Rarely have federal lawmakers and their constituents become so fired up by a single word.
But it would seem that the word in question, “Islamophobia,” punches above its weight. It has flummoxed some MPs, alarmed and perplexed Muslims and left many people – including some Jewish Canadians and Jewish advocacy groups – upset, while others wonder what all the fuss is about.
And rarely has such a stir been caused by a motion, which simply expresses the will of the legislature, as opposed to a bill, which can become law.
Detractors of the federal private member’s motion, M-103, which seeks to condemn Islamophobia “and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination,” concede that while it may have no bearing on law, by singling out one religion, they argue, the motion puts other faiths on an unequal footing.
Even free speech itself would be threatened, they worry, because condemning Islamophobia would squelch all criticism of Islam. Many point out that Islamophobia is not defined in the measure, which also urges the standing committee on Canadian heritage to develop policies to reduce or eliminate racism and religious discrimination, “including Islamophobia.”
There is precedent for this type of motion.
In Ontario, the legislature unanimously passed an anti-Islamophobia motion Feb. 23. The vote was 81-0.
And on Feb. 25, 2015, the House of Commons in Ottawa adopted a motion that condemned anti-Semitism and reaffirmed “the importance of the Ottawa Protocol on Combating anti-Semitism as a model for domestic and international implementation.” Its passage was preceded by five hours of debate and discussion.
Legal experts have noted that by referencing the 2012 Ottawa Protocol, the motion contained a definition of anti-Semitism, which links to Canada’s membership in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Anti-Semitism “is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities,” states a government of Canada website, quoting the IHRA, of which Canada is “a proud member.”
The author of the anti-Semitism motion, former Liberal MP and justice minister Irwin Cotler, told The CJN he would suggest changes to M-103. “I would support it in principle, but I believe support for the motion would be enhanced if it used the term ‘anti-Muslim hate and bigotry’ rather than Islamophobia, because Islamophobia [has come] to be seen in unclear or divisive ways.”
Cotler said he would have moved amendments to the motion to change the wording, but “if the amendment was voted down, I would have supported the motion.”
The term Islamophobia was used, however, in two similar measures in the House last fall. In early October, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair introduced a motion condemning all forms of Islamophobia. However, it failed to get unanimous consent after some Conservative MPs voiced their opposition.
But on Oct. 26, a day after a Muslim cultural centre in Sept-Iles, Que., was trashed, Mulcair reintroduced the motion. This time, it passed unanimously. Just after it did, Tory MP Candice Bergen rose to ask that the House condemn “all forms of persecution against all religious groups, including Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims.” That, too, was adopted.
On both occasions, Mulcair was acting on an e-petition known as e-411. Signed by a record 70,000 Canadians, it noted that “an infinitesimally small number of extremist individuals have conducted terrorist activities while claiming to speak for the religion of Islam. Their actions have been used as a pretext for a notable rise of anti-Muslim sentiments in Canada, and these violent individuals do not reflect in any way the values or the teachings of the religion of Islam. In fact, they misrepresent the religion. We categorically reject all their activities. They in no way represent the religion, the beliefs and the desire of Muslims to coexist in peace with all peoples of the world.”
Motion M-103 takes note of the petition “and the issues raised by it.”
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has worked with the motion’s author, Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, in an effort to amend the measure. “We believe the wording of M-103 is flawed,” CIJA stated on Feb. 21. “Specifically, we are concerned with the word ‘Islamophobia’ because it is misleading, ambiguous, and politically charged.
“Further normalizing this term by including it in the motion could lead to charges of Islamophobia being levelled against those who criticize strains of Islam that are antithetical to Canadian values,” CIJA said.
CIJA representatives met with Khalid Feb. 1 to suggest changes to M-103, including referencing the Jan. 29 massacre at a Quebec City mosque; recognizing “that criticism and condemnation of any and all forms of extremism is not only acceptable but necessary in a free and democratic society”; and stressing the need to define Islamophobia.
CIJA called the suggestions “modest,” but said Khalid did not respond to them. “The irony of this whole episode,” said CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel, “is that an initiative that could have served to bring communities together has become the agent of alienation and dissonance. It needn’t have been so.”
On Feb. 21, the Conservatives tried an end-run around M-103. MP David Anderson’s motion to condemn “all forms of systemic racism, religious intolerance, and discrimination” failed by a vote of 165-126, after all Liberal MPs, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, voted against it. Notably absent from the text was the word Islamophobia.
In the wake of the Conservative move, seven Jewish and 10 Muslim MPs, all Liberals, tried to assure Canadians that M-103 is benign. It “does nothing to change speech laws in Canada, contrary to falsehoods being circulated,” they said in a statement.
The MPs said they “are united in condemning Islamophobia and supporting M-103.”
Karen Mock, chair of JSpace Canada, which calls itself a Jewish, progressive, pro-Israel, pro-peace voice, said the term Islamophobia has existed for almost 30 years.
“Arguing over terminology is divisive and merely detracts people from taking action and addressing the real problems,” Mock, a longtime anti-racism advocate, said.
Citing the abridgment of free speech is “a smokescreen used in the last few years by people who want the freedom to vilify Islam and [all] Muslims… If those same people are so worried about freedom of speech, why did they not make that an issue on the [anti-Semitism] resolution?”
Cotler agreed the issue has become politicized “when it need not have been.” With different wording and more outreach, “this could have been avoided.”
A vote on M-103 is expected in April.