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Islamophobia, the niqab and dog-whistle racism in the Canadian election

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The danger with dog-whistle politics is the very real, very violent anger and emotions it unleashes.

We are seeing this in the ugly and racist campaign the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois are disgracefully waging against the very small number of women of the Islamic faith who chose to wear the niqab face veil.

For many months now the Conservatives have been seeking to shift the focus from real issues -- like the economy, the environment, senate scandals, etc. -- to this total non-issue. They appear to be succeeding.

As they do, we start to see violence directed at those who wear the niqab. There was an attack in Montreal (on a pregnant woman who was, in fact, wearing a hijab as opposed to a niqab... Though, to racists, such distinctions do not matter) and then another in Toronto.

And, of course, there is an endless proliferation of angry social media posts and absurd and ignorant internet memes.

With no apparent sense of irony these attacks were by men, presumably trying to rip the allegedly oppressive headdress off these women to aid in their "liberation" by assaulting them.

And this exposes the fundamental lie at the heart of the entire narrative the Conservatives and even many liberals and leftist fellow-travelers have constructed around the niqab and Islam. You do not liberate anyone by forcing them to wear what you want and to conform to your cultural norms.

Whatever one thinks of the niqab -- and any number of other similar practices notably not being talked about, practiced by fundamentalist sects of Christianity and Judaism -- and what it represents, the fact is that it is being singled out and those who wear it are being targeted not because those doing so care at all about the equality or rights of these women specifically, or even the equality rights of women generally, but rather to inflame racist sentiments against the Islamic "other" for both nationalist and political ends.

Sadly, there is a wing of the left that buys into the pseudo-intellectual argument that Islam is not a race and that, therefore, Islamophobia and simplistic bigoted narratives about the niqab are not, somehow, racism.

Generally these folks tend to be the "I am a white atheist and I took a first year course in being an entitled Richard Dawkins reader" types who are completely clueless about the reality that racism and bias against specific religions intersect in certain contexts.

But there is no doubt that in the here-and-now real world of Canada today these attacks and the actions of the politicians and the people they are provoking are racism. It is racism as this is a religion, in this case, that is clearly associated with people who are, overwhelmingly, not white and who are not what our Prime Minister would call "old stock" Canadians. The right are using "religion" as a code word for what they really mean, which is: "not us."

Given that, in reality, race is a largely fictional socially constructed notion anyway, what else is this vitriolic, angry, blind and ignorant backlash against a tiny number of women on the outside of the Canadian "mainstream" if it is not racism?

It is certainly not reasoned secularism. It is certainly not about inclusion.

It is certainly not at all about women's rights.

When the racist bigots and dog-whistle politicians who dwell upon and pontificate about Islam and the niqab equally turn their eyes to any number of misogynist and extremist practices by Jews, Christians and others, then perhaps we could debate as to whether it is secularist bigotry or misguided silliness.

Now it is what it clearly is: racism. Plain and simple racism.

As progressives, liberals, social democrats and leftists, we should never help it along by pretending it is some kind of intellectual exercise in terminology detached from the vile actuality of what it results in.

And what it results in is violence, discrimination and government action against a marginalized and racialized community.

Our government and our government officials are using the niqab to create a climate of fear and loathing that will help them back to power.

They are actually using all available legal means to try to keep stopping a woman from taking an oath at a symbolic ceremony a front and centre election issue.

This is disgusting. It goes against everything Canada is supposedly about.

And it is a shocking expression of official, governmental racism.

Image/flickr Osama Saeed

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