Sunday, 19 February 2017
Islamophobia—what's in a word?
That is not the case with the word "Islamophobia," defined by Wikipedia as "fear, prejudice, hatred or dislike directed against Islam or Muslims, or towards Islamic politics or culture." That seemingly innocuous phrase "Islam or Muslims" is critical. Do we mean dislike or prejudice against the religion or against the individuals who practice it?
Canadians generally disapprove of prejudice against individuals because of their faith and, of course, it violates the Human Rights Act. But prejudice against a religion, Islam or any other, is something else entirely. Canadians have the right under the Charter to criticize, ridicule or otherwise show their dislike or even contempt for any faith, an important right not only as an exercise of free speech but because of the unique influence that religion holds over society. It needs to be closely watched.
This brings us to Motion 103, introduced in the House of Commons by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, which reads, in part, That, in the opinion of the House, the government should ... condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination ....
The emphasis on "Islamophobia" has sent certain conservatives, including some of the leadership candidates, into a spasm of hysteria. They have denounced the motion as an assault on freedom of speech with its perceived potential for preventing criticism of Islam. Some have accused it of other sins, including the insinuation of Sharia law into Canada. They have been reminded that it's a motion, not a bill, so in fact it won't force anybody to do anything, but that has not lessened the criticism.
Conservatives objecting to the motion on the grounds of freedom of speech is a tad hypocritical. Last year they unanimously supported a motion censoring the BDS Movement, a thinly disguised attempt to discourage advocating action against Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. Nonetheless, they do have a point about Motion 103.
People of good will will recognize the motion simply as an attempt to condemn discrimination against members of racial or religious groups, particularly Muslims, but, by not defining Islamophobia, it can in fact be interpreted as condemning criticism of Islam.
Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly insists that "Islamophobia is clear. It's discrimination against Muslims, people of Muslim faith." Dictionaries, unfortunately, are not so clear, offering various definitions, including Wikipedia's.
Over time, Islamophobia may come to mean specifically discrimination against Muslims, even though that's not what it says, just as anti-Semitism has come to mean discrimination against Jews, even though that's not what it says. But then how will we refer to criticism of Islam, the religion? I ask the question with a personal motive because I am no fan of religions, often criticize them, and have even less use for Islam than I have for Christianity.
One obvious answer to the semantic challenge, as a number of observers have suggested, is to use the word "anti-Muslim" for discrimination against Muslims as individuals. It is specific, matches anti-Semitism, and means exactly what it says. And as for Motion 103, anti-Muslim should satisfy both sides of the House. When they discuss discrimination against Muslims (or against Islam) in the future, they could start on the same page. Too reasonable, perhaps?