Muslims in Canada are subject to unfair application of the law

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Pearson Airport in Toronto. Image: h_w/Unsplash

In January 2016, a British man with a rare vision impairment came to Canada to get treatment at the Wellspring Clinic for Holistic Medicine in Vancouver. He also wanted to visit a friend, Mohammed Sharaz. At the CF Pacific Centre mall downtown, the two men and Sharaz's son, who is also visually impaired, were spotted taking photographs of mall entrances and exits.

That might seem strange, but because of their rare visual impairment, they had to take photos to be able to see the way other people do. As Dr. Weidong Yu of the Wellspring Clinic for Holistic Medicine later explained, they took pictures of everything because they could see things in pictures more clearly than they could by looking at them directly. Entrances and exits just happened to be some of the things they photographed as they found their way around the mall. In a mall frequented by selfie-loving teenagers, it was not the first time that photos had been taken there.

This time, mall security phoned the police and an internal bulletin went out to put police on the lookout for three Middle Eastern men. It was bad enough that police were looking for suspects to charge with "taking photos while being Middle Eastern," but then someone leaked it to the press.

Once public, an unjust but comparatively mundane matter of racial profiling had the potential to create mass hysteria. It isn't clear who leaked it, but it does seem clear that the police didn't take steps to prevent the leak. Although the Vancouver Police Department later stated the information was never meant to become public, the journalist who broke the story said that, to be prudent, he had checked in with the police department before running it. According to him, they confirmed the story and didn't ask him not to run it. Had they asked him not to run it, perhaps for fear of hampering an ongoing investigation with unneeded public hysteria, he wouldn't have run it. But no such suggestion was made and the story ran.

It wound up being national news, but fortunately the potential mass hysteria never materialized. The men were quickly located, they cooperated, and the investigation concluded that they were completely innocent. Still, the men felt they had to remain inside for the rest of their trip concerned about the potential for vigilantism the press coverage might have provoked.

Part of the reason law enforcement seems to target Muslim communities with an unfair application of the law might be that police are fundamentally disconnected from those communities. That disconnection sometimes results in fishing expeditions. There have been allegations of agents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service going to mosques and offering cash for information.

This is problematic police work. Sometimes people who really need the money take it, whether or not they really know anything, resulting in bad intelligence and baseless investigations that can destroy innocent lives. When this kind of thing happens, everyone starts to look guilty. A secret CSIS brief listed growing a beard and adopting traditional dress as warning signs of radicalization. They weren't talking about hipsters.

A more mundane but common example of an unfair application of the law happens every day at the border. Airports and border crossings have become particularly stressful for Muslims, especially for those wearing head or face coverings. They report constant delays and secondary searches while others who don't appear to be Muslim or Arab stream through. Even children have been subjected to the searches.

Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, tells of how Canadian officials have repeatedly conducted special searches on a five-year old child with a Muslim name, separating him from his parents. In her view, the consequences on the boy are obvious. "And then to say that that child would not grow up and feel discriminated against in Canada?" she asks.

Laya Behbahani, a university lecturer who has been in Canada since age 13, described being stopped at the border and interrogated by the Canadian border guard. Having ascertained that she was Canadian, the guard then asked, "How Canadian do you really feel?" The inquisition continued with questions about her religious beliefs.

These questions are illegal, and they are not questions non-Muslims ever have to answer at the border. "As Canadian as you feel, when individuals acting in the capacity of the government do things like this, it sends a very loud message that, 'No, you're not one of us,'" Behbahani said.

It might be argued that profiling is justified because while most Muslims in Canada are nonviolent, Muslims are still responsible for a higher number of incidents of violent extremism than any other group in Canada. But that's simply not true. White supremacists hold that title. According to statistics compiled by the Canadian Incident Database (a publicly funded research initiative supported by several Canadian universities), a strong majority -- 64 per cent -- of violent extremist attacks carried out in Canada since 2001 have been perpetrated by white supremacists. Pre-9/11 statistics tell a similar story. In other words, it's not even close.

In fact, white supremacists have been responsible for more attacks than every other group combined. The number of hate crimes they commit continues to rise. The far-right hate groups who count those perpetrators as their members are growing.

A Globe and Mail investigation in 2019 detailed how they use aliases and covert means to communicate over the Internet, such as by disguising their chat rooms as video game sites. They are working to infiltrate political parties, both to recruit potential members and to support candidates they believe will support them. Many own illegal weapons and conduct training exercises. They are found in trusted professions including in the educational sector. Frighteningly, a number have even been identified as current and former members of the Canadian Forces.

Surely the dangerous people behind such a significant threat to public safety deserve serious attention from law enforcement, involving prevention, prosecution and de-radicalization. For some reason, when they are caught perpetrating hate crimes, these criminals are dismissed as lone wolves, and aren't treated as part and parcel of a broader security threat the way Muslims are. We continue to waste time being afraid of the wrong things.

Incredibly, in 2014 CSIS publicly claimed that far-right hate groups weren't a major security threat, despite the statistics proving otherwise. It only changed its position in June of this year, when two far-right groups were added to the federal government's watch list. 

"It's a very strange juxtaposition. You're dealing with two qualitatively similar phenomena that are treated completely differently," James Ellis of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society told The Globe and Mail. 

If this isn't unfair, then what is?

Graeme Truelove is a Canadian author, editor and proofreader. His first book, Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics, was shortlisted for a BC Book Prize in 2014. This article is adapted with permission from his second book, Un-Canadian: Islamophobia in the True North, out now from Nightwood Editions.

Image: h_w/Unsplash

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