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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