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March 11, 2015

Canadian Muslims turned into a political football

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

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Muslims in the West have felt uncomfortable since 9/11. Now Canadian Muslims fear they are being turned into a political football for this year's federal election.

The issues are Prime Minister Harper’s inflammatory rhetoric against the threat posed by jihadis to Canada, the government’s proposed anti-terrorism law and the government’s opposition to women who at citizenship ceremonies wear the “niqab” (a veil commonly worn by Muslim women in public that covers the whole face apart from the eyes).  The prime minister’s macho stance is gaining wide public support.

Wrote Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail: “Just a few short months ago, the Conservatives were about as popular in Quebec as a skunk at a picnic. Now they are surging in the polls – thanks to Mr. Harper’s tough line on radical Islam and all the dangerous women in veils who are running amok on our streets and in the courts.”

Andrew Coyne, National Post columnist, stated that the government’s approach could result in “a calamitous setback to efforts, largely successful, to win the cooperation of the Muslim community in rooting out the few radicals in their midst.” It may be good politics, he wrote, “but they are playing with fire.”

Stephen Maher, another National Post columnist, wrote: “I’m worried that Mr. Harper will add fuel to the fire, linking terrorism to mosques - as he did when he introduce C-51 - inveighing against niqabs in fund emails and scaring everyone by warning about ‘jihadist monsters’ at every opportunity.”

Toronto consultant Madeline Ashby stated: “Why is it that the shooters who attacked the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris were immediately dubbed terrorists, but the man who stockpiled weapons and is charged with murdering a Muslim family with them was not? Why is it different when the terrorists are white?”

While the government is relentlessly pushing Bill C-51, Craig Forcese of the University of Ottawa and Canada’s top academic on national security law, and University of Toronto professor Kent Roach, an authority on constitutional issues and anti-terrorism, warn that the proposed law threatens Canadians’ civil rights. 

Now four former prime ministers and 18 others,  including Supreme Court of Canada justices, ministers of justice and of public safety, solicitors-general, members of the Security and Intelligence Review Committee and commissioners responsible for overseeing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and upholding privacy laws have asserted that while protecting public safety is most important, the absence of an accountability system for national security agencies “poses serious problems for public safety and for human rights.”

 The Tory government also took a rigid stand on allowing a woman to take the oath of citizenship while wearing a niqab, violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the law that allows citizenship judges to take reasonable steps to accommodate future citizens. Rebuffed by the Federal Court, the government has chosen to appeal that decision as it portrays the dissidents as violating Canadian values.

Ironically, the government had tried to ban the few women wearing the niqab from voting in the 2007 election. But chief electoral officer Marc Maynard overruled it saying that about 70,000 voters, including prisoners, mailed their ballots without being required to show their faces.

The niqab ban was not debated and passed in Parliament but was brought in arbitrarily in December 2011 by Minister Jason Kenney

Muslims are also disturbed by the prime minister suggesting that radicalization could take place in a “mosque, or somewhere else.” The prime minister singled out a mosque as a place of possible radicalization. In Canada extremist actions have also been done by followers of other faiths. For example the Air India crash of 1985 that killed 328 people was not the work of Muslims.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Muslim Lawyers’ Association said they were “deeply troubled” by the statement. 

The New Democratic Party’s Tom Mulcair, who is leader of the official opposition in Parliament, said the prime minister’s statement was “irresponsible” and a “form of Islamophobia” and Harper should apologize.

Prime Ministerial spokesperson Carl Vallee responded that the prime minister did not say that all radicalization takes place in mosques. He recalled that the prime minister in a speech in December thanked Muslims for condemning the terrorist attacks in October and he lauded the Muslim community for trying to curb radicalization.

True, but by singling out a mosque as a possible spawning place of radicalization, he placed all mosques and worshippers under a cloud.

Liberal Party Member of Parliament and public safety critic Wayne Easter said many mosques are doing all they can to prevent radicalization. He stated that the prime minister “seems to be suggesting, ‘be afraid, be very afraid,’ and he is trying to use security as a wedge issue for political purposes.”

If the prime minister’s focus is on the federal election, his tactics seem to be working. The Tories’ widespread unpopularity is turning into considerable public support.

— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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