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A recent demonstration in Quebec against an international anti-Islamic group: ‘I am here to defend the freedom of all Quebeckers of all origins,’ says Premier Philippe Couillard, ‘and I say no to exclusion and discrimination. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A recent demonstration in Quebec against an international anti-Islamic group: ‘I am here to defend the freedom of all Quebeckers of all origins,’ says Premier Philippe Couillard, ‘and I say no to exclusion and discrimination. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

ESSAY

Overcoming Islamophobia: Fear is never the best basis for action Add to ...

There is no valid reason for Islamophobia, no matter what Islamic State or homegrown extremists claiming to act in the name of Islam do in Canada, the United States or other countries. We cannot let 0.003 per cent of the Muslim world speak for the other 99.997 per cent. Canada must avoid this error – and it can. The answer is simple. It requires a willingness by us all to think for ourselves, to be open with others, and, most importantly, to engage in conversation. Fortunately, that conversation is already under way.

Fear can goad people into action, but it is never a good guide for that action. For some reason, Americans seem to be more naturally fearful than Canadians, and the media there stoke that fear more than Canadian media do. The primary danger for us is succumbing to that heightened fear through contagion. The best antidote is calm, common sense and fair-minded discussion. We all have a stake.

Mackenzie King, arguably Canada’s most successful prime minister, once said he wanted to be remembered not for what he achieved, but for what he avoided. Most important, he avoided the breakdown of unity during the Second World War. Today, in a world preoccupied by extreme terrorist violence, it is essential that Canada, in relation to its Muslim population, avoid a repetition of its failure so far to deal with its First Nations in a mutually accommodating way.

The numbers tell their own story. There are about a million Muslims in Canada, and 1.6 billion around the world, one-quarter of whom reside in India and Indonesia. Despite the current problems particular to Islam, there is no irresistible link between Islam itself and terrorism. No Muslim country is in the world’s top 20 in terms of homicides per capita, nor is Islam associated with any of the 10 largest genocides in history.

The only long-run solution to the relationship between Islam and the rest of the world is rooted in mutual accommodation. Whatever is being done to fight terrorism must always keep that reality in mind. Words matter, and we should avoid to the extent possible including the terms Islamic or Muslim in our descriptions of extremism or terrorism, even if the violence is being done in the name of Islam. Readers already know that’s what al-Qaeda and Islamic State claim.

Religions need to re-evaluate

Islam is no different from any other religion in its need to examine itself critically. The thinking mostly has to come from within, while the challenges will often come from outside events. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding gay marriage is a good example: Religion not only challenges the world; the world challenges religion. Institutional religions, if they are to survive and thrive, need to communicate with their adherents, and everyone else. For example, the Pope challenges the world to do better at the very moment when the acceptance of gay marriage challenges his church (and not very long after it was challenged by the adverse reaction to its reluctance to respond to the sexual abuse of young people in its care).

David Brooks, the insightful conservative columnist for The New York Times, described the current post-gay-marriage situation in the United States very well. True believers – mostly of a religious persuasion – have a choice, he says; one way is to keep fighting for what they believe by seeking to change laws so that they can impose their views on society. The other, as Mr. Brooks and I both believe, is for these groups to accept that they are special communities of individual believers who can make their best contribution to their members and to society, not by trying to impose their views on others, but by the strength of their own communities of faith.

In recent weeks, the racist massacre in Charleston, S.C., has provided yet another example to our world, desperately in need of more compassion and a larger purpose than individuals themselves. It is difficult to imagine anything more powerful than the personal, face-to-face forgiveness of the deeply mourning relatives to the murderer of their loved ones. The authenticity of this forgiveness could come only from the force of their deep faith.

Issues with Muslims

There is an urgent need to find the best strategy to address the double challenge presented by terrorist acts in Canada and terrorist recruits from Canada. Aside from that issue, how big a problem are Muslims? Or, from another perspective, is Canada a problem for Muslims? Canada’s history is all about a growing capacity for the inclusion of more and more differences in our society. Covering a woman’s face with a niqab is certainly incompatible with the openness that has become part of the Canadian way. Yet it represents no threat to anyone except on those occasions when there is a clear need to see someone’s face, such as for identification purposes or during testimony in court.

CBC-TV’s Rosemary Barton conducted a constructive interview on this subject with two Muslim women last November shortly after two soldiers were killed, one in Quebec and the other in Ottawa. She spoke first to a middle-aged Quebecker who said that all head coverings, and especially niqabs, are the result of religiously imposed male oppression. She presented herself, I thought, as a supporter of a secularist authoritarianism reminiscent of the religious authoritarianism from Quebec’s past.

The other woman was young, lively and wearing a hijab. She said her personal preference was to wear a niqab as well. It was not a male-imposed choice, so she opposed any unnecessary restrictions against it. Asked by Ms. Barton why she didn’t have one on for the interview, she replied: “Because other people don’t like niqabs.” In other words, she respected mutual accommodation.

If non-Muslim Canadians felt uncomfortable in her presence when most of her face was covered, she would voluntarily respect their feelings. I hope that impulse will become the way forward. It would see both sides accommodate each other, not by coercion but by choice.

The situation in Quebec

Over the last few years, there have been some sporadic flare-ups on the Muslim front in Quebec. Although, even if Quebec is a distinct society, it is also subject to the same demographic pressures as other parts of Canada. How it reacts, however, reflects the special Quebec drivers of culture, language and identity, which are no longer as different now as they have been at times in the past. Separatism may be finished in Quebec, but nationalism and some socio-cultural anxiety still remain.

