After anti-mosque speech in Ottawa: The importance of making space for Muslims

An anti-mosque crusader spoke to a crowd of 40 or so people in the basement of the main branch of Ottawa's Public Library on February 4. Coverage of the event was overshadowed on the evening news the following night by a lead story on the shortage of cheese curds following a fire at an eastern Ontario cheese factory.

 Rest assured, before the week was out both CBC and CTV News Ottawa confirmed in top stories on their websites and telecasts that cheese curds would be back on store shelves the following week. In the meantime, the Ottawa Senators hockey team stepped in with free tickets for down-in-the-dumps cheese factory employees.

 No word yet on whether Ottawa's Muslims, who may suddenly be feeling unwelcome or irate, can expect a free Beaver Tail to lift their spirits. The temporary loss of 120 jobs in a small, rural town is unfortunate; and it's certainly newsworthy, though I suspect it was the potential loss of precious poutine that had most people on edge. But it's not an excuse to minimize or gloss over an uncalled-for and un-Canadian affront to a far larger demographic: Ottawa's 80,000 or more Muslims.

Most Ottawans missed the anti-mosque talk. Nor does so small a crowd constitute an anti-mosque movement. But the collective shrug with which Gavin Boby, the misguided British lawyer, was greeted in the nation's capital and the dearth of news coverage or public debate, let alone care or concern compared to what was shown for a tiny community of cheese makers, following the talk suggests an alarming and dangerous trend unbecoming of Canadian society, cities, and policymakers: namely the tacit acceptance of an oversimplified, inaccurate, misleading and ignorant version of Islam and Muslims.

Anti-mosque protest is sleight-of-hand. Don't be fooled. It conveniently conceals anti-Muslim sentiment and outright Islamaphobia. Canadians mustn't tolerate it, create space for it, or allow it to be disguised as free speech. We otherwise run the risk of joining the frenzied ranks of U.S. Islamaphobes-cum-anti-mosque protesters at Park51 in Lower Manhattan, bigots in Harris County, Texas, who deposited a pig on the doorstep of a mosque, or Michigan residents who sued to prevent the sale of a Detroit-area school to an Islamic Cultural Association that planned to build a community centre and mosque.

Since 2000, the American Civil Liberties Union has recorded one to four anti-mosque incidents in at least 30 of 50 states. Sadly, it might be time to create a map and timeline of anti-mosque activity in Canada. Add Ottawa to the list, along with two 2012 incidents in nearby Gatineau, an absurd anti-Muslim protest in Toronto disguised as a pro-dog rally, and I'd rather stop there.

A small group of protesters petitioned in front of the Ottawa library, hundreds of people supposedly sent emails to the library board chairperson demanding the event be shut down, and Ernie Tannis, a well-meaning Ottawa lawyer (and others) stood up to the stereotyping speaker during the question-and-answer period. Yet the so-called "mosque-busting" event passed, in the words of the Ottawa Citizen, without incident or fuss. A feather in the cap of Boby, who claims to have stopped 16 different mosques from being built, of the pitiful group who organized the event, and of haters all around.

The Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN) politely and rightly objected to the talk, pointing out that permitting Islamaphobic hate-speech in a taxpayer-subsidized venue contravenes both the Human Rights Code and the Criminal Code of Canada. In the process, though, CAIR-CAN asked an important question: whether public speeches to denounce non-Muslim community centres and places of worship would be equally tolerated?

Unlikely. And just as one swastika spray painted on the door of a synagogue, one attack on a turban-wearing Sikh, one instance of racial profiling or workplace harassment is one too many, so too is providing a soapbox for the kind of toxic, derogatory, and racist caricatures of Islam and Muslims championed by anti-mosque protesters.

Here's the rub. Canadians, like Americans, know very little about Islam or even the ordinary, everyday life of Muslims. As a result -- and I take my cue here from the late Edward Said, eminent Palestinian-American scholar -- we wrongly and foolishly end up regarding Muslims as a "block," as a singular entity whose history and disposition are, more problematically yet, framed by Western media through the lens of best-selling tropes: crisis, oddities or aberrations of belief, language, or appearance, narrowly defined self-interest, oil, and rulers.

What we're left with is not an understanding of Islam but an unreliable interpretation or public image of Islam that is invariably placed, to quote Said in his book Covering Islam, "in a confrontational relationship with whatever is normal, Western, everyday, 'ours.'" "Today," Said wrote in the context of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-1981, though just as relevant now, "Islam is defined negatively as that with which the West is radically at odds, and this tension establishes a framework radically limiting knowledge of Islam. So long as this framework stands, Islam, as a vitally lived experience for Muslims, cannot be known."

Not until the propagators of this framework and the negative images they reproduce of Muslims, not until the indifferent media and policymakers who countenance and cover them, and not until the small-minded "mosque-busters" and their anxious followers are roundly challenged can we reasonably hope to overcome the us-vs-them, either/or conformity of views that succeeds only in fostering fear and misunderstanding.

Certainly one way to begin the process is to welcome Muslims into our communities, to coexist, to create space for them, and to allow Muslims to create spaces here for themselves.


Matthew McKean holds a PhD in history from Queen’s University and teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa.  


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