What was the problem with naming Islamophobia in Motion M103?

Photo: JMacPherson/flickr

A short history of political correctness:

1. It began on the Marxist left. If you think you own the key to history -- what makes it work and where it's going based on "class analysis" -- it's only logical to grade your actions based on whether they're correct responses.

Figures such as Lenin and Mao talked about making a "correct analysis" of the forces: who's up, who's down, who's "the main enemy." From that you calculate a "correct line:" e.g., in 1939, do you attack Hitler or momentarily ally with him?

By the 1960s revival of the New Left, the notion had become playful. There was a strip called Correct Line Comix with a chubby cheery Mao. Leftists in restaurants would ponderously joke about ordering politically correct dishes. But the term itself -- referring to minorities or identities -- wasn't yet in wide use.

2. After the dazzling triumph of neo-conservative forces in the 1980s (Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney), came a right-wing attack on a new catchphrase: political correctness. In my opinion this was part of an effort to bury the residue of the Marxist left, along with the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

At the same time it was an attempt to dismantle the left critique of capitalist society by draining it of its encompassing economic bite: splintering it into demographic fragments thus defusing the notion of popular "solidarity." Numerous cover stories demonized the evil force. But oddly, it was hard to find specific examples or advocates of PC, whatever it actually was. The real-life version of PC meanwhile -- a ban on critiquing sacred cows, such as capitalism or NATO -- stayed in force. In fact it still is. Even the elected president of the U.S. can't question NATO, long after its raison d'être has vanished. But I digress.

3. During the 1990s, in an amazing twist anticipated by the late Edward Said, many leftists, especially those lefter than pasty versions such as the NDP, more or less adopted the version of themselves painted by the right-wing critics of PCness.

They did this by adopting identity politics, focusing on minority rights, gender rights or human rights generally. (Said had written that Muslims, when smeared by overwhelming Western imagery portraying them all as terrorists, sometimes embraced that role in a desperate attempt to feel they existed at all.)

There was nothing wrong with these campaigns. They'd been underplayed for too long. Except that they were often accompanied by a de-emphasis, or abandonment, of economic issues, such as Who owns everything? and Who did they steal it from? There's no reason you can't include both.

But the intense stress on identity, combined with a burning focus on appropriate language, gave right-wing critics of PC far juicier targets than they'd originally had. The right, rather surprisingly, became the main advocates of free speech.

4. And so to Motion M103, the mild declaration (nothing more, no legal force at all) of concern for the rights and especially safety of Muslims in Canada. It's the PC controversy writ small.

Whose rights are of overriding concern here: the six Muslims murdered in Quebec City as they prayed (or the two Indian men in Kansas City shot down because their killer thought they were Iranians -- as if that might have justified it)? Or the free speech rights of critics of Islam, such as Ezra Levant and Conservative leadership candidates to pursue their detached scholarly critiques of Islamic theology and law?

The argument has focused mostly on language, especially the term, Islamophobia: if the bill said anti-Muslim instead, for instance, people would supposedly be less bothered.

I know words are supposed to matter but they don't much, in this case, because everyone knows what Islamophobia means. It's the same with anti-Semitism, a terribly imprecise term -- many Jews aren't by any stretch Semites, even if you manage to define it -- but everyone knows what it means.

In fact, Islamophobia is far more precise. Hatred of Muslims gets ginned up over their religion -- Islam. That's not been the case with hatred of Jews -- at least since the Middle Ages. In the modern era it's been based on racial, economic or global conspiracy myths. By comparison, the term, Islamophobia, reflects the issue exactly.

As Trump and others keep insisting, the "enemy" is Islam, with or without "radical." What's the matter, they taunt, are you afraid to say it? What would you call that if not Islamophobia?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: JMacPherson/flickr

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