Anti-discrimination campaign makes people uncomfortable — as it should

Critique of the “Toronto for All” campaign as racist is baseless. What it really represents is anti-Muslim animus, which is real.

Toronto Star | June 21, 2016

Those who have come out in recent days to attack the new “Toronto for All” anti-discrimination ad campaign for being racist are missing the point.

One of the ads depicts a white male confronting a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. The man in the print ad tells her to go back where she came from. “Where, North York?” reads her response.

While the overwhelming reaction to the campaign has been positive — there are vocal naysayers who claim the ads are racist for portraying a white man in the position of aggressor and that the ads gloss over the actual danger Muslims represent.

“Islam is a threat to Canada. Many Canadian-born Muslims become ‘radicalized,’ ” wrote one disgruntled writer in an email addressed to numerous politicians, media and organizations, including my own.

“The useful idiots are missing the point,” tweeted another. “Islam is a political ideology not a race or religion.”

This is not surprising to read, given the times. But for argument sake, let’s address the “concerns” that have been aired in recent days.

First, discrimination and racism are about power and oppression. The focus and context of the ad is on the one being oppressed. It’s true there is a race element in the ad, and we must applaud those who recognize this dynamic. What the ad suggests is to look at that power dynamic from the perspective of a racialized Muslim woman.

Second, the initial ad, which appeared in Toronto this month, is not the only one — there are other pictures depicting different kinds of people on both the giving and receiving ends of prejudice. These are scheduled for a staggered release. The critics should have taken some time to learn about the campaign before making snap judgments.

Third, any campaign attempting to tackle uncomfortable realities, including racism and discrimination, are bound to face resistance. The Ontario government’s successful campaign against sexual assault depicts mostly men trying to hurt women. Does that tar all men with the same brush? Hardly. These campaigns are meant to spark conversations about social ills and what we can do collectively to overcome them.

Canadian Muslims are too often being stereotyped and typecast by prevailing media narratives, as are other minority groups including African-Canadians and indigenous peoples.

Consider the lopsided nature of media coverage of terrorism committed by Muslims. One American study revealed that between 2008 and 2012, 81 per cent of the news about terrorism covered on news programs were about Muslims. Yet only 6 per cent of domestic terrorism suspects were actually Muslim.

So let’s call this baseless critique of the “Toronto for All” campaign for what much of it really represents — anti-Muslim animus, which is real.

Anti-Muslim hate crimes in Canada have been on the rise for several years, doubling between 2011 and 2014 while hate crimes in general have been declining.

The most targeted victims of anti-Muslim hate are visibly Muslim women who wear religious attire. Last November, a mother was beaten up in broad daylight on her way to pick up her children from school. Sadly, that’s only one example of many.

With a combination of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada, the divisive rhetoric during the last federal election, and the troubling discourse flowing from the American presidential race, anti-Muslim narratives are becoming more prevalent.

Some are being given license to air views that would be considered hateful, let alone inaccurate, if they were uttered about any other group. This makes the Toronto ad campaign all the more important to our social cohesion.

In his book The Myth of the Muslim Tide, journalist Doug Saunders chronicles how fear and prejudice against particular minorities have been common throughout North American history. Japanese, Jewish and Ukrainian communities, to name some, have gone through this before. The very same myths perpetuated about those communities are now being used against Canadian Muslims.

As a Canadian collective, we need to drown out those divisive voices with narratives of our own about what it means to belong to a country that values its diversity, freedoms, and safety for all.

I’m sorry if some feel stereotyped by the ads. Welcome to my world. Now let’s help change it, one ad at a time.

Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims.