A program of the Center for Inquiry
In Canada, the fear of Islam battles with the fear of those who fear Islam.
March 2017, the non-binding Motion 103 was adopted in that nation’s House of Commons, calling on the government to condemn “Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination” in the country. It also asked the House to “take note of” an online petition with nearly 70,000 signatures imploring the House to declare that extremists do not represent the teachings of the Islamic faith.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association confirmed that this motion was a purely symbolic gesture, had no legal force, and would not limit freedom of speech. A symbolic gesture, however, is not the same as an empty gesture. One assumes the sponsors of the motion hoped for some effect, or else why go through the trouble in the first place?
tended or not, one effect will be that yet more credibility will be given to the word Islamophobia, which often encompasses both responsible secular criticism of the faith and hatred toward the believers. Another will be the tacit reinforcement of the theological (often apologist) position that Islamic extremism is entirely unrelated to the teachings of the faith.
The political distortion in the debate around the faith is largely due to social taboos, not legal speech prohibitions.
Meanwhile, a law recently passed in Quebec also faces fiery criticism. That province’s Bill 62 does prohibit certain kinds of expression—namely, face coverings when giving or receiving public services—allegedly in an attempt to “foster adherence to State religious neutrality.” Dubbed a “burqa ban,” this law primarily affects conservative Muslim women. The government denies that this was its intention, instead citing general security and neutrality concerns. Absurdly, the bill provides for exemption to the law based on religious grounds. One wonders yet again: What exactly is the point?
Both laws represent a failure of government to grasp the nature of the problem and a willingness to use inflammatory and harmful legislation for “symbolic” benefit. The real solutions to the challenges Islam and Muslims present are not so simple, nor will they bear fruit any time soon.
For one, fear of Muslims cannot be “condemned” away; no number of sentimental gestures from authority figures will be enough as long as terror attacks continue. Figures from police in the United Kingdom have recorded spikes in hate crimes following terror attacks; FBI hate crime statistics show that the largest spike of hate crimes against Muslims in the United States followed the attacks on the World Trade Center. Since then, 2015 and 2016 are both years that saw hate crime increases in the United States. Just under half of all such attacks recorded in 2015 took place after December 2, the date of the San Bernardino attacks.
The first step is to be honest about reality: The threat associated with fundamentalist Islam is not a right-wing paranoid fantasy. It is entirely due to the authenticity of the problem that we cannot waste political capital and divide the public with reactionary measures. We must hold fast to the principles of civil liberties and human rights as applicable to all citizens, even those who hold toxic ideas. Above all, we must deconstruct the ideas behind the ideology in a compassionate way.
However, both Motion 103 and Bill 62 make this task more difficult, trapping reformers and activists in a double-bind of illiberalism.
On the one hand, thanks to reckless blurring of the boundaries between religious critique and hate, it is more difficult than ever to engage in productive and honest dialogue about the effects of Islamic ideology. Even Muslims who oppose some practices of their religion are faced with a deluge of smears for their work. Muslim women who protest the hijab, for example, find themselves the target of charges of “hate” against their own religion.
On the other hand, unnecessary restrictions on Islamic practice only serve to alienate Muslims and weaken the foundations of civil liberties. If we wish to see less conservative dress, the appropriate response is to engage the Muslim community in a dialogue to convince members about the harms of these practices so that individual Muslims are persuaded to give them up on their own. Otherwise, we risk those practices becoming symbols for political dissent, thereby increasing their social prestige and allure to young women. The hypocrisy inherent within “burqa bans” creates additional burdens for Muslim reformers and honest critics when attempting to convince Muslims to adopt modern secular values. The ban bolsters the narrative that the West’s support for freedom of speech and expression is just lip-service.
So long as these ill-considered, overly simplistic measures continue to trigger divisions among the public, however, we can be sure we’ll see more of them. They represent the infantile desire to eliminate physical manifestations of an undesirable view among citizens without addressing the root of the view’s appeal in the first place.
After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Sarah Haider is a writer, speaker, and activist. Born in Pakistan and raised in Texas, she was a practicing Shia Muslim until she left the faith in her teenage years. In 2013, she cofounded Ex-Muslims of North America.