Canada truck attack: The deadly cost of endemic Islamophobia

Vehicle ramming in London, Ontario, is just the latest incident showing that Canada has much to unlearn and relearn about Islam.

A man driving a pickup truck plowed into a Muslim family of five out for a Sunday evening stroll in the Canadian city of London, Ontario, in what police are calling a “premeditated” hate crime.

A teenage girl and her grandmother, father and mother are dead, while their nine-year-old son is in hospital.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday called it a terrorist attack, saying of the family members who died: “Their lives were taken in a brutal, cowardly, and brazen act of violence. This killing was no accident. This was a terrorist attack, motivated by hatred, in the heart of one of our communities.” 

Last year, a volunteer sitting outside a Toronto mosque had his throat slit by a man with alleged links to white supremacist groups. And three years before that, a terrorist entered a mosque in Quebec City and gunned down worshippers, killing six people and seriously injuring 19 others.

How is this possible in a country touted for its multiculturalism and tolerance? This is no accident: Canadians have a lot to unlearn and relearn about Islam.

Speaking at a 2017 ceremony marking the murders in Quebec City, Imam Hassan Guillet said: “We don’t have enemies; I repeat, we don’t have enemies. We have people who don’t know us.” After eulogising the victims, the imam said that the terrorist killer was also a victim.  

Indeed, such killers do not just wake up one morning and decide to kill Muslims. Long before they execute their evil deeds against the innocent, hateful ideas – more dangerous than bullets or vehicles used as weapons – are planted in them. Much of the blame for their radicalisation rests with certain politicians and segments of the media.

Negative perceptions

Sadly, these killers are not alone in being fed negative ideas about Islam and Muslims. According to a submission to the United Nations last year by several organisations, including the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, 46 percent of Canadians have a negative view of Islam; fewer than half would deem it “acceptable” for one of their children to marry a Muslim; 56 percent believe that Islam suppresses women’s rights; and more than half of Ontario residents feel that mainstream Muslim doctrines promote violence.

In addition, the submission noted that 52 percent of Canadians feel that Muslims can only be trusted “a little” or “not at all”; 42 percent think discrimination against Muslims is “mainly their fault”; 47 percent support banning headscarves in public; 51 percent support government surveillance of mosques; and 55 percent think the problem of Islamophobia is “overblown” by politicians and media.

Contrast this with studies cited earlier this year by the UN, which showed that 37 percent of Europeans and 30 percent of Americans viewed Muslims in a negative light.

Demonisation of Muslims has a long history in western politics and popular culture, arising out of the Crusades, the legacy of colonisation and the post-Cold War hunt for a new enemy, but it has now reached a fever pitch. In the North American context, this bigotry is rooted in a culture of fear that has been nurtured for decades by many people in positions of power, but most aggressively since 9/11 as part of the “war on terror”.

A discourse initially fuelled by a well-funded network of professional merchants of hate laid the groundwork for a legacy of “othering” and dehumanisation, which politicians have exploited as needed.

‘War on terror’ fear-mongering

Certain Canadian politicians and segments of the media shoulder much of the blame for what Canadians have learned about Islam and Muslims over the last few decades. Words, actions and silence all have consequences.

The “war on terror” fear-mongering that started with the Liberals reached its peak under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, when anti-niqab rhetoriccurbing the inflow of Syrian refugees, and calls to ban barbaric cultural practices (code for Muslim practices) were central election issues.

Over the years, many more have bought into this moral panic, as evidenced by the hate-fuelled debate over the introduction in 2016 by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid of a non-binding motion to study Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination.

Confirming the importance of the motion, a number of Conservative leadership hopefuls, including Kellie Leitch, Chris Alexander, Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux, even spoke at a Rebel Media event whose goal was to oppose “Islamic blasphemy laws” that would silence critics of Islam. 

Haters have always relied on conflation, misinformation, and obfuscation of the facts. Some resort to dog-whistle politics. Either way, the pack hears the message.

Ultimately, the motion passed in March 2017 – but despite the mosque killings in Quebec that occurred just weeks prior, 91 MPs, including the majority of Conservatives, opposed the symbolic proclamation against Islamophobia. Conservative MP Karen Vecchio, who represents the riding where the Muslim family was killed in London this week, was among those who voted against it. No such objections were raised against a similar motion on antisemitism in 2015. 

False narratives

Quebec has a long history of fuelling Islamophobia. Over the past decade, the Parti Quebecois has repeatedly created anxiety by proposing a “charter of values” aimed primarily at Muslims. Adding to the targeting of Muslim women, the Quebec Liberals introduced a ban on face veils in 2017. Not to be outdone, in 2019, the Coalition Avenir Quebec tabled Bill 21, which bans certain public-sector workers – including teachers, legal professionals and police – from wearing religious symbols at work.

Ontario helped to mainstream Islamophobia in 2005, when former Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty “banned” faith-based arbitration. This went against the recommendations of a former attorney general, Marion Boyd, whom the McGuinty government had appointed to study the issue. But why let facts get in the way when mob hysteria over the impending “sharia takeover” of Ontario can be addressed by our courageous politicians?

The media, which focuses disproportionately on negative news about Islam and Muslims, also plays a role in disseminating false narratives. In 2018, within hours of a Toronto van attack by a non-Muslim man that killed 10 people, a CBC reporter tweeted: “Witness to truck ramming into pedestrians tells local Toronto TV station that the driver looked wide-eyed, angry, and Middle Eastern.”

She later deleted it, but the damage had already been done as various “journalists” jumped at the chance to spread this “news” to their Islamophobic followers. 

When Islamophobia becomes a socially acceptable form of bigotry, as it has in some circles, we should not be surprised when it manifests in discrimination and even violence. It is well past time for government, law enforcement and national security officials to take concrete steps to unlearn and reteach themselves and Canadians about Muslims.  

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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Image copyright: AFP