A group of people gathered outside a Toronto mosque last Friday carrying signs reading “Ban Islam” and “Muslims are terrorists.”
The idea that a group of Canadians would stand outside a place of worship and call for an entire religion to be banned is an act so bigoted that it deserves universal condemnation. This was not, it needs to be noted, a protest against a particular statement, like that of an imam in Montreal who recently issued a call to “destroy the accursed Jews.” When clergy or places of worship enter the realm of hate speech, calling them out is legitimate. Standing outside a mosque demanding that Islam be “banned” is an affront to our country’s constitution and values.
Of course, among this country’s values and central to our constitution is free expression. There is the inevitable balance between free expression and expressions of hatred, a balance that courts are occasionally called upon to discern.
That balance is the subject of debate – some of it extremely unpleasant – as a result of a parliamentary motion, M-103, before the House of Commons this week.
Partly as a result of the horrific murder of six worshippers in a Quebec City-area mosque Jan. 29, Toronto Liberal MP Iqra Khalid made a motion to “recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear” and to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.”
Some opponents, including Conservative MPs, have raised concerns that condemnation of “Islamophobia” could stifle legitimate conversations about Islam and the relationship between terrorism and extreme elements of the religion. Others, like National Post columnist Rex Murphy, take issue with the very term Islamophobia, which suggests fear, an emotion that may or may not be the primary concern here.
A similar issue we struggle with is the term “antisemitism,” which does not always seem to suit discrimination. Many prejudices about Jews are unconscious, therefore not necessarily consciously “anti”-anything. Moreover, many stereotypes about Jews involve “positive” attributes. But “All members of this group are awful” or “All members of this group are awesome” are simply flip sides of the same coin of prejudice.
In any event, these are the words that have come into common parlance and this is the nomenclature with which we are dealing. And the “debate” around this current motion is startlingly reminiscent of a similar debate over condemning antisemitism that took place two years ago almost to the day. Some expressed concern that criticism of Israel could become illegal, while others insisted singling out antisemitism was unnecessary, since we already have laws against the promotion of hatred against identifiable groups. The stifling of criticism of Israel was nonsense, of course, as are fears that “creeping Sharia” or banning condemnation of Islamist terrorism will somehow become enshrined in law due to M-103. When a particular group in Canada experiences a surge in negative expressions toward them, it is right that elected officials note and condemn it.
It is wise to remember what M-103 is in the first place. It is a parliamentary motion that is more a statement of wishful thinking than of law. As such, it seems the perfect tool for a message against Islamophobia. We do not need to criminalize all manner of expression, even when it borders on hateful or discriminatory. But it is a fine thing indeed for our elected officials to express their opposition to it, as the elected voice of Canadians.
Of course, they do not speak for all Canadians. There are Canadians, like those who protested at the mosque last week, who are openly expressing anti-Muslim attitudes. They would presumably not support a motion that wishes such attitudes were not part of the national dialogue.
Likewise, the obscene and hateful messages, including death threats, received by some of M-103’s proponents contradicts the argument that anti-Muslim attitudes are not a significant force to address in Canada. A poll released this week suggesting that one in four Canadians would agree with a Trump-style travel ban on people from Muslim-majority countries is another signal.
There can be no doubt that Islamophobia, or whatever we want to call it, is a problem of some proportion in Canada. We should call it out, as should our elected officials. The arguments against the motion should be particularly familiar to Jewish Canadians, who heard similar lines around condemning antisemitism. The vocal opposition to the very idea of condemning any particular form of bigotry should itself be evidence that Canadians and our elected officials should rise to the occasion.