by Sheharyar Shaikh

On Saturday, June 16th, 2012, I met National Post columnist, Jonathan Kay at the “Message of Peace: Countering Islamophobia” conference hosted by University of Toronto’s Muslim Students Association and ICNA Canada. Jonathan Kay and I, along with guest speakers from the US, shared a stage panel that responded to various questions posed by the moderator and the audience on the topic of Islamophobia.

As a follow-up to the conference, Jonathan Kay wrote a piece entitled: “Assessing the state of Islamophobia in Canada” which can be viewed by the readers.

Jonathan Hillel Kay, who is otherwise civil, courteous and appears intelligent on personal terms, wrote a disappointing article for its skewed and at times ridiculous assertions.

Right on the onset, Kay sours the pot by alleging that the fear of Islamic terrorism in Canada is “very real, legitimate and widely shared”. Presenting such fear as “rational” reminded me of the ludicrous measure taken by one Canadian town, Herouxville (pop:1338), that actually enforces a municipal charter banning the stoning of women.

Is Islamic Terrorism in Canada Real?

If Islamic terrorism (or terrorism in general) had a “reality” in Canada as Kay claims, as it does in some countries, we would see innocent Canadians victimized by terrorist attacks across our major cities. Not a single Islamic terrorist attack on our soil thankfully has ever occurred. Strange indeed, since it is we who warred against, invaded and currently occupy a Muslim country half-way around the world. In comparison, the US has bigger problem of Islamic terrorism than us. On the subject, three academics from Duke University and University of South Carolina co-authored a 2-year study which revealed that since 9/11, out of the 136,000 murders committed in the US, terrorism has taken a total of 34 US lives. That’s 34 out of 136,000 (or 0.03%). How “legitimate” “real” or “rational” then is the Canadian fear of Islamic terrorism which has had none?  We have lost more Canadians to peanut butter allergies than acts of Islamic terrorism. If public security is a concern then shouldn’t we be more worried about drunk drivers who have caused around 28,000 fatalities on our roads since 9/11?

There is no denying that there was an amateurish attempt by the CSIS-infiltrated “Toronto-18” in 2006. Our law enforcement agencies were closely following them at every step. Who were the ‘Toronto-18’? The president of the McKenzie Institute, a Toronto think tank, summed up the involved in the following words:

These are kids at a transition, between Islamic society and Western society. A lot of people will get militarized if they're unsure of their own identity. They're just young and stupid. If you're 17, bored, restless, you want to meet girls – hey, be a radical.

Seven of the eighteen had their charges dropped (or stayed). Before their arrests, I had met Steven Chand a couple of times – a Hindu convert to Islam who ended up receiving one of the harsher penalties. At the time my impression of him was that of a kid caught up in the hip hop scene, trying to find a life path. Mubin Sheikh, the police-informant who knew Chand long before the arrest, has allegedly said: "The guy is not what they're making him out to be, not at all".

The Toronto-18 case is often cited to affirm an “imminent threat of a Muslim takeover” of Canada. I’d like to know how a recently established community that’s hardly 3% of the total population could possibly take over any country. Any “widely shared” fear or hate projected upon Muslim Canadians is misplaced, yet foments undue suspicion and a blanket ill-will toward the Muslim citizenry. This hurts Canada as one nation.  

Do Muslims run Radical Mosques?

In his article Jonathan Kay talks of “a few radical mosques with some bad apples” operating in Canada. This is a much popularized view in the media. I have always wished to know where those mosques are. The last person who rang the “radical mosques” alarm to me was the pet-media Muslim and a community-reject, Tarek Fatah, some years ago. While admitting that he rarely visited any mosques himself he assured me that he would provide me with evidence of at least one radical mosque in Canada. He never did. Now I call on Jonathan Kay to disclose these “radical mosques” by name and deed so we as community can take collective action against them.   

It turns out that mosques and terrorism are interlinked: the two-year study on American Muslims titled “Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans” by academics David Schanzer and Charles Kurzman, with Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the University of North Carolina respectively, shows that the contemporary mosques are a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam and terrorism.

As a regular visitor to various GTA mosques (most of which are too poorly managed to take over the world), I concur with the study. 

It’s the Immigrant, Stupid! 

