Faisal Bhabha is an Assistant Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, where he teaches, researches and publishes in the areas of constitutional law, human rights, multiculturalism, national security and access to justice. Bhabha has served as Vice-chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and was a member of the Equity Advisory Group of the Law Society of Upper Canada.
A decade ago, American hip-hop artist Kanye West famously declared on live television, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”.
The assertion might’ve seemed facile, even unfair, if it hadn’t resonated for so many Americans. Kanye’s unscripted outburst gave voice to justified outrage over President Bush’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and the harm it caused the overwhelmingly black population of the poorest areas of New Orleans. It also led to valuable discussions about systemic government neglect of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
Tragedies tend to expose underlying inequalities in society. Governments and leaders deserve to be judged for how they manage through tragedy. For Canadian Muslims, the horror of 9/11 was followed by a federal government approach to national security that mostly made Muslims feel less secure. This worsened after the 2006 election that ushered in an era of Conservative parochial populism. In the 10 years of Harper rule, Muslims have experienced Canadian democracy become less open, less tolerant, and a good deal less private. Harper’s approach to Muslim relations has been insensitive at best, and openly hostile at worst.
After 9/11 and the launch of the US War on Terror, Muslims in the West found themselves out of the closet and under a microscope. They were over-exposed and under-prepared for their new attention. They were vulnerable to the excesses of power provoked by fear.
A little more than a week after 9/11, the day after US President George W. Bush first used the phrase “war on terror,” then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien addressed more than 500 people at an Ottawa mosque. He assured Canadian Muslims that Canada would not resort to scapegoating or profiling in the wake of the attacks. He told the congregation that he came as their Prime Minister to personally deliver confirmation that they would not be abandoned or blamed, and that the nation would “stand together as one.”
Chretien acknowledged that the attacks on the US created “great sadness and anxiety for Muslims across Canada because the cold-blooded killers who committed the atrocities in New York and Washington invoked the name and words of Islam as justification.” Recalling Canada’s shameful treatment of Japanese, Italian and German Canadians during World War II, the Prime Minister promised, “We will not fall into the trap of exclusion as we have in the past.”
Just a few weeks later, the Liberals introduced an omnibus anti-terrorism bill, modelled on the US Patriot Act. The law was passed before the end of 2001, as Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan was ramping up. With a global “war on terror” under way, anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise, and new laws on the books, Canadian Muslims had every reason to worry about what the global war on terror would mean for us at home. For some, like Maher Arar, the worst fears came true.
Arar, a Canadian Muslim citizen from Ottawa, was secretly handed over to Syria by US authorities based on information received from the RCMP. Tortured and imprisoned for over a year, he would’ve been all but forgotten if not for the efforts of his determined wife, Monia Mazigh.
By the time Stephen Harper became Prime Minister, Arar was a household name. Canadians were right to ask how this could have happened in our rule-of-law democracy. We trust official institutions to operate competently and lawfully. A public inquiry provided answers: shoddy policing, irresponsible international information sharing, and heavy scrutiny of Muslims were to blame for the misplaced target on Arar. Harper apologized for the wrong (committed under Liberal watch) and signed-off on a $10.5 million settlement — the largest of its kind in Canadian history.
The Arar incident led to the exposure of additional rendition cases. Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin were all sent to be tortured in Syria after being falsely fingered by Canada as possible terrorists. For Canadian Muslims, news of these men’s ordeals produced sympathy for the families and outrage over the injustice. But most of all, it spread fear: Who among us is next? The Conservatives’ new anti-terrorism law, passed with Liberal support in the House on May 6, 2015, largely ignores the Arar Inquiry findings.
This past April, the government settled a lawsuit with yet another victim of rendition. Benamar Benatta was a refugee from Algeria, who ill-fatedly entered Canada just days before 9/11 and was in Canadian immigration detention when the twin towers came down. A young male Muslim Arab with a background in aviation, Benatta seemed guilty enough. In the middle of the night on September 12, 2001, Canadian officials illegally whisked him across the Niagara River and into US custody, where he would spend the next five years. The UN described Benatta’s treatment in detention as “torture.” An American judge ruled that conditions were “oppressive.”
In 2006, Benatta was released back to Canada. He told the press: “I was labelled a terrorist because I happened to be Muslim and had been in the air force. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong ethnic background.”
After a decade of Conservative rule, Muslim fear of suspicion and discrimination has not abated. In fact, it’s gotten worse. There has been a reported spike in harassment by CSIS and incidences of discrimination in daily life, and the government has done little to assuage Canadian Muslims that they’re not viewed as a fifth column. In early 2014, a staff person from the Prime Minister’s Office was quoted in the media alleging that the country’s most prominent and respected Muslim advocacy organization has links to terrorism. The group responded with a libel suit. The Prime Minister’s Office refused to retract the comment. The matter is presently before the courts, but the damage is already done.
While the Prime Minister may not be the cause of Islamophobia abroad or at home, his record shows that he’s failed to do anything tangible to acknowledge it, speak out against it, or demonstrate concern toward those affected by it. Instead, Harper’s actions seem to stem from an obsession with another concept: “Islamicism”.
