Denying Islamophobia won’t make it go away

Discrimination against Muslims is far too often portrayed as a manufactured phenomenon

By Amira Elghawaby
CBC News | November 3, 2016

« The new racism is to deny that racism exists. »

That’s a line dropped at the end of a new video by American rapper T.I. that explores police brutality against Black communities. It was originally said by the controversial late-night television host Bill Maher during an interview he gave in 2012, following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of police.

The quote sums up the unintentional or willful attempts to ignore, minimize, or delegitimize real experiences of discrimination experienced by members of Black communities. It can easily be extended to the experiences of other visible minorities as well, as members from these communities struggle to be heard and understood by the wider society.

We’ve come a long way when it comes to acknowledging that bigotry exists. The challenge facing us now is finding ways to address systemic inequities and to eradicate attitudes that seek to diminish the full participation of all.

Except, it seems, when we’re talking about Muslims. Islamophobia is far too often portrayed as a manufactured phenomenon and simply an attempt to shut down criticism of the religion. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s critical to firmly make the argument that racism includes discrimination against Muslims. Islamophobia, fear or suspicion of Muslims, can morph into the same types of attitudes which would seek to deny certain people the right to fully participate in workplaces, educational settings, or to simply exist on the streets, at their houses of worship, or in their own homes.

Muslims are targeted for who they are, just as other groups are. Sometimes Muslims, like other groups, are targeted for intersecting identities, not just for their beliefs, but also for their skin colour, ethnicity, disability or other identifiable characteristics.

Muslims in the West have experienced a dramatic rise in hate — even before Donald Trump’s proposed ban. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, the numbers of police reported hate crimes against Muslims doubled between 2012 and 2014, while hate crimes targeting any other group have gone down in this country. Most of us would agree that even one act of hate is one act too many.

Harassment, assault, stereotyping, and mockery are forms of racism. When a principal at an Ontario public school publicly shares anti-Muslim posts on Facebook, that is racism. One would expect administrators to acknowledge a problem and provide assurances that there will be some consequences.

Unfortunately, that isn’t what always happens as we’re seeing unfold now at the York District Regional School Board. There, the board chair failed to allay urgent concerns about student safety expressed by numerous families. Such denials are often systemic — similar concerns of anti-Black racism at the board have also been ignored. That Ontario’s Minister of Education Mitzie Hunter is now looking into the matter is welcome news.

The recent passage of a motion condemn all forms of Islamophobia in the House of Commons is also a crucial step forward (even though it took two attempts to gain the unanimous support of the House).

If our institutions fail to acknowledge racism within their own walls, then they have failed all of us and are frankly way behind the times.

We’ve seen generous outpourings of support from many Canadians whenever a particular community is targeted. When bigoted anti-Muslim posters were plastered all over the University of Calgary’s campus earlier this fall, there was a rally of solidarity. When Canadian Sikhs were similarly targeted on their campus in Edmonton a few weeks earlier, fellow students donned turbans in fellowship. All of this sends a strong message — hatred against one of us is hatred against all of us.

As we teach young people to speak up vigorously to oppose racism and hatred of any kind, we should ensure they understand that the struggle includes opposing Islamophobia. Some people will continue to deny its existence, but the rest of us have a duty to confront bigotry and ignorance in any and all forms.