Immigrants, especially the visible minorities, have not had it easy in Canada. In 1885, the Chinese had to pay a special head tax to enter Canada exclusive to them. When in Canada, Chinese men were not allowed to bring their spouses or children, vote, hold certain jobs or hire white females. Ghettoized in the dingier parts of the cities, they pretty much suffered the same treatment as blacks whom PM Wilfred Laurier called “unsuitable” for Canada. When the Chinese situation improved, we branded the Ukrainians as “enemy aliens”, stripping them of their wealth and subjecting them to forced labour under the War Measures Act (1914). An additional 80,000 immigrants that included Austrians, Germans, Hungarians and Ukrainians were registered as “enemy aliens” who had to carry their IDs at all times, regularly reported to the authorities and were legally banned to read anything other than in English/French. When the discrimination against the East Europeans and Germans ended, 22,000 Japanese were thrown in the internment camps in the 40’s on the basis of mass-suspicion and hate. These Japanese included decorated soldiers who had fought in WWI for Canada. Furthermore, the government confiscated their finances and homes, and instead of returning them later to the owners as promised, sold them cheaply at public auctions while the owners toiled as farm labour.

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Remember that past anti-immigrant measures only reflected the wide anti-immigrant sentiments that existed, as they still exist, in public. Those sentiments are now directed toward the Muslims, and that is a cause for concern.

A 2007 Pew Research Center report finds American Muslims to be “largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate” with respect to divisive issues – including the role of women.  Kay too sees the Muslims as “generally well-educated and well-integrated” community, yet, at the same time blames the “retrograde Islamist attitudes towards women imported into Canadian society” as a “real” issue. Shouldn’t Kay have allayed fears concerning “imported attitudes” toward women as part and parcel of the new-immigrant experience which would eventually disappear? Certainly it takes time, sometimes decades, for any community to acculturalize to a new setting. Instead, Kay appears to validate the fears by calling them “real, legitimate and widely shared”.

Secondly, if Kay genuinely wanted to objectively assess “the state of Islamophobia in Canada” shouldn’t he have mentioned hijab/niqab-related physical assaults, job-firings, the banning of girls from sports/martial arts events, the talk on disqualifying few Muslim women in traditional garbs from voting rights, government services, etc? All cases may not be Islamophobia-inspired but they do enjoy wide support among the nastiest Islamophobes. Shouldn’t he have referred to the hate-propelled mosque vandalism and arson that has taken place in Calgary, Waterloo, Gatineau, Dorval, Port Conquitlam, Barhaven, Moncton, Hamilton and Toronto since 2006?

Worse, Kay seems to blame the Muslims for maintaining “gestures and cultural habits” that “turn Canadians off”. If a Canadian finds hijabs, niqabs or turbans (or even kippas) worn by taxpaying, law-abiding, hardworking, loyal citizens as public eyesores, shouldn’t Kay reprimand such people for being narrow-minded, unaccommodating, xenophobes? Why blame the immigrant for projecting “an aura of isolation and standoffishness” instead? Why not offer a constructive solution instead of blame, like increasing resources that promote better immigrant integration – which our foreign minister Jason Kenny acknowledged as lacking? Remember its Canada that needs a million immigrants a year to maintain the proportion of working age citizens relative to the retirees so we can all keep enjoying the life standard we do.   

Having said that, xenophobia coming from a person of a Jewish background is all the more tragic because not too long ago the Jewish immigrants to Americas were seen as too “clannish” and “unassimilable” and were generally held responsible for the discrimination meted out to them. Sounds familiar?

Contrasting Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Even though Kay considers Canada as the least likely place for Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the western world, he discredits a real comparison between the two. In a nutshell he links anti-Semitism as arising from the idea of “flawed genetics” of the Jews, whereas he ties Islamophobia to the globally expansionist ideology of Islam. So in his view, while the Jews become innocent victims of an illogical hate, Muslims are (to be justifiably) hated for holding a “hegemonistic” ideology threatening the world.

Beyond justifying Islamophobia, Kay offers an oversimplification for a multi-facted and complex issue. Western anti-Semitism goes beyond biology, just as Islamophobia goes beyond its adherents subscribing to an “evil ideology”. The Europeans have long hated the Jews for their stubborn resistance against full-fledged integration, their (perceived) role as greedy moneylenders and for being the “killers” of Christ (which the Quran refutes in opposition to the New Testament and the Talmud). In fact, gospel writers went out of their way to link Jesus’ genealogy to the Jewish king David. Similarly, Islamophobia too is multi-faceted: it targets hate against a people on the basis of their different (read: inferior) race, language, cultural practices, economic status and historical roots – beyond a particular religious ideology.

