Emphasis Matters: Islamophobia should be Included in Parliament’s Anti-Racism Motion

February 15th saw debate on a motion put forward by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid to condemn Islamophobia and other forms of religious discrimination and to request the Standing Committee on Canadian heritage study the matter (the full wording is here). This motion, supported by Liberals and New Democrats, has attracted criticism from some Conservative MPs. Several Conservatives, including leadership candidates Kellie Leitch and Andrew Scheer, have argued that the motion is a threat to freedom of speech and singles out one religion. Highlighting their objection to the use of the term “Islamophobia,” Conservative MP David Anderson has introduced his own motion that is essentially the same as the original one, but removes the word Islamophobia. In the wake of the attack in Quebec, and the increasing Islamophobic rhetoric associated with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, it makes sense to include a reference to Islamophobia. Doing so does not threaten Canadians’ freedom of speech nor does it preference one religion over others. Rather, it ensures the motion responds to troubling events that have occurred in Canada and around the world.

It is first worth grappling with the argument that this limits freedom of speech. Several Conservatives have argued that the term Islamophobia could be extended to include not just hatred and discrimination against Islam, but legitimate criticism that occurs as part of religious debate. This argument relies on a tenuous understanding of the definition of Islamophobia. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (scroll down the link for their definition), the Berkley Centre for Race and Gender, and Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative all draw clear distinctions between Islamophobia as prejudice and the criticism or questioning of particular tenets of Islam that occurs as part of debate around religion. Reading the term Islamophobia to include all criticism of Islam involves going beyond the definition of the term used by anti-discrimination organizations.

It is further worth noting that Canadian lawmakers and the courts have generally been good at ensuring that anti-racism measures limit freedom of speech as little as possible. Canadian anti-hate speech legislation has been carefully crafted to include only the “wilful” promotion of hatred and carves out an exception “if the statements were relevant to any subject of public interest, the discussion of which was for the public benefit, and if on reasonable grounds he believed them to be true.” The narrow construction of anti-hate speech laws played a central role in ensuring the Supreme Court did not strike them down as violations of freedom of expression in R. v. Keegstra. If Canadian law-makers and courts had a history of interpreting anti-discrimination provisions in an over-broad manner, there would be reason to be concerned that a motion opposing Islamophobia could develop into restrictions on religious debate. The opposite is true, however. Canadian law-makers and courts have generally interpreted anti-discrimination measures in a way that infringes upon freedom of expression as little as possible. There is no evidence in Canada to suggest that condemnation of hate speech and discrimination leads to slippery slope in which freedom of expression becomes unduly restricted.

On this point, it is finally worth noting that this is a motion and not a bill. A motion expresses an opinion of parliament and does not change law. As a result, this motion does nothing to change any of the existing rules regarding hate speech, discrimination, and freedom of expression in Canada. It does call for study of this issue by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, which could produce further legislation on the issue. Given the history of Canadian anti-discrimination law discussed above, it seems unlikely that such a committee would develop legislation with over-broad definitions of Islamophobia or discriminatory speech. If such legislation was developed, there would be additional opportunities to vote against it, and it is highly likely the Courts would strike it down as violating the Charter of Rights’ freedom of expression provisions. Concerns that the use of Islamophobia will lead to a condemnation of any criticism of Islam should be allayed by the way that Islamophobia is narrowly defined by anti-discrimination organizations and by the protections of freedom of expression that already exist in Canadian law.

It is also worth tackling many Conservatives’ second claim, that it is inappropriate to single out Islamophobia, in addition to religious discrimination in general, for criticism. The point that critics make here is that highlighting Islamophobia for particular condemnation and study diminishes efforts to condemn discrimination against other religious groups. This argument misses the importance of context to condemnation of discrimination. Condemnation of discrimination is important as a reaction to discrimination that has happened. While broad statements of principle certainly have value, it is important that anti-discrimination measures demonstrate an understanding and a response to particular discriminations that Canadians face. When a group is facing discrimination it is important that the government respond specifically to the discrimination they are facing. This does not preference one group over another, but rather demonstrates an understanding that at different points in time different groups of people will face different levels of discrimination.

In the wake of the shooting at a Mosque in Quebec and the rise in Islamophobia that has coincided with the Donald Trump’s election as President it is important to condem Islamophobia specifically. Muslims are becoming an increasing target of discrimination and so it makes sense that the government would take measures to try to protect them. Far from detracting from the protection of other groups, this kind of action strengthens it. It demonstrates to all minority groups that the government will take action to protect them when they become targets of hate groups. It shows every minority group that governments will respond to increases in discrimination against them, not with a general condemnation of discrimination, but with measures that acknowledge the particularly vulnerability of the group. Condemning Islamophobia today is not only important as a broad statement of principle, it is important as a reaction to events that are currently taking place in Canada and around the world. Motions that ignore the particular discriminations that individuals are facing not only provide little assurance to the group being discriminated against, but should also leave other groups concerned that governments will fail to adequately respond to attacks against them should they happen in the future.