Philippe Couillard seems to be the province’s first post-separatist-threat premier. He knows the power of freedom and science as opposed to a narrow nationalism. He encourages mutual accommodation. Like Robert Bourassa before him, he recognizes that a sound economy and the ability to live within its means are crucial to the survival and prosperity of the province.

Quebec’s political preoccupations have always revolved around the survival of the Québécois collectivity within an English-dominated North America. The Quebec family quarrel following the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s now seems pretty well resolved, and the majority of the population accepts that it will be more protected than threatened by being a part of Canada. This was the position of all of Quebec’s great francophone federal leaders before Pierre Trudeau.

So what have these intermittent disputes over Muslims in the province been about? In the past, issues in Quebec around others who are different have been linked to identity insecurity – essentially to language insecurities. After some wrangles in small communities over the “threat” of Muslims they had scarcely ever seen, Premier Jean Charest felt compelled in 2007 to establish the Bouchard-Taylor Commission into cultural and religious accommodation as a political necessity. The recommendations in its 2008 report over the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols such as turbans, kippot, hijabs and crucifixes in public institutions were mild and never really implemented. Then in 2013, Mr. Charest’s successor, Pauline Marois, launched the extremist Quebec Charter of Values, which inflamed the issue once again – and worked against her Parti Québécois in last year’s provincial election, when the Liberals returned to office.

The “accommodation” bill that Premier Couillard introduced last fall maintained the religious neutrality of the state even as it protected Quebec “values.” Mr. Bourassa had recognized Quebec nationalism as something that could not be ignored, and, similarly, Mr. Couillard initially seemed to realize that, since the Quiet Revolution, equality for women had become a fixture of the Quebec political scene. Thus it had to take precedence over other considerations, so anyone performing (or receiving) a public service in the province could do so with a covered face.

After the terrorist incidents in November, however, the Premier delayed bringing the bill forward. “I am here to defend the freedom of all Quebeckers of all origins,” he said, “and I say no to exclusion and discrimination.” This is the kind of firm political leadership that may be needed right across Canada.

A Muslim response

How might everyday Muslims best respond to these challenges? One initiative I heard about recently is The Next Generation, a modest symposium held in Toronto a few months ago. Some of the most accomplished Muslims in the province were invited to discuss two central issues: how to engage the tiny minority of Muslims who develop strong anti-Canadian views, then act on them violently; and how to reduce Islamophobia

Similarly, I would add: How might non-Muslim Canadians engage intelligently in the conversation we all need to have?

To begin, I suggest that they:

  • Read two books by the thoughtful English writer Karen Armstrong, entitled Islam: A Short History and Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, plus Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders’s The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?
  • Visit the Aga Khan Museum (as well as its gardens) in Toronto and appreciate the rich culture included in the exhibitions. Also, as a caution, visit the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba where, after the Muslims were driven out of Spain in the 13th century, their monumental mosque was converted into a Catholic cathedral (to my eye, a monstrosity even though I normally love medieval cathedrals), marring a place of rare peace and beauty.
  • Watch Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World, a documentary film that has been shown on PBS and is available on DVD.

This is a hugely important moment in history – possibly comparable to the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Canada lives in the world’s best neighbourhood, with an unparalleled array of space, resources and food. It is strong in all the best ways to live: compassion, freedom, science and mutual accommodation.

If we consider Canadian Muslims in this broad context, two issues have been identified as potential problems: terrorism, which, though involving only very small numbers, must be curbed; and women’s head and face coverings – a purely socio-cultural matter. Consequently, only very limited changes in the law and in the use of state force are needed. The recent Senate committee report on terrorism goes much further. It recommended, among other items, training and certifying imams – a suggestion the Muslim community immediately condemned as religious discrimination. The sensible response to the report will be to use it to have more conversation on these issues among all the stakeholders.

All Canadians – Muslims and non-Muslims – need to put their faith in the proposition that every valid value is safe in the Canada we know. It is for those values that Muslims came to our shores in the first place. If Canada holds to its mutual accommodation heritage, the power of freedom and of Canadian inclusiveness will prevail.

Certainly, a well-thought-out strategy that includes force on the terrorism front will be needed. Ultimately, however, to secure a lasting cure for excessive fearfulness and for keeping limits on the necessary use of law and force, we Canadians have to rely on ourselves and on our ability to find a mutually accommodating way forward.

In 2006, the Environics Institute for Survey Research delivered Muslims and Multiculturalism in Canada, a useful and interesting study that provides a vast array of information that could be very helpful in guiding the discussion, especially as it is being updated this fall.

As Walter Isaacson, the acclaimed biographer of Benjamin Franklin, predicted a decade ago, the dominant battle in the 21st century will be against intolerance, especially religious intolerance. The only way to handle it will be by mutual accommodation. Canada, if it is true to itself, is as well positioned as any country to succeed.

William A. Macdonald is president of W.A. Macdonald Associates Inc., which consults on government relations and economic policy, and has an extensive record of public service. To bolster his campaign for a coast-to-coast conversation about the state and nature of the country, he and his associate, William R.K. Innes, have created The Canadian Narrative Project, with assistance from Trent University. For more about the venture, please visit www.canadiandifference.ca

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