By Sheema Khan
For the past few weeks, the House of
Commons Heritage Committee has been holding public consultations regarding
Appearing before the Committee at the
outset, M-103 sponsor Liberal MP Iqra Khalid emphasized the need for a
comprehensive study of Canadians affected by racism and religious
discrimination. She spoke eloquently about the painful experiences of
individuals affected by prejudice and hatred, and the need for a systematic
analysis of data (as required by M-103) to combat forces that are corroding our
These are laudable goals that should be
supported by all Canadians.
However, an uproar ensued when M-103 was
initially tabled, because of the inclusion of the term "Islamophobia"
in the motion. There were concerns about the imposition of Sharia Law, a chill
on free speech, and special protection granted to Islam. Ms. Khalid received a
torrent of hate mail, including death threats. Some argued that the reaction
itself was proof of widespread Islamophobia.
And yet, as the Committee has heard, no one
really has a handle on the term. Many definitions exist, with widely differing
breadths and scopes. Ms. Khalid's definition: "the irrational fear of
Islam and/or Muslims that leads to discrimination" is the most succinct.
However, this needs to be balanced by the right to criticize and question.
The term gained currency following the 1997
report on British Muslims, entitled "Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us
All" issued by the Runnymede Trust, a respected British think-tank. In it,
Islamophobia was defined as "unfounded hostility towards Islam, and
therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims."
The report, however, went further, by
equating Islamophobia with "closed views" on Islam in eight different
categories. These include Islam seen as monolithic; the "other" with
no commonality with Western culture; inferior (i.e. barbaric, irrational and
sexist); an enemy; and a deceitful ideology bent on political/military domination.
Such closed views reject any criticism of the West by Islam, defend
discrimination of Muslims, and see Islamophobia as natural. For good measure,
"open views" include seeing Islam as diverse with internal debates;
having shared values with other faiths; a faith worthy of respect; and a
partner in the solution of shared problems.
Such a binary categorization of opinions of
Islam is problematic, and was recently recognized as such by the editor of the
report. However, since the term is here to stay, the Heritage Committee should
devise a precise definition.
Questions and criticism about Islam are not
Islamophobia. In fact, Muslims themselves engage in robust debates about
modernity and Islamic practice. The cruel irony is that such debates are banned
in countries that need it most.
The Heritage Committee must be careful to
define Islamophobia, lest it chill the free exchange of opinions. For example,
a recent online survey found that 88 per cent of Canadians believe Muslims
should be treated no differently than their fellow Canadians, while 72 per cent
are worried that hatred and fear of Canadian Muslims is on the rise.
Yet 56 per cent believe that "Islam
suppresses women's rights." Are they Islamophobic? Of course not. They are
entitled to their opinion. Such a critical view is understandable, given
discriminatory gender practices in some Muslim cultures. Furthermore,
subordination of women is often justified by theology. We need to be able to
have frank discussions without the fear of being branded an "Islamophobe."
A balance must be found between protection
of free speech and protection from bigotry and hatred.
In spite of its clumsy definition of
Islamophobia, The Runnymede report provides an excellent framework for
identifying its deleterious effects in four areas: exclusion (from politics,
employment, management); violence; discrimination (in employment and provision
of services); and prejudice (in media and conversation).
In fact, this framework can be applied to
comprehensive data collection and analysis for all types of racism and
discrimination – which just happens to be the stated goal of the Committee.