Stop C-51 protest, Ottawa 2015 Stop C-51 protest, Ottawa 2015. Photo: Mike Gifford / CC BY-NC 2.0

There is an alarming rise of Islamophobia in Canada, and the state has to share the blame, argues John Clarke

This month saw the anniversary of the terrorist act that took the lives of four members of the Afzaal family in London, Ontario. These people and another son who survived the attack were driven down by a right-wing killer who quite simply selected them simply because they were Muslims. A statement that was issued to mark the day expresses a glaring contradiction within Canadian society when it comes to Islamophobic violence.

The statement in question was actually issued by Canada’s Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia, Amira Elghawaby, who was appointed to this position by the Trudeau government. In it, she describes the murders in London as ‘a heinous act of hate’ and stresses that ‘the attack was a painful reminder of the danger Islamophobia poses to Canadians.’

Elghawaby also notes that ‘over the past seven years, Canada has had the highest number of deadly Islamophobic attacks of any G7 country.’ She adds that ‘in recent months, Canadian Muslims have reported a disturbing rise in Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism.’ These quite appalling revelations point to a striking contradiction. On the one hand, you have a ruling establishment that can speak the language of tolerance and that expresses dismay when Muslims are targeted. Yet, at the same time, Canada’s track record with regard to Islamophobic violence is particularly dreadful. This obvious contradiction needs to be explored.

‘Tentacles of hate’

The man who killed the family in London, Nathaniel Veltman, having been found guilty of four counts of murder and one of attempted murder by a jury last November, was sentenced in February of this year. Justice Renee Pomerance imposed two life sentences on him and ruled that his crimes constituted terrorism. Citing a desire to avoid saying anything that might offer encouragement to others who shared Veltman’s views, she ‘refused to detail the racist, white supremacist ideology the accused espoused.’

Pomerance also suggested that Veltman ‘saw the world through the prism of racist dogma and his consumption of extremist content on the internet fed the strength of his convictions.’ She placed even more emphasis on the part played by online hate material when she went on to declare that “the tentacles of hate can reach a broad audience when they are merely a click away.”

Whatever the judge’s intentions, the hateful ideology she referred to was at the heart of these crimes and can’t be simply ignored. Moreover, though the availability of hate material online is a very real danger and may well have ‘fed the strength of (Veltman’s) convictions,’ those warped ideas aren’t simply attributable to racist websites. They have very deep roots in Canadian society that must be understood.

Indeed, just two days after a vigil was held in London to mark the anniversary of the killing of the Afzaal family members, an arson attack on a home took place in the same city. The CBC reports that a man set a fire on the porch of a house that did considerable damage, after removing ‘lawn signs expressing support for Palestinians.’ Police investigators had ‘received at least four reports specific to this address involving theft and property damage dating back to last month, and they believe the incidents are related.’

Nawaz Tahir of Hikma Public Affairs Council told the CBC that ‘the family who lives at the house was also given a threatening letter a few weeks ago.’ He added that ‘the act of setting fire to somebody’s house is a high hate level event and it’s very concerning for the community.

It is quite convenient for Canada’s ruling establishment to present horrible attacks like the ones in London as the work of extremists goaded by hate material they access online. There is much less readiness, however, to consider the degree to which mainstream media and leading politicians fan the flames of this hatred.

On 29 January, 2017, as reported in The Conversation, ‘an armed white nationalist terrorist went on a shooting rampage in the Islamic Cultural Centre in Sainte-Foy, Québec, just after evening prayers.’ Alexandre Bissonnette killed six Muslim men inside the mosque and wounded nineteen other worshippers. Much was made at the time of the killer’s emotional state and his browsing of racist websites but there is considerably more to the picture, as one rather telling incident reveals.

The Trudeau government was ready to declare the anniversary of the murders a national day of remembrance but Quebec’s premier, François Legault, refused provincial endorsement of this measure. He did so on the preposterous grounds that there is no Islamophobia in Quebec. Under pressure, he modified this to the equally absurd claim that ‘discrimination exists but is not widespread.’ He could not have been unaware that hate crimes against Muslims in Quebec were sharply spiking.

The finding that Canada leads the G7 countries when it comes to lethal Islamophobic violence was included in a report issued by the human rights committee of the Senate (Canada’s parliamentary upper house) in November of last year. Very usefully, it moves beyond the behaviour of racist killers like Veltman and Bissonette and considers the depths of anti-Muslim prejudice. It points to a survey that suggests that ‘one in four Canadians do not trust Muslims.’

The report also concludes that ‘Muslim women have become the ‘primary targets when it comes to violence and intimidation’ because they are easily recognizable from their attire. As a result, many are afraid to leave their homes for work, school or other activities.’ It finds that ‘Islamophobia in the workplace is not merely the consequence of a handful of people’s actions; rather, it is a systemic issue that is widespread.’

Role of the political mainstream

Despite this positive aspect of the Senate report, however, the role of the political mainstream in nurturing Islamophobia is addressed much less forthrightly. In May, bullets were fired into a Jewish school for girls in Toronto in the early hours of the morning. Ontario premier Doug Ford, though he hadn’t a scrap of evidence to support this, made the assumption that the attack was related to the assault on Gaza and that it was carried out by immigrants from the Middle East. He declared that “enough is enough. You are bringing problems from everywhere else in the world, bringing it to Ontario and going after other Canadians…before you plan on moving to Canada, do not come if you’re going to terrorize neighbourhoods like this.”

These kinds of comments from the head of an elected government will certainly provide violent racists with a greater sense of legitimacy than they could find from online hate material. Moreover, Ford boasted that his telephone had been ringing of the wall, as messages of support for his statement came pouring in. It is clear that he was expressing a hateful viewpoint that resonated well beyond any extremist fringe.

Ford and Legault represent the political right and their readiness to promote such hateful messages is quite obvious and straightforward. It should not be imagined, however, that the politicians of the political centre have clean hands. Though the Liberal Party, presently headed by Justin Trudeau, has brokered the policies and practices of official multiculturalism, it has never seriously challenged the deep racism of the Canadian state in its dealings with Indigenous people, immigrant populations and racial minorities. When he marked fifty years of multicultural policies in 2022, Trudeau had to admit that racism remained a major societal issue but he weakly insisted that ‘together, we can make Canada a stronger, more welcoming, and inclusive place.’

While the Trudeau Liberals try to avoid the kind of overt bigotry that Doug Ford wallows in, they are as implicated in the war on terror and the creation of a Muslim ‘enemy within’ as any of their right-wing rivals. Their support for the present genocide in Gaza may be a little more shamefaced but it is just substantial as that which comes from the conservative end of the political spectrum. Prominent Liberals have been part of what ‘Canada’s anti-Islamophobia envoy decried a ‘constant rush’ to portray pro-Palestinian protests as a threat to public safety.’                       

It is quite unsurprising that in this climate, the Montreal Gazette reports that ‘in his nearly 30 years as co-founder and then president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, Samer Majzoub said he has never seen the level of anti-Islamic hate crimes and intimidation reported since Oct. 7.’ The National Council of Canadian Muslims puts the scale of the increase in such incidents at 1,300%.

Expressions of concern and even outrage notwithstanding, Canada’s political establishment can’t be trusted to tackle Islamophobia. On the contrary, it has created and continues to perpetuate the conditions in which hatred towards Muslims has been able to take root. Islamophobia won’t be defeated by the hand wringing by political leaders but by united action and popular struggles of which the present Palestine solidarity movement is a prime example.                                                                                                              

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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