First, let me say thank you to the committee for inviting me to speak to you today. In the interests of time, I'll cut through some of the introductory remarks I was going to make.
I do research on Islamic law and the treatment of Muslims and Islam in Europe, North America, south and southeast Asia. It's in the context of that that I'm bringing my insights to this particular discussion.
I hope to demonstrate today that Islamophobia is already immersed in the everyday business of governing in Canada. To illustrate this systemic dynamic, I will examine three examples of government activity.
My first example is the 2011 polygamy reference in British Columbia. This case arose out of a criminal investigation of polygamous behaviour by the leaders of the FLDS community in Bountiful, B.C. The facts of the case are widely known. Since the 1990s, investigations and prosecutions stalled on the constitutional validity of the Criminal Code prohibition on polygamy.
The reference asked the court:
Is section 293 of the Criminal Code of Canada consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
In a general, neutral, factually unspecific way, this question asked about polygamy without any context-based qualifications. In doing so, the reference released the court and government lawyers from the factual shackles of the racially white, economically affluent, religiously Christian community of Bountiful, B.C., creating space to discuss an Islamic and, therefore, alien practice of polygamy.
The British Columbia attorney general hired my colleague, Mohammed Fadel, while the court-appointed amicus hired me to provide an affidavit on polygamy in Islamic law.
The court reviewed our affidavits, both of which addressed the historical, textual, and black letter law on polygamy as found in Islamic legal texts and as regulated in Muslim majority states. Importantly, the court recognized the absence of any empirical data on what Muslims actually do in Canada. In the reference, an overt determined idea of Islam was deployed to characterize polygamy as foreign and un-Canadian.
The reference raises two questions relevant to our inquiry about Islamophobia as a systemic enterprise.
Question number one is, in the absence of any meaningful data on Muslim practices in Canada, how was my affidavit relevant to a question about charter rights that pertained to individuals? Fundamentally, two unstated assumptions were operative, first, that if a religious text states something, Muslims must adhere to it and care about it or somehow follow it. This assumption illustrates why simply using anti-Muslim hate ignores the workings of Islamophobia and is systemic.
The second assumption was that Muslims, of course, slavishly adhere to their texts on polygamy, given long-standing European images of harems in Islamic lands and the oversexed Muslim male, which informs the majoritarian settler culture of Canada.
Moving on to question number two, how is my affidavit linked to systemic racism? The Bountiful, B.C. defendants were white, affluent, and adherents of a Christian denomination. They were racially marked as part of the majoritarian image of the settler Canadian state. The reference was able to re-characterize the Bountiful, B.C. community as foreign and dangerous by associating it with Islam, despite the fact that Muslim marital practices in Canada were factually irrelevant to the proceedings.
To be clear, I am not criticizing the final legal determination of the reference. Rather, I use this example to show how a whole host of ordinary, bureaucratic, discretionary—and most importantly—symbolically rich decisions made in the course of daily governmental business enable the systemic enterprise of Islamophobia. Moreover, it is plain that in this context I too inadvertently participated in the systemic enterprise of Islamophobia, but this is exactly how systemic bias works; it co-opts all of us.
My second example concerns the 2015 statute of Canada best known by its short title, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. The act targets certain marital practices such as forced marriage and polygamy, both of which are associated with certain communities of colour and religious practice, particularly the Muslim community.
I focus here on the title, which is the product again of discretionary governmental decisions that are pregnant with symbolic power and meaning. In the short title, the term of interest to me is the word “barbaric”.
“Barbaric” and its related terms have long been applied to Muslims and Islam, and informed the 19th century imperial ideal of “the white man's burden”. Pope Urban II used the term “barbaric” in his 1095 speech inaugurating the first crusade against Muslims in Jerusalem, and “barbaric” lays in the backdrop of Rudyard Kipling's 1899 poem, entitled The White Man's Burden.
It hardly needs to be explained that those who invoke the term “barbarity” against others implicitly consider themselves to be its opposite—superior and civilized. For Pope Urban II, barbarity lay in the fact that, among other things, Muslims had no law, or at the very least, no good law.
Fast forward to 2015 and the zero tolerance act. The use of “barbaric” and the provisions on polygamy make it hard to miss how this act symbolically targets an imagined racialized Muslim community that is full of bad law and culture, all of which run contrary to the law of a civilized Canada.
My third and final example focuses on the newly formed Canada Centre for Community Engagement and the Prevention of Violence, which aims to address radicalization, violence, and extremism. Its senior director, Ms. Ritu Banerjee, addressed this committee on its first day of hearings.
Programs like this, generally called “countering violent extremism”, or CVE for short, were created in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. The myth is that these programs do not exclusively target Muslims, and it is true that they often invoke the spectre of right-wing militant groups. Indeed, in her submission Ms. Banerjee made no reference to Islamic extremism or terrorism but only to right-wing extremism.
She nonetheless spoke volumes about the systemic ways in which Islamophobia operates within the everyday operations of government. For instance, she supportively referenced Project Someone. Project Someone's website contains various social media projects that deal with grand ideas like empathy and critical thinking. There's one project, however, that is entirely composed of critical analyses of ISIS videos. Project Someone thereby perpetuates the all too common idea that links Islam and terrorism, for the purpose of combatting radicalization. That's not at all surprising.
The Brennan Center of Justice at NYU school of law has surveyed analogous programs in Europe and the United States and come to similar conclusions.
CVE programs rely on the Muslim extremist as an analytic paradigm for potentially extending that analysis to any other group, whether right-wing militant or indigenous protestor.
In these three examples I not only situate myself in the systemic enterprise of Islamophobia but also criticize projects led by different parties in government. I do this to suggest that combatting Islamophobia cannot be a partisan issue, however tempting it may be in order to achieve future electoral gains.
The opportunity this committee presents is to open ourselves up, however unpleasant it may be, to show what accountable leadership looks like, and to model it for all of Canada.