide that men are better than women, worthier than women, when we pay women less for the same job. We decide that white people are better than people of colour when white people dominate in positions of power.
In light of intersectionality, we can see that racism, sexism, bigotry, Islamophobia, all of these things reduce complex, multi-dimensional individuals to the worst caricatures of only one of their identities, flattening even this one identity to its derogatory extreme. Rather than facilitating critique and dialogue, such behaviour chills difficult conversations. It obliterates communal differences, turning complex communities into homogeneous entities. When these attitudes are absorbed and internalized by social institutions, they become systemic.
When a population is overrepresented in any institutional context, this is a reflection of systemic inequality, to the detriment of some, and to the advantage of others. Think here about white men in CEO positions and indigenous and black people in Canadian federal prisons.
“Systemic” alerts us to the fact that we are discussing prejudice that is not just widespread and common, but that has come to be enshrined in the institutions of a society, such that it has become invisible to many. It is not obvious all the time, although sometimes it is. It is not located alone in individual people, although it resides there too. It transcends any one individual or group and their personal intentions. Most people think of themselves as good. Most people do not view themselves as racist, sexist, Islamophobic, although they may think and behave as such, individually and collectively.
When we focus on the systemic, some of our questions become irrelevant. For instance, is Islamophobia the right term in M-103, or is anti-Muslim more appropriate? Is this about Islam or Muslims? Systemic hate is not that sophisticated. It does not know to draw a line between Islam and Muslims. Consider that between 2012 and 2015, hate crimes against Muslims have increased a staggering 253%. That is not because of lone individuals, but because systemic racism has encouraged about a half of our population to fear Islam and Muslims without needing to differentiate between the two.
Consider that a 2017 Angus Reid poll tells us that 46% of Canadians have an unfavourable opinion of Islam. According to a 2016 Leger poll, 43% of Canadians have a negative opinion of Muslims. A 2016 poll found that more than half, 55%, of Ontarians—Ontario is the province I was born in, and where we sit today—believe that mainstream Islamic doctrines promote violence. It is ugly, shameful, and systemic when close to half the population of one of the most peaceful nations on earth hates the second largest religion on earth and its adherents.
Let us sit with these numbers. If close to half of Canadians have a negative opinion of Muslims, have an unfavourable opinion of Islam, and associate Islam with violence, then the alarming increase in hate crimes against Muslims is actually unsurprising. When a group of people are dehumanized or demonized, violence against them becomes normalized. These numbers tell us that the democratic foundations of Canada stand threatened. Children, young adults, teenagers, and adults are formed by their experiences of Islamophobia.
Every space Muslims find themselves in—public schools, courtrooms, parks, universities, coffee shops, yoga studios, even this very room—become potential sites of heartbreak and inequality. We start from a deficit. We must prove we're not violent, that we are one of the good ones, that we are not like the others. In this light, everything is skewed—our grades, merit, the legal and justice system, and governance. The hate consumes all of us, the hated and haters, and the hate weakens our democratic institutions.
I am grateful for motion M-103 and the work of this committee because, in focusing on the systemic nature of hate, it names a serious threat facing our democracy and offers us an opportunity—an opportunity to be better.
Madam Chair, we can be better.