The first anniversary of the killing of four members of the Afzaal family in London, Ont., passed with marches and vigils and a commitment to fight Islamophobia. Last winter, another grim anniversary of the Quebec City mosque massacre was commemorated in a similar manner. Both left an indelible imprint on the Muslim community across the country.
One glaring similarity in the two tragedies is the preference to identify and restrict the solutions towards Islamophobia through a narrow and ineffective focus on hate crimes. However, to truly address Islamophobia, we need to look at the deep systemic racism that exists in Canada.
Islamophobia is a complex phenomenon. It must be seen through the larger context of systemic racism such as anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Black racism and anti-migrant discrimination. Fundamentally, Islamophobia is an outcome of the racialization of Muslims as an “other” — mostly through targeting the expression of their “Muslimness.”
Islamophobia has been on the rise since 9/11. Under the “war on terror” and the anti-radicalization framework, Muslims were securitized within public, political and media discourses. These policies stigmatized Muslims and made it easy to propagate dangerous Islamophobic discourses. This normalization process rose to a crescendo around 2011 when it moved from the fringe towards the centre as its political utility became evident.
One example of systemic Islamophobia was exposed in two recent reports that examined the targeting of Muslim-led charities by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).
The second, titled Under Layered Suspicion, examined three audit reports of six revoked charities and identified a number of systemic biases. These included casting Muslims and their lifestyles and activities as inherently foreign or in the role of the outsider.
These reports expose one of the major failures of the anti-terror policies. The concentration of counter-terrorism resources was not based on a comparative risk analysis. There had been neither a substantial assessment of other potential threats of terrorism nor an informed system-wide decision to proceed on this basis.
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The staging for these audits could be traced to a 2015 hearing by the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence where Lorenzo Vidino, an American legal scholar with connections to numerous anti-Muslim think tanks in the United States and Europe was a key witness. A Georgetown University report says Vindino’s research “promotes conspiracy theories about the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe and the United States.” He has also openly advocated for the delegitimization of Muslim community organizations by asking for an “Al Capone law-enforcement approach” to shut them down on tax breaches. By doing this, he used a common Islamophobic allegation that mainstream Muslim organizations are influenced by foreign entities such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Another example is the reasonable accommodation debate in the province of Quebec. The Bouchard-Taylor Commission, televised across the province, soon became a platform to normalize hate and welcomed Islamophobia to the public square. Successive governments in Quebec became obsessed with “religious symbols in the public sphere,” introducing four bills within 10 years, including Bill 21. Two hundred and fifty academics co-signed an open letter in Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper calling that law discriminatory.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is challenging Bill 21 in court because in its assessment the legislation unfairly targets people who express their faith through what they wear. Even Charles Taylor, co-author of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission report, explained that Bill 21 must be understood “in the context of a society full of Islamophobia.”
However, the Quebec government has shown a great apathy towards tackling Islamophobia and instead has pursued a strategy to stifle any meaningful criticism.
These examples demonstrate the reality that Islamophobia is more than hate crimes. It is the result of deeply planned and developed practices that create and proliferate systemic racism. It will require considerable ingenuity, as well as political will, to change things.
Tackling Islamophobia begins by rebuilding trust with the Muslim community. This starts with strong government leadership to review the anti-terrorism laws and policies, and replace them with new fit-for-purpose alternatives.
The government must also invest resources to address systemic institutional Islamophobia that we are witnessing in the CRA, the Canada Border Services Agency, the RCMP and CSIS, among other government agencies. The CRA should suspend the review and analysis division (RAD) of the charities directorate until the federal government revises its risk-based assessment model and reforms its anti-terrorism laws.
More immediately, the minister of national revenue should declare a moratorium on the targeted audit of Muslim charities by RAD until the review has concluded.
The recent announcement by the federal government that it would establish a special representative on combating islamophobia is a good start. However, producing statistics and narratives of Islamophobia will not solve it. We need to address it directly from a systemic perspective. It should be part of a federal office with clear mandate and sufficient resources to implement a purposeful agenda to correct past wrongs, and to compel us as a society to imagine a new norm that is more inclusive and equitable.
The ugly legacy of Islamophobia should never be allowed to persist. This starts by recognizing that Islamophobia is more just hate crimes.