A makeshift memorial for the four family members who were murdered in London, Ontario earlier this year. Image: AvidLondonerK2001/Wikimedia Commons

“This was a terrorist attack.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau minced no words last June when a white supremacist murdered four members of a Muslim family with his truck in London, Ontario.

White supremacists were designated terrorists and a National Action Summit on Islamophobia was held.

In the last election, 2019, Muslims were elected in record numbers to Parliament.

Representation and words are important, but action speaks louder. While decrying the innocent Muslim lives lost in London, Canada sold weapons to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Government agencies were called to end hate, but nothing was done when Muslim organizations demanded the Canadian Revenue Agency stop targeting Muslim charities with audits.

With the Afghan debacle top of mind, these issues might be forgotten. Yet, they are examples  of a system where Muslim lives are expendable — the same system that led to the Afghanistan invasion and left Afghans to die in the withdrawal.

This election, we must move beyond rhetoric. Systemic causes of Islamophobia must be addressed, not just with surface-level reform and nice words about tolerance. Otherwise, Muslim lives will continue to be destroyed.

In the 2015 election, Stephen Harper made Islam a wedge issue. He prohibited women from wearing the veil during citizenship ceremonies. A week before election day, he mulled banning the niqab for public servants.

Trailing in the polls, Trudeau positioned himself as the progressive voice for Muslims. He condemned Harper for “appeal[ing] to the worst instincts.” He would allow veiled women to become citizens and promised to bring in 25,000 refugees from the Middle East — low compared to other countries, but more than the NDP’s much lower proposal of 10,000 (although the NDP’s proposal was well-planned and able to be executed).

It was risky. With ISIS in the news, Canadian attitudes towards Muslims became more negative. Polls showed high support for burqa bans. In response, Trudeau tempered his words.

“We can disagree with a person’s choices, but must defend their right to make them,” he said.

Nevertheless, it worked. He not only won the election, but also the Muslim vote. The Liberals received 65 per cent of their vote, compared to 10 per cent for the NDP and two per cent for the Conservatives. Without their support, Trudeau possibly would have lost. It would happen again in 2019, with the Liberals winning in ridings with many Muslims.

What have Muslims received in return?

“If we don’t deliver fairness, Canadians will eventually entertain more radical options.”

This was Trudeau’s pitch at a Bay Street event before the 2015 election. For nine years Harper delivered what they wanted, but his harsh rhetoric and policies were creating backlash. Global warming, right-wing populism and settler colonialism worried the public. Trudeau could appease them while continuing the status quo.

“Fairness” is the Liberal’s modus operandi towards Muslims. It means opposing direct discrimination — hate crimes, slurs and exclusion from the halls of power. Rather than being systemic, it suggests that discrimination is the fault of individuals. The solution is equality of opportunity under capitalism.

This policy fails to account for indirect discrimination, which is more pervasive. Those causing harm to Muslims are less interested in opposing Islam, and more in destroying and securitizing their lives for profit. Liberal policy can help stop the bigot who places graffiti on a mosque but cannot stop airstrikes in Pakistan.

Rhetoric and reality

In 2018, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland worried on Twitter about the arrest of Saudi Arabian activists. Saudi Arabia accused Canada of interfering in its domestic affairs. Trade and travel were frozen, and Canada’s ambassador declared persona non grata.

Canada’s support for human rights was bold. Only one problem: Trudeau approved billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to Saudi Arabia. He blamed Harper, despite giving the go-ahead. Last year a moratorium on reviewing new applications was lifted, allowing sales to continue unimpeded.

This dynamic would occur again. Last June, a man in his pickup truck rammed into a Muslim family in London, Ontario. Denouncing the attack, Trudeau noted that this was part a wider trend of anti-Muslim violence. 

A month prior, such condemnation was absent when Israel dropped bombs on Gaza that left 256 people dead. Canada “recognizes Israel’s right to assure its own security,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau affirmed. Nothing was said about those killed in Gaza. For the Liberals, Muslims’ lives were less important than others.

In 2019, neo-Nazi groups Blood & Honour and Combat 18 were added to the federal government’s list of terrorist entities, and The Proud Boys, Atomwaffen Division and the Base were added in 2021. The terrorist list had been criticized for targeting Muslims. Adding far-right groups to the mix made it seem fairer.

It did not change much. Emerging after 9/11, the current system was meant to target “Islamic” terrorism. Today, 57 of 77 of the groups are Islamic. There is little oversight, with decisions made in secret. The International Relief Fund for the Afflicted and Needy was added when it transferred resources to Hamas-affiliated groups. Given Hamas is Gaza’s governing authority, it was difficult for the charity to avoid this. Muslim charities and activists have experienced a chilling effect.

As Black feminist Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” And Islamophobia cannot be defeated while maintaining an Islamophobic system.

Radical options

The Liberals condemn Islamophobia while supporting it. This contradiction is resolved through equating discrimination as an individual problem, rather than systemic. Islamophobia emerges because of stereotypes and generalizations about the unfamiliar. Why these ideas emerge is never considered. It’s as if Islam as the Other is a given, rather than developed over time.

Ignorance is not the problem. Lack of knowledge about Buddhism and Zoroastrianism has not created the same backlash towards these groups as with Muslims. Islam’s Otherization is not a given, but rather exists to maintain Western power. Outside of the Byzantine Empire, Europeans were apathetic to the prophet Muhammad’s growing followers. They saw it as Christian heresy rather than a separate religion called “Islam.” As Islamic empires threatened European states, Islam became increasingly Otherized.

A thousand years later, Europeans treated Muslims as inferior and violent to legitimate colonialism. The current era that equates Islam with terrorism emerges in response to Arab states’ nationalization of oil.

To stop Islamophobia, Western colonialism, militarism and capitalism must be eliminated. In the short term this will not be achieved. But some steps can be taken. The transfer of military technology to and diplomatic support for states massacring Muslims should stop. Security agencies should be curtailed, rather than expanded to target white supremacists. Greater oversight and accountability should exist for state and private surveillance.

The Liberals have done none of these.

The NDP has taken some measures. Last year NDP leader Jagmeet Singh put forward a motion to scrutinize the RCMP’s systemic racism. When Gaza was attacked, the NDP called for Canada to stop selling arms to Israel. They also denounced the sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

The NDP recognized Quebec’s ban on religious clothing as a decision to be made in Quebec and therefore didn’t condemn it. It supported adding white supremacist groups to the terrorist list, instead of eliminating it.

An NDP government would help fight Islamophobia but will not eliminate it. Beyond the election, the goal is demilitarization and anti-capitalism. Only through “radical options” will Islamophobia stop.

Aidan Simardone is a recent law school graduate from Osgoode, with a Masters in Global Affairs and a Bachelor’s in political science, both from the University of Toronto. He has previously written for rabble.caCanadian Dimension, Spring Magazine and the Organization for World Peace. Follow his work through his website aidansimardone.com.

Image: AvidLondonerK2001/Wikimedia Commons