Last June, I watched the Islamophobia summit that was held online. From the beginning until the end, I sat patiently for long hours listening to speaker after speaker who came to share their own experience with Islamophobia, or to present some of their research and activism on the topic, or to the politicians presenting the policies or legislation they were suggesting to fight Islamophobia.
It is the Liberal government who agreed to hold this Islamophobia summit after the deadly Islamophobic attack in London, Ontario when a young Canadian man drove his truck into a Canadian Muslim family, killing four members and leaving the youngest boy an orphan.
It is under the pressure of several members of London, Ontario community and the outrage and shock expressed by many Canadians that the summit was put together.
I had mixed feelings about the summit.
One on hand, this sort of public stunt can be very politically useful in dispensing with most of the anger and the fear that many Muslim Canadians felt and expressed immediately after the horrible event. It was a high-profile event, Prime Minister Trudeau spoke, several of his ministers did show up and spoke as well as activists and academics. Muslims can feel that their issues matter, and they are being given some attention.
On the other hand, an event is never enough. A day is never enough to address all the issues and angles related to Islamophobia. The speakers were somehow selected, either through the government channels or pushed forward from particular advocacy groups. Forgotten were many voices speaking about themes like national security and Islamophobia, the war on terror and Islamophobia, media and Islamophobia. Perhaps both topics and speakers were picked in an effort to sterilize the discussion in order to not make some politicians feel uncomfortable: a sort of “Islamophobia-washing.”
Just a few months after the Islamophobia summit, an election was called by Prime Minister Trudeau in a bid to flip his minority status into a majority one. Needless to say, his bid failed and we are back to a Parliament that almost mimics the previous one: a minority Liberal government with a Conservative official opposition and the NDP holding the balance of the power. If there was a major difference between the pre-election landscape and the post-election one, it would be the emergence of the People’s Party of Canada of Maxime Bernier, which gained more than 800,000 votes; an unprecedented move opening the door to official hate, racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in Canada.
During the leaders’ debate, I don’t remember once hearing the word Islamophobia as if the killing of three generations of the same family motivated by hate wasn’t enough to bring the topic into Canadian affairs.
In his address during the Islamophobia Summit, Prime Minister Trudeau said:
“Today, I’m here to listen to you on what our next steps should be to continue building a country where everyone is welcome, safe, and respected. This is not your burden to carry alone. As a society, this is everyone’s responsibility to take on.”
Later, he added “The politics of division cannot take root if we refuse to be divided. Hate cannot creep into the mainstream if we all speak up against it.”
In order to make the organizers of the summit on Islamophobia accountable and to help Prime Minister Trudeau and his new government stay faithful to his words, I think it is important to set some concrete objectives. We must make the fight against Islamophobia a clear one and not a simple public relations pre-electoral performance that would be forgotten until the next Islamophobic attack.
One of the issue that I didn’t hear during the Islamophobia summit was the strong link between the Canadian national security laws and Islamophobia. As if the two past decades of war on terror with what they brought as new anti-terrorism legislation, war in Afghanistan, spying and arrests of Muslim Canadians had no impact on shaping the narrative about the “dangerous nature” of Muslim Canadians and thus the banalization of their physical harm.
This link is key in understanding the state of Islamophobia in Canada. We can’t claim to fight Islamophobia while in the imaginations of many Canadians, (prompted by some media and some politicians), Muslims still represent a threat to “us.”
To fight this narrative and break the false premise that Muslims represent a threat to our national security, concrete actions should be undertaken by the new government.
I consider the three following cases to be litmus tests for Prime Minister Trudeau to prove he is serious about his statement at the Islamophobia summit about what he said “next steps should be to continue building a country where everyone is welcome, safe, and respected.”
Since 2008 until today, Hassan Diab’s case has remained in a legal limbo. In theory, Diab is a free man but with the real possibility to be extradited to France for another trial. Despite a French judge finding the evidence that he was in Lebanon at the time of the Synagogue attack which he is suspected of bombing in 1980, Diab’s case isn’t closed. Under the pressure of the family, victims and other advocacy groups, a new trial will open, and his extradition will once again be requested.
