“We have to fear our (Muslim) neighbours down the street… They provide the culture in which fifth columns grow…” wrote a Canadian columnist shortly after September 11, 2001.
Less than two weeks later, the same columnist wrote, “From the beginning, Western attempts to draw a distinction between Islamist terrorists and Islam resulted in a lopsided effort.” And then in March of this year, he recycled his argument, saying, “The terrorist enemy has no armies to send against us; it has to penetrate our perimeter through fifth-columnists.”
Unfortunately, such statements are not exceptions to the rule — they are one small sample of many similar arguments that have been prolifically emblazoned across editorial pages since the 9/11 atrocities in America.
Even before 9/11, the Canadian Muslim community and some interested academics have believed that the media’s frequent demonic portrayal and mis-representation of Islam and Muslims has been one of the most persistent, virulent, and socially significant sources of anti-Islam in this country.
While some media sources, both print and broadcast, have realized the implications of such discrimination and have tried to act responsibly, certain specific and often predictable others have been actively incorporating the most explicit expressions of anti-Islam into their coverage, resulting in prejudicial, insightful, and extremely dangerous biases against all Muslims.
Such irresponsible journalism serves to reinforce the gross misconception that Islam is entirely uni–dimensional, monolithic and singular, without any internal differentiation or opinion. Through indiscriminately saddling Canadian Muslims with the weight of conflicts in Afghanistan, Kashmir, India, Palestine and elsewhere, the media have deliberately attributed a full spectrum of negative anti-Islam characteristics to the entire global Muslim community.
Some in the media have traditionally and too freely coupled their understanding of Islam or Muslim with inappropriate terms such as “extremist,” “fundamentalist,” “fanatic,” or “terrorist,” but the increase in negative repetitious usage since 9/11 has underlined a new and disturbing development.
Whilst the intention of such descriptions has always been that Islam is the inherent “other enemy” of the West, recent usage of these terms now infers, as my introductory quotation suggests, that these same “extremists,” “fundamentalists,” “fanatics” and “terrorists” are rampant among us in Canada and are willing to do the same to Canadians as they did to thousands of unsuspecting Americans. Some Canadian media have taken pains to restate their anti-Islam and anti-Muslim biases often enough to convince the vulnerable and uninformed among their readers and listeners that the worst possible things are probably true of ALL Canadian Muslims — including their next-door neighbours, co-workers, colleagues, medical professionals, etc.
If Osama bin Laden and his supporters indisputably planned and executed the 9/11 terrorist acts then, yes, certain individual Muslims are guilty. But Islam is not Muslims. Even if 1,500 Muslims were to commit similar acts every year — an unimaginable scenario — they would represent only one criminal per million.
Thus, as a living faith with nearly 1.2 billion global adherents that has survived as a world religion for more than 1400 years, Islam needs no defence — but our children here in Canada do. As young and vulnerable human beings, they need to be protected against the lifelong social and psychological damage inflicted by hate-mongering, negative stereotyping, and smear campaigns against their self-identity, self-esteem and human dignity.
We are gratified that many Canadians have been drawn to explore Islamic teachings, that many have found them attractive, and have embraced them in a spirit of love and compassion. But Canadian Muslims and their children still must be protected against discriminating bigotry, harassment, and mental and physical abuse.
Analogies are being made to the representation of the Jews in such early twentieth century literature as “Mein Kampf,” where gross exaggeration and dehumanization proved to be fatally dangerous for more than six million of them. What, then, could be the parallel consequences for Muslims? German academic Gunther Grass states that such beliefs about Islam in the West and the current climate of hate against it bring us very close to a situation not unlike that which prompted Germany’s infamous “Kristallnacht” in 1938. Once “the enemy” has been so dehumanized and portrayed as demonic and parasitical, what further justification is needed to persecute and finally exterm inate it?
But anti-Islam in the media is not our sole concern. Canadian Muslims are also very disturbed about the increasing pressure to link patriotism, the idea of being a “good citizen,” with unqualified support for enormous government increases in military spending, the passing of multiple anti-terrorism laws, and the economic and cultural Americanization of Canada at the expense of all other priorities, particularly those that our country traditionally valued, such as the elimination of homelessness and child poverty.
Anti-Islam is most dangerous because it does not respect the individual. It is an indiscriminate prejudice that tarnishes everything and everyone it touches, not only the 650,000 Muslims who call this great country home, but also the motives and attitudes of more than 30 million Canadians, in turn determining their behaviour toward, and beliefs about, Islam and Muslims.
We have seen this prejudice become so socially significant that the actions of a small group of Muslims on September 11, 2001 were enough to influence and mobilize many misguided people to attack the innocent Muslims in our midst — women harassed for wearing the hijab, bearded young men abused because of their appearance, places of worship and learning firebombed and vandalized. It is the time to differentiate between the real “them” and the real “us,” and apportion blame for the horrors of terrorism where it belongs.
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.