Take the example of the US President Barak Obama. Leaving aside the 56 million Americans who persistently believe he is a closet-Muslim, some other Americans cannot seem to forgive him for having had a Muslim past (father) – regardless of Obama’s self-professed Christian faith a number of times. The South Carolina Senator, Lindsey Graham, publicly said: “Obama is not a Muslim. He is a good man.” And when a woman in the audience accusingly called Obama “an Arab”, Senator John McCain shook his head in disagreement, saying “No”  six times followed by: “He’s a decent family man (hence, cannot possibly be an Arab!)..” . Interestingly, there are more Christian Arabs in the US than Muslim Arabs – but does it matter? Islamophobia in its scope goes beyond hating a particular religious ideology.

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Aside from having “flawed” genes, the anti-Semites accuse the Jews of seeking global hegemony as well. They love to point out that the Jewish nation (0.02 % of the global population) exerts a disproportionate influence over the “matrices of global power” through the US as its surrogate. Certainly they could bring up the instance when the former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon shouted in the Knesset, saying “…The Jewish people control America.”; or the KFI AM640 radio host, Bob Hendel, a committed Zionist, who, in reference to the Wall Street crash said: “This is my tribe who control Wall Street. Why would I be upset?” or Joel Stein of LA Times who writes, “Jews totally run Hollywood” ; or the former US Secretary of State James Baker who once called the US Congress “the little Knesset”; or Senator William Fullbright, Chair of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who on CBS highlighted the “terrific control the Jews have over the news media and the barrage the Jews have built up on congressmen…” and adding “I am very much concerned over the fact that the Jewish influence here is completely dominating the scene and making it almost impossible to get congress to do anything they don’t approve of.”; or the current Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu boasting about the “absurdity” of total Jewish control over the US when he said: “America is something that can be easily moved. Moved to the right direction… They won’t get in our way … Eighty per cent of the Americans support us. It’s absurd.”

The main difference between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as two hate ideologies is their timing in society. Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism.  

Media’s Role in Perpetuating Islamophobia 

To Jonathan Kay the media influence in demonizing the Muslim is “overrated”. And since to him the Muslims’ personal interactions influence public opinion the most, every Muslim should merely try to be “good ambassador on a personal level” so to improve his social standing. This is a ridiculous suggestion that evades a serious issue. There is yet again “blame the victim” mindset at work; as if Kay holds the Muslims responsible for failing to reach out to 31 million Canadians like the media. He leaves it up to us to wonder how the 3%-Muslim population of Canada could possibly neutralize the ill-effects of a national media – shaping opinions of millions at any given time – by simply becoming friendlier in their limited circles. Most Canadians have never met a Muslim, yet a staggering 52% distrust them. What else but the media has largely shaped the mass-(miss)impression of the Muslims in the mind of the average Canadian?

Today, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies are directly influencing Hollywood movie direction and scripts at an unprecedented level. Prof Jack Shaheen’s 30-year research on Muslims and Arabs in the media illustrates that out of a thousand films of the American cinema from 1896 to the present, only 12 movies portray Muslims positively, whereas some 900 depict them as "brute murderers, sleazy rapists, religious fanatics, oil-rich dimwits and abusers of women, billionaires, bombers and belly dancers and bundles in black (women in niqabs)."

Aside from a universe of Islamophobic editorials, opinion pieces, TV shows, movies, cartoons, news stories, documentaries and media invited guests, consider the following headlines:

“Harper says 'Islamicism' biggest threat to Canada” 

“Muslims in Canada joining jihad terror group”

“Muslim Extremists Number One Terror Threat, Canada Warns”

“Canada Vs Radical Islam”

“Radical Islam Canada”

“Radical Islam' a clear threat to Canada”

“Canadian PM: Islamic terrorism is greatest threat to Canada's security”

“Growing Islamic Terror threat in Canada “Islam a threat to Western Freedom, Wilders tells Toronto audience”  

“Sunni Islamist extremists remains greatest threat to Canada’s national security” 

“Toronto youth ‘brainwashed’ with extremist views of Islam, report says” 

Canada: Islamic bookstores selling books that urge Muslims to overthrow the West, install an Islamic State in its place” 

After consuming such rubbish repeatedly over time, who could ever keep a sense of neutrality toward the Muslim citizens as a group? Yet there is no public outcry. We live in a country where lifetime political careers can be destroyed by one slip caught in the camera, nationwide race riots can occur by running on air one offensive clip, strikes are called over one badly chosen headline, yet when it comes to Islamophobia, it’s the Muslim who should “mature up” and accept it as an innocent exercise of the freedom of expression; his concern over the constant media demonization of Islam and Muslim is labelled overrated”. More absurdly, Jonathan Kay expects the 3%-Muslim population of Canada residing mostly in a few cities to counter the hate-diet fed to the rest through personal interactions – a prescription I am sure Kay would never follow if media anti-Semitism was the issue. If Jews (even bad Jews) were regularly depicted in the media in a sinister, evil light, would Kay tell the Jews, “Don’t fret. Just improve your personal relations with everyone else”? Not in a million years. 

