In public policy, the most challenging issues are those for which two seemingly conflicting needs are pitted against each other. In today’s world of sound-bites and Twitter fights, little space is devoted to nuance and common sense in political debates.
In the West, this dynamic is most pitched when it comes to the twin imperatives to counter Islamic extremism and protect Muslims from bigotry. We must reject the false binary between the two. We must be skeptical of those who are shrill about one objective and dismissive of the other.
In Canada, this tension is most felt in the debate over Motion 103 (M-103), which condemns “Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination”. Passed in the House of Commons following a deadly attack on a Quebec City mosque earlier this year, M-103 has sparked a parliamentary committee study on policies to address hate against Muslims and other minorities.
On one end of the spectrum, M-103 has been denounced as the first step in curtailing free speech rights, including the freedom to criticize extremist interpretations of Islam. Some, including Muslim activists concerned by Islamism, have raised these concerns in a valid, respectful manner. Others have done so using shameful anti-Muslim imagery and rhetoric, as anyone who follows Canadian politics on Twitter has had the misfortune of seeing.
On the other side, M-103 has been applauded as a vital step in countering anti-Muslim bigotry in Canada. In addition to the Quebec City attack, they cite Statistics Canada showing that, while Jews remain the most targeted religious minority, hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise. And yet, some of M-103’s champions seem absolutely unwilling to consider a respectful critique of the term “Islamophobia”.
Worse, some have described “dislike of Islamic politics” as Islamophobic. This was the case in an educator’s guide recently published by the Toronto District School Board. While the Board later agreed to amend the guide, this incident showed that concerns with the term Islamophobia cannot be dismissed as bigoted conspiracy theories.
Without a clear, consensus-based definition – which should be the outcome of M-103 – the term ‘Islamophobia’ can be used to deflect legitimate criticism of Islamic political ideologies.
Having observed and participated in the debate on M-103, it strikes me that those on both polar extremes have glossed over one of two points that we cannot ignore.
Some fail to see that anti-Muslim bigotry clearly exists among elements of Canadian society. In addition to hate crime data, significant public opinion research attests to high levels of negative attitudes toward Muslims.
Others seem undisturbed that extreme interpretations of Islam are being promoted among segments of Canada’s Muslim community (which is very diverse – and probably best described as “communities”). This includes Islamist ideologies that fuse politics and religion in a way that contradicts basic concepts of human rights and liberal democracy.
As our community knows too well, anti-Semitism is often part-and-parcel of this trend. One need look no further than the video of an imam calling for the death of Jews at a Montreal mosque (which CIJA reported to police earlier this year).
Just as we must not hesitate to join hands with our Muslim neighbours against bigotry, we cannot be neutral about the right to criticize hateful ideologies and those who peddle them. This has been the crux of our strategy at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs for navigating these challenging waters.
This is why we have reported criminal acts of Islamist anti-Semitism to police, and have urged the Canadian government to include anti-Semitism as a core part of its counter-radicalization efforts.
This in no way contradicts our support for Muslims in the fight against hate. In the past year alone, we have grieved alongside our Muslim neighbours memorializing those murdered in Quebec City and worked with Muslim leaders to successfully push for tougher hate crime legislation.
Last week, I urged the parliamentary committee examining M-103 to push for better standards in collecting hate crime data and greater training for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute these crimes. If adopted, these proposals will help make Canada safer for Jews, Muslims, and all minorities.
There are some who decry this balanced approach and refuse to budge from one of two polarized positions, remaining content to rail against either Islamic extremism or Islamophobia.
To them I say: To do nothing more than emote and virtue-signal is to take the easy path of self-satisfaction. It is much harder to recognize two difficult truths, refuse to ignore either one, and take practical steps that may not make for sexy headlines, but make a difference.
Shimon Koffler Fogel is CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) – the advocacy agent of Canada’s Jewish Federations.