In describing a unique campaign to raise funds for children’s cancer research in the late 1940s, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in The Emperor of All Maladies, “For any illness to rise to political prominence, it needed to be marketed, just as a political campaign needed marketing. A disease needed to be transformed politically before it could be transformed scientifically.”
It is not difficult to transpose this observation to several situations around the globe today. Politicization of issues is nothing new, nor is it a surprise that it can either make or break anything and anyone. For instance, the political marketing of cancer has revolutionized the way we view and treat the disease today. But it has also led to depriving many people of these benefits because of the exceedingly high cost of cancer treatment, as pharmaceutical companies continue to profit from this exact form of marketing.
In the same way, then, it is not a stretch to assume that current attitudes and policies toward (and against) migrants, immigration and refugees, given events over the past few years, have also been swayed by political marketing. But whether marketing can in turn transform the handling of migration and immigration, socially and economically, remains unknown.
I cannot help but think there has been a political marketing agenda that has used immigration to political advantage.
The Canadian case is one that raises more questions than answers for me, despite this country’s currently positive view of migration and refugees. Because if I compare the last Conservative government and the current Liberal government, the two that I have witnessed as an immigrant in Canada, I cannot help but think there has been a political marketing agenda behind both their programs that has used immigration to political advantage, albeit in different ways.
After Stephen Harper’s attempts to overhaul immigration policy and ultimately reduce the intake of refugees, the Liberal Party responded with the offer to take in more Syrian refugees, as part of an intense election campaign in 2015.
Suddenly, values such as integration, diversity, pluralism and tolerance were catapulted to marquee status. From being cast as a potential threat through proposals such as the “Barbaric Cultural Practices” hotline, immigrants and immigration were characterized as Canada’s greatest asset. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s well-orchestrated photo ops welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada, soon after his election victory, sent messages that were more political than personal. If that had not been the intent, there would have been no planned photo ops to begin with, and the focus would have been on streamlining the refugee policy and ensuring it did not favour the victims of one crisis over those of another.
Canada is now touting both the business case for migration and the business case for diversity. International students are being enticed to attend university in Canada with the prospect of receiving a fast track to citizenship, rather than the promise of being empowered with knowledge to use in their own countries (where possible). Right-wing advocates will be quick to pounce on such measures, and Liberals will defend their actions with calls for tolerance and inclusion. But, in reality, a business case is exactly what it means: a business case.
In the US, Islam, Islamophobia and Muslims have been intensely politicized, both negatively and positively, to rise to their current prominence. Shepard Fairey’s “We the People” set of posters features the US flag draped around a woman’s head as a hijab. People took part in World Hijab Day on February 1. Little did hijab-wearing women in North America, let alone in the rest of the Muslim world, think that they would one day be celebrated as exemplars of freedom and strength. It almost makes me feel like I should be donning a hijab (I don’t wear one) because that way, I’ll get far more attention and importance as a Muslim than I would otherwise.
Such is the power of political marketing that it is able to make Muslims out of non-Muslims. But while inclusion, tolerance and fairness are all celebrated by the current trend, the point should be not to glorify immigrants, their religion or their beliefs but to address the systemic prevalence of inequality. Let’s not do #BlackLivesMatter one day and #weloveimmigrants the next.
There is now more a “commodification” of immigrants and refugees (and Muslims), rather than a well-thought-out, long-term strategy for economic and social prosperity.
All these gestures of goodwill are no doubt noble in a time of North American disunity and fragmentation. But the fact is that there is now more a “commodification” of immigrants and refugees (and Muslims), rather than a well-thought-out, long-term strategy for economic and social prosperity, not just for immigrant-receiving countries but also for sending countries. It is as if each government is out to cancel the achievements of its predecessor by going in the exact opposite direction in an attempt to gain moral superiority, without actually working to solve the real problem. It is easier to take on limited groups of the needy (not that they shouldn’t) than to deal with the long-term consequences of wars and armed conflicts far from our shores.
As an immigrant to Canada, and as a Canadian, I cannot help but be skeptical of all this fanfare over immigration and migrants. I cannot help but feel like this group I belong to, Muslim and migrant, is being used and also allowing itself to be used, for political gains rather than shared well-being.
We all know that the world and our actions are inherently political. In order to get somewhere, countries need to market themselves almost shamelessly. But together, politics and marketing sometimes make a poor combination. We have always known that images that tug at heartstrings have evoked the deepest reactions in humans, whether of starving African children or murdered and mutilated children of war in Syria. But while these suffering people are truly worthy of world support, it is because of political interests that nations pay attention to only some of these images, and not all of them. Otherwise, Canada would have done more to acknowledge the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Indian atrocities in occupied Kashmir or the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and offered them the same level of refuge.
Canada should be more courageous in its actions, rather than simply hiding behind the rhetoric of tolerance and diversity. Countries like Canada should not just point to their handling of immigrants and migration as a ploy to look good in the world. The actual strength of migration will come when global issues are confronted head on: when the root causes of the wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other countries are acknowledged and confronted by global powers, and when countries such as China, India and Saudi Arabia are called out for their human rights abuses.
If we transform immigration politically before we can transform it socially and economically, we might be working towards a cure, but we may never actually find one.
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