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Don’t Say “Israel”!

Jonathan Kay advises the Muslims to “never” bring up Israel if they care for Islam’s reputation in society. “Pretend the Middle East doesn’t exist” is his bizarre recommendation. His two reasons, complete with contempt and patronization, are:

1.         You Muslims can’t hold a civilized dialogue on Israel (as evidence Kay brings his experience with the Canadian Arab Federation which brought a “toxic attitude” toward Israel).

2.         You Muslims will end up hurting yourself by saying something stupid (as evidence he cites Mohamed Elmasry’s much publicized agreement with viewing all Israelis as valid targets – which was more akin to the armed and illegal Israeli settlers’ attitude toward the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories).

In a twisted way, Kay does seem to have a point here, although with no interest of the Muslims in mind. Israel, as a product of global sympathies for the Holocaust-suffering Jews at the hands of the Europeans and of remarkable 20th century Jewish activism, was brilliantly implanted in the heart of the Middle East in the first half of the last century leading to some tragic consequences for an unsuspecting indigenous people. Whereas the Palestinian interests as a nation should not escape our minds, our immediate priority should be to strengthen and establish ourselves where we are first. Islamophobia in society is not precarious (yet), but the trend is far from comforting. No one can guarantee if we will have access to the same level of community-level resources as we do now in the next 20 years. Act now while you can to counter it.

3 Things to do:

I have given much thought to Islamophobia in the West, as well as other related issues we face as community. The best recourse is the following:

1.         Engage in Public Da’wah (Islamic outreach): The most effective way to treat the ‘Other-ization’ of Muslims is for them to not remain the ‘Other’ anymore. Share the peace-giving and much needed Islamic message with people wherever you are. For this you will need to get out of your comfort zone and interact with your nonMuslim neighbors, colleagues, employees, acquaintances and everyday people. Of course the media Islamophobia can only be effectively countered by establishing and employing media sources. The beauty of personal dawah is that it compels you to learn your own faith, enables you to appreciate the good that is out there in people and show to them the good in you and, most importantly, assures your place in Jennah with the best of humanity. Who can possibly pass up such a deal?

On Dundas Square, for example, volunteers are always welcome at the weekend dawah booth. Inshallah NAMF will start its own dawah program soon and will appreciate those interested to offer their hours and resources fi sabilillah.

2.         Join an Islamic organization: “If there are three Jews in a room, there are four organizations” goes the famous joke. A Muslim’s existence should never be solitary. You are obligated by Islam to be a part of a jama’ah that is active in encouraging, facilitating good in society and promoting the deen on the earth. Look around you and join an Islamic organization that best suits your talents and inclinations. Effective, professional Islamic activism within an institutional framework is dignified and beloved to Allah, and far more needed today than, say, careers in medicine, law or engineering.

If you don’t find a suitable Islamic organization around you, gather some like-minded people and create your own. May Allah strengthen the willing inshallah.

3.         Give the Quran 10 minutes a Day: Everyone needs a spiritual recharge on a regular basis. The best way to recharge your Iman is to read a little Quran regularly. If you don’t know Arabic, get a translation and read it everyday for 10 minutes. We live lives in which we waste hours of dead time daily, whether stuck in traffic, waiting for appointments, etc. Let the Quran enter your life and inspire, strengthen, direct, enlighten, and motivate you to action. It has influenced nations before you as it will impact nations afterwards – and it will change you. Spiritually, the Quran will bless your life here, accompany you in the grave, and become your strongest ally on the Day of Judgment before God. Live and breathe the Quran every moment and Allah will grant you a special light and power from Himself inshallah.

Most of all, keep in mind that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his early companions suffered the worst Islamophobia in history. Yet they surmounted the surrounding fear, scorn, anger and bigotry by winning over those around them, primarily by the force of their character.

And so can you.

Sheharyar Shaikh is the former President of North American Muslim Foundation.  He is currently the Imam of Masjid Qurtabah. He specializes in Quranic exegesis with contemporary Islamic thought and modernity.