In September 2011, Prime Minister Harper told the CBC that “the major threat [to Canada] is still Islamicism.” It’s never been entirely clear what, or who, this word refers to exactly. Canada’s current military involvement in Iraq and Syria is justified on the basis of fighting Islamicism. The new anti-terrorism legislation, creating beefier police power and wider information sharing networks, is also justified on the basis of fighting Islamicism. Given past experience, many Canadian Muslims worry that the government’s focus on “Islamicism” means in fact focusing on Muslims as a whole. The Prime Minister has not provided reassurances to the contrary. Instead, he’s used public fear to advance his political agenda, at the expense of Canadian Muslims.
On the day of the April 2013 Boston Marathon attack, the Harper government announced plans to rush debate of new legislation intended to revive the anti-terrorism detention and investigative powers that expired in 2007. Just days later, the RCMP announced the arrest of alleged al-Qaeda operatives in Ontario. It soon became clear that the arrested men had been under surveillance for months and had never posed a real risk to public safety. The timing of the arrests appeared to be little more than a publicity stunt to connect the Boston tragedy with made-up threats in Canada. This is how the government has cultivated fear and bred the very insecurity it uses to justify increased police power and racial profiling.
Within days of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, French President Francois Hollande spoke publicly to reassure French Muslims of their civil rights, acknowledging that Muslims were “the first victims of fanaticism, fundamentalism and intolerance.” Stephen Harper, meanwhile, was quick to capitalize on the French tragedy. As with the Boston attack, he drew an implausible link to events in Canada. He went on to irresponsibly associate local mosques with the “international jihadist movement”. The Prime Minister’s resort to smearing peaceful places of congregation and worship was, for many, cruel and unforgivable.
This came on the heels of Parliament passing the Strengthening Citizenship Act in 2014, allowing the government to revoke Canadian citizenship from some dual citizens, even those born in Canada, who are convicted of terrorism, spying or high treason. The law came after the Supreme Court ruled that Canada had “actively participated” in the violation of former child soldier Omar Khadr’s constitutional and international human rights and wrongly refused to repatriate him from Guantanamo Bay. Harper made no secret that the law was designed to strip Canadians like Khadr of their citizenship.
The Harper government has similarly failed to show mercy to the most desperate and needy asylum seekers. Harper claimed that amendments to immigration and refugee law, adopted in the 2012 Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act, were designed to protect vulnerable people from the dangers of human smuggling. The actual effect of the legislation is to punish those who turn to Canada for its compassion towards asylum seekers and its commitment to international law. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s refugees are Muslim, so it’s not surprising that Canadian Muslims have noted with alarm the Harper government’s roll back of Canadian immigration and refugee policy.
Meanwhile, the Harper government claims to be defending Canadian heritage by taking aim at the niqab, a face veil worn by some Muslim women. In December 2011, then-Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, announced a niqab ban at citizenship oath ceremonies. He said everyone needed to display their face to show that they’re “joining the Canadian family” freely and openly. According to Prime Minister Harper, the niqab is not consistent with “how we do things here.”
When the Supreme Court decided a 2012 case involving the niqab in a criminal courtroom, Justice Rosalie Abella warned of the dangers of such a ban: “To those affected, this is like hanging a sign over the courtroom door saying ‘Religious minorities not welcome’.” A majority of the Court ruled that an outright ban is unconstitutional. They said the niqab can only be restricted when it poses a direct risk to someone else’s constitutional right and it’s impossible to accommodate.
Harper’s niqab ban in citizenship oath ceremonies was recently ruled illegal by the Federal Court. The government appealed the decision and continues to spend taxpayer dollars trying to justify and uphold the ban.
With respect to Canada’s foreign policy, the Harper government has alienated many Muslim Canadians by adopting a highly partisan approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Canada has historically been even-handed in urging respect for international law and promoting a just peace in the Middle East. During last summer’s assault on Gaza, Harper blamed Hamas entirely for the suffering, including the killing of hundreds of innocent Palestinians (including scores of children) by Israeli forces. The government also balked on aid, blocked Canadian doctors from volunteering in Gaza, and refused visas to injured Palestinian children invited to receive treatment in Canada. All the while, government officials went out of their way to blame the victims and trumpet Israel’s right to “defend” itself.
At a time when the international community is finally losing patience with Israel’s occupation and treatment of the Palestinians, Harper has made Canada Israel’s biggest enabler. After recent Israeli elections, we are now allied with the most right-wing government in that country’s history.
What is clear is that after 10 years, Harper has a broken relationship with the nation’s Muslim communities. This should be a concern to all Canadians who care about the state of our democracy. A democracy’s strength is measured in large part by its relationship with its minorities. Muslims are a sizeable and growing minority in Canada. In 2006, there were 800,000 Canadian Muslims. Today there are 1.1 million, spread across the country and concentrated in cities. Nearly 5% of Ontarians, and 3% of Albertans and Quebeckers are Muslim. One in 12 Torontonians is Muslim.
These numbers mean that an entire segment of the Canadian public have come to implicitly understand that they’re at risk of being the object of unfair suspicion or contempt. This is what it means to be a hyper-visible and distrusted minority. This is what it means to be Canadian Muslim during the Harper decade.
When Omar Khadr was recently released on bail, his lawyer Dennis Edney answered questions as to why the government had worked so hard to keep his client behind bars. Edney’s explanation might’ve seemed facile, even unfair, if it hadn’t resonated for so many Canadians. He said, “Mr. Harper is a bigot. Mr. Harper doesn’t like Muslims.”
Perhaps Kanye West was onto something after all.