Tories miss a chance to make amends for anti-Muslim election stance

By Amira Elghawaby
The Ottawa Citizen | October 13, 2016

The Conservative Party of Canada has some explaining to do.

Last week, NDP leader Tom Mulcair introduced a motion in Parliament to condemn Islamophobia by unanimous consent, based on a parliamentary e-petition sponsored by Liberal MP Frank Baylis , which garnered an unprecedented 70,000 signatures.

The motion could have easily passed. It was merely a symbolic gesture to disavow hate and reassure Canadian Muslims that their parliamentarians care about them. Yet a number of Conservative MPs – we don’t know who, specifically, because there was no roll call – yelled nay, preventing a unanimous vote.

The MPs who refused to condemn Islamophobia could not have known that over the next few days, an obscure community website would publish a baseless screed attacking Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie and spewing lies about Muslims. Nor could they have predicted that someone would smash windows at a Calgary mosque and leave behind a burned copy of the Qur’an along with a hate-filled letter. The MPs couldn’t have anticipated any of that and certainly had nothing to do with it.

However, as we have seen south of the border, the failure of political leaders to clearly disavow hate can provide cover for haters to come out of the cracks. It is not unreasonable for Canadian Muslims to conclude that an MP who refuses to condemn Islamophobia may condone or even sympathize with anti-Muslim hatred.

It might be that some MPs haven’t seen the numbers. According to Statistics Canada, hate crimes against Muslims in Canada doubled between 2012 and 2014, while hate crimes overall declined.

Or maybe the MPs in question have never considered what it’s like to be a visibly Muslim woman attacked while out with your children, yelled at, or spat on, simply for wearing a headscarf. Or what it’s like to find your campus plastered with hate-filled posters, as occurred in Calgary last week. Is it really that much to ask politicians of all stripes to condemn such behaviour?

It’s a sad day for Canadian pluralism when our elected officials refuse to stand up to those who would scapegoat and seek to harm entire communities for the actions of a few.

Many Canadians still remember the failed, but deeply hurtful, strategy of marginalizing Muslims during the last federal election. The strategy backfired spectacularly; yet incidences of hate and intolerance spiked as Stephen Harper made his last stand at the expense of Canadian Muslims.

One would think Conservatives would welcome the opportunity to make amends by endorsing a symbolic parliamentary declaration against a rising form of prejudice and racism. Even American commentator Bill Maher – himself once challenged by Canadian Minister of International Trade Chrystia Freeland for his anti-Muslim rants – has said that “denying racism is a form of racism.”

Are some Conservatives in denial about this form of discrimination? They shouldn’t be. “The more we assume that race is limited to skin colour, the less we understand about contemporary racism faced by Muslims at home and abroad,” notes sociologist Craig Considine.

A recent study at California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism shows that political rhetoric can influence behaviour and may actually have been a factor in the rising number of hate crimes reported in 2015 against American Muslims, coinciding with the rise of Donald Trump. In other words, what our elected representatives say, or don’t say, matters.

There was a time when Canadian Conservatives vigorously fought racism. In 1961, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker led the call to boot South Africa out of the Commonwealth for its apartheid regime. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made it a policy priority to overcome apartheid.

Many decades later, Conservatives must realize that remaining silent places them on the wrong side of history.

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