The Power of Words

By Amira Elghawaby

January / February, 2016 | Alberta Views Magazine

For the past decade, the former Prime Minister, along with some federal ministers and elected officials, would at times speak negatively about Muslims and Islam. Given the global and national fears around violent extremist threats, it isn’t surprising that politicians would need to discuss concerns about those who subscribe to delusional interpretations of the faith. But it often seemed that some politicians failed to appreciate the impact of their words.

In 2010, the RCMP produced a report titled, “Words Make Worlds,” in which the authors wrote: “Like the other Abrahamic faiths—Judaism and Christianity—the fundamental tenets of Islam are rooted in compassion, kindness, forgiveness and, perhaps most importantly, social justice […] So incorrect statements about the nature of Islam are deeply offensive to the huge numbers of Muslims who try to live within those tenets.”

In other words, just as a Christian’s belief is not linked to the actions of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Congo, or as a Buddhist’s traditions are not implicated in the violence of some adherents in Myanmar, Muslim beliefs should not be framed as implicitly condoning criminality perpetuated by so-called followers.

Unfortunately, some of our elected leaders did not heed the advice of law enforcement agencies and instead used terminology that could “succeed only in conflating terrorism with mainstream Islam, thereby casting all Muslims as terrorists or potential terrorists,” as the authors of the RCMP report warned. During the election undue focus also fell on issues like the niqab and telephone help-lines to report so-called “Barbaric Cultural Practices.” These were largely understood to be wedge issues, deliberately politicized in order to bolster a party’s appeal to certain segments of the population. The risk in such tactics was the real potential that such strategies would result in fear and division in our communities. In fact, during the election, there was a documented spike in reported hate incidents and hate crimes targeting Canadian Muslims, as well as a disturbing rise in anti-Muslim sentiment expressed online.

But the good news is that much of this un-Canadian behaviour was firmly rejected by many Canadians: through satirical television shows like This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Rick Mercer Report, through editorials and commentary across various media channels, and through solidarity shown in everyday moments including a smile, a kind word, and finally, through the democratic process at the ballot box.

—Amira Elghawaby is Communications Director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).