In the aftermath of the Quebec attack it is essential that the Canadian government take a strong stand against Islamophobia particularly. Removing Islamophobia from the motion does harm because it suggests that the government is ignorant of the increasing discrimination that Muslims face. With little reason to fear that the motion will serve as a slippery slope to excessive limitations of freedom of expression, Conservative MPs are wrong to argue for the elimination of Islamophobia from the motion.

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Keep Government Responsible: Citizens of Parliamentary Democracies Should be Working to Inoculate Their Institutions Against Trumpism

The election of Donald Trump and his flouting of the liberal and democratic norms that underpin society has much of the world worried. These fears are made worse by the increasing strength of far-right parties in much of Europe, and the presence of Trump-like candidates Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary in the Canadian Conservative leadership races. The rise of the far-right should raise concerns about the concentration of power with positions such as the Prime Minister or President. When a far-right candidate, such as Trump, wins control of executive office they have a great deal of power to affect policy. In parliamentary systems, parliament is supposed act as a check, holding the Prime Minister and cabinet accountable for their decisions, and removing them from office when they put forward or implement policy ideas that are at odds with elected MPs.  In practice, however, the ability for parliament to do this is constrained by the power the Prime Minister has over MPs. Two measures, the adoption of proportional electoral systems and increased MP control over leadership selection, offer important counter-balances to a potential far-right Prime Minister.

Parliamentary systems, in contrast to Presidential ones, rely on a fusion of power between the legislature and the executive. The Prime Minister only remains in power so long as she has the approval of parliament. If the PM and cabinet put forward legislation or enact policy that parliament dislikes, parliament can remove the PM from power through a confidence motion. In theory this practice ensures that PMs and their cabinets act in a way that reflect a country’s broader interests. In practice this can hand the PM a great deal of power to implement their policy. The PM can reward those MPs that support her with promotions to cabinet positions and punish those that do not by limiting their opportunities to rise beyond the backbenches. The power that the PM wields over MPs, especially when she leads a majority government, can prevent parliament from acting as an adequate check.

The adoption of a proportional electoral system, though it would make it easier for a far-right party to enter parliament and even to become a junior coalition member, would limit the ability for a far-right party to lead a government. Because proportional systems rarely produce majority governments, parties that win office in such systems have to share power, either through coalition governments or through minority governments that make significant concessions to opposition parties. The need to obtain the cooperation of other parties can make it difficult for a far-right party to gain control of government.  Because a PM’s power over MPs is usually limited to those in her own party, forcing the PM to work with other parties weakens the power of the PM and strengthens parliament.

The current Dutch election illustrates how PR can constrain the far-right.  In the Netherlands Geert Wilders’ Party For Freedom looks poised to win the more votes than any other party in March elections but is unlikely to win a majority. Wilders, however, is unlikely to become the Dutch Prime Minister because, to this point, no other party has expressed a willingness to join him in coalition. It is more likely that other parties will form an alternative coalition that keeps him out of power. Even if Wilders does manage to become PM, he will need to temper his extremism in order to maintain power. The threat that parliament can remove a far-right leader from power immediately through a confidence vote should prevent a far-right PM from acting in the same way that Trump has since becoming President.

Allowing MPs more say over their leaders would also empowers them to act as a check on the take over of mainstream parties by far-right candidates. One of the reasons that Trump was able to win the 2016 election was that he was able to win the support of loyal Republicans- individuals who might not have supported Trump had he run as an independent. In Canada, Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary serve as similar examples of populist candidates seeking to take over a mainstream party. Allowing MPs a greater say over leadership selection or the power to remove leaders could serve as a check against this. MPs come from a diverse group of ridings and need reasonably broad support to win office. Leadership candidates often need only a subset of party members in order to win leadership election. Because many MPs need broad support to hold on to their seats they have an incentive to push back against leadership candidates that may be well-liked by a subset of the party’s base but have little appeal to the broader national electorate.

The extent to which MPs were able to push back against more extreme candidates was illustrated in the recent British Conservative leadership race. To become leader of the British Conservatives one must finish first or second on a vote of the parliamentary party (Conservative MPs) and then win a majority vote of the broader party membership. A third place finish on the parliamentary party ballot took candidate Michael Gove (who had campaigned to leave the EU during the Brexit referendum) out of the race. Indeed the other leave campaigner, Andrea Leadsome who had finished second, ended up dropping out because she did not feel she had sufficient support amongst Conservative MPs. MP’s ability to exert control over the leadership selection process helped the moderate Theresa May defeat more extreme rivals. Either increasing MPs’ ability to affect leadership races or giving them the ability to remove leaders they do not support would give MPs much greater power to check a far-right leaning leader of a mainstream party.

The way democratic institutions are set up affects the ability of individuals to win power and the ability of elected bodies to check those that wield it. Robust democracies do not grant a single individual the ability to rule by fiat, they force those that exercise executive power to be accountable to elected bodies such as parliaments. In the wake of Trump’s election victory and the threat that similar candidates could rise to power in parliamentary systems, there is a need to consider ways in which parliaments can be empowered to check such candidates. Proportional electoral systems and increasing MPs’ ability to choose or recall their leaders offer two ways through which this can be done.

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