From the start of the hearings, witnesses have weighed in, with the active support of some committee members, about whether Islamophobia exists, where the term came from, and whether it is an appropriate term of art. Perhaps, some have offered, we should instead use the term “anti-Muslim”; perhaps we should differentiate between hate that is directed at Islam and hate directed at Muslims; perhaps we should be focusing less on Islamophobia and more on Muslim extremism and radicalization.
Each of these theoretical forays into the technicalities of a single term represents a theft from the task of combating systemic hate, which is the mandate of the committee.
Systemic hate is not bound by technicalities, and it is not restricted to any group of individuals. Rather, it is a form of hate that has come to be enshrined in the institutions of a society, silently shaping the attitudes and behaviours of vast members of the population.
People do not realize they are being shaped by systemic hate, whether that takes the form of misogyny, racism, religious discrimination, or something else. We may not think of ourselves as sexist, yet we somehow manage to regularly pay women less. We may not think of ourselves as racist, yet Indigenous people and Black-Canadians are overrepresented in our prisons, and under-represented in positions of power.
The same goes for Islamophobia. Most people do not consider themselves Islamophobic, and believe that they can differentiate between the religion, Islam, and its adherents, Muslims. But when hate is systemic, it does not accommodate our self-image or make neat boundaries between Islam and Muslims; hate is not that sophisticated.
Consider that according to a 2017 poll, 46 per cent of Canadians have an unfavourable opinion of Islam, and that a 2016 poll found that more than half of Ontarians — 55 per cent — believe that mainstream Islamic doctrines promote violence.
These numbers are deeply worrying because they describe a pervasive climate of fear and loathing that does not stop where a religion ends and its adherents begin. Indeed, in recent polls 43 per cent of Canadians say that they hold a negative opinion of Muslims, more than half — 52 per cent — believe that Muslims can’t be trusted, and 42 per cent believe that discrimination against Muslims is “mainly their fault.” It is not an accident that these are almost the same percentages as those who hold negative opinions of Islam.
In light of these pervasive attitudes about Islam and Muslims, it is unsurprising that between 2012 and 2015, hate crimes against Muslims increased a staggering 253 per cent.
That is not because of lone individuals, but because systemic racism has encouraged about half of the Canadian public to fear Islam and Muslims, without needing to differentiate between the two. Systemic Islamophobia helps us understand why people with Muslim names have a harder time getting jobs, why they are policed at a higher rate, and why one-third of Canadians believe it is “unacceptable” for their children to marry Muslims.
It is ugly, it is shameful, and it is systemic when close to half the population of one of the most peaceful nations on earth hates the second largest religion on earth and its adherents. That hate consumes all of us, the hated and the haters. And such hate results in discrimination that harms our citizens and weakens our democratic institutions.
It has been deeply painful to watch the committee’s hearings about systemic racism and religious discrimination devolve into debates about technical terms, and to watch discussions about Muslim Canadians, even when we are the victims of violence, revolve around Islamic extremism and radicalization.
For the sake of our citizens and the future of our democracy, I hope that the remaining committee hearings will focus on interrogating the ways in which systemic racism structures our society, privileging some while and disenfranchising others.
Only by recognizing how we are all complicit in systemic racism and religious discrimination, by looking at our systemic problems square in the eye, can we begin to think about addressing and eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination.
If we look away, if we squander this opportunity, then we know for sure; the problem it not the term “Islamophobia”, the problem is us.
Ayesha Chaudhry is Canada Research Chair of religion, law and social justice and associate professor of gender and Islamic studies at the University of B.C.