What does Islamophobia have to do with it?
Diab is a Canadian citizen of Muslim Lebanese descent. The fact that he is suspected in a case of Paris Synagogue bombing makes his case intertwined with the dangerous narrative of “violent Muslims.” The legal treatment of his case showed many times a relentlessness in indicting him that can’t be explained other than by the regional origins and religion of Diab.
Several times, the case of Hassan Diab has been compared to the case of Dreyfuss, a Jewish French military officer who was wrongly accused by his superior of treason because of the ambient antisemitism that prevailed French politics in the 19th Century.
The prevalence of Islamophobia in France is very well documented. Diab found himself caught in those French politics.
Sending an innocent person to France as a sacrificial lamb for some advocacy groups or to appease the French far-right national politics with another “Arab” conviction is wrong.
With the recent nebulous statement by former justice minister David Lametti about changing our extradition laws, the case of Hassan Diab remains hanging between the hands of Canadian politicians. What is preventing the government from having enough courage to fight for the rights of one its own Muslim citizens?
Double standards for the two Michaels
From 2006 until today, Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen of Uyghur descent, remains in prison in China despite having renounced his Chinese citizenship. Because of his activism for the Uyghur cause, he was arrested by authorities in Uzbekistan in 2006 and extradited to China where he was sentenced to life in prison. Later, his sentence was reduced to 18 years after he attended a re-education camp, according to Chinese authorities.
His wife, Kamila Telendibaeva living in Ontario with her four children, was interviewed recently and confirmed that she had no news about her husband.
Here’s where the Islamophobia comes in.
Several human rights organizations have documented the prosecution of Uyghur in China. The U.S. Senate passed a law to ban goods manufactured in the labour camps in Xinjiang by Uyghurs. There is evidence of Uyghurs being forced to eat pork and being disallowed to learn their religion in these so-called re-education camps. Uyghurs would not be persecuted if they were not Muslim.
With the recent return of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to Canada, the case of double standards seems very obvious. A strong government campaign was organized for the release of the “two Michaels.” In contrast, Canadian officials have been troublingly silent about Huseyin Celil.
In order to prove that all Canadians are treated the same and that he is serious about fighting Islamophobia, it is crucial that Prime Minister Trudeau call his Chinese counterpart and ask for the release of Huseyin Celil.
There are at least 32 Canadians detained in the refugee camps in northeast Syria. The majority of them are women and children. Many European countries repatriated their citizens from those camps where diseases and violence are widespread.
Despite former public safety minister Ralph Goodale having previously declared that Canada is gathering the legal tools and evidence required to prosecute whomever committed acts of violence during their time in Syria, whether they joined the arms of ISIS or found themselves in situations where they were forced to act against their will, almost nothing has been done by the Trudeau government. Recently, a lawsuit was filed by the families of 26 Canadians detained in these camps against the government to challenge this inertia and pressure the Canadian authorities to repatriate these Canadians.
Islamophobia or being nice to the “terrorists”?
By repatriating the Canadians detained in Syria, Trudeau will be able to break this persistent and misleading link between violence and Muslims. Whoever participated in acts of violence, for ideological reasons, whether Muslim or not, should be brought to court and given due process.
Alexandre Bissonnette killed six Muslim men in the Quebec City Mosque, Guilherme Von Neutegem slaughtered a Muslim caretaker of the Etobicoke Mosque, Nathaniel Veltman killed a grandmother, a mother, a father and their daughter by driving his truck into them in London, Ontario. All these Canadian men were motivated by ideology-driven hatred of Muslims. Yet, those three perpetrators received due process.
Why don’t we do the same for Canadians who went to Syria to join extremist groups? Release them if they are innocent or prosecute them if they committed crimes.
Leaving the Canadians detained in Syria to rot in camps is not proof of political leadership. Keeping quiet about Huseyin Celil isn’t a sign that Trudeau is serious about Islamophobia.
Avoiding the case of Hassan Diab and not changing the extradition laws will only help to continue the normalization of Islamophobia in Canada.