Is Canada Islamophobic?

Canada is a pretty good place to live.  We constantly rank high on every conceivable list (quality of life, happiness, opportunity, openness…) and it is no secret that millions who live elsewhere would give anything to move here.  Sure, we are not perfect and we have a few skeletons in our closet (first and foremost our atrocious track record with First Nations), but all in all we have built a good society here that is the envy of the world.

So imagine my surprise to read in this morning’s Toronto Star that Canada is deeply Islamophobic. The same Canada that bucked the trend and took in 25,000 Syrian refugees, most of whom were undoubtedly Muslim (yes, yes, the Swedes and the Germans have done much more but when we compare ourselves to our southern neighbour, which, let’s face it is the only yardstick we care about, we are world beaters)?  The same Canada that has modeled multiculturalism as an art (warts and all)? The same Canada where some of my best friends are Muslim?   What gives?

To reply to this scathing attack on our reputation, I will deconstruct most of it accusation by accusation.  I think you will find that the article is short on facts and woefully inadequate in analysis.

The author, legal analyst and writer Azeezah Kanji, makes the following arguments to support her claim that Canada is a terrible place for Muslims:

  1. The Harper government ran with some “anti-Islam animus” during the past campaign.  No argument here, but Ms. Kanji failed to note that they are the former government because, in part, of that.  Canadians were disgusted at their attempts to divide us along ethno-religious lines and the Muslim community played a role in ousting them, as demonstrated by the spike in voter turnout.  If we were truly Islamophobic, why is Stephen Harper no longer our PM?
  2. Islamophobia has become “normalised” in the form of “daily acts of hostility, hate crimes and even job discrimination” and our system is “fundamentally racist” (quoting a professor Deepa Kumar of Rutgers which, by the way, is in the US).  Seriously??  Here?  In Canada?  Ms. Kanji does not do us the courtesy of citing one single example.  Not one.  Does it happen?  Probably.  Is it systemic?  I’d love to see that data set.
  3. Stereotypes of Muslim violence have led to a $92 billion increase in national security spending since 9/11 (source?) and the stifling of dissent.  This a baldfaced lie.  No security agency stifles lawful dissent which is enshrined in our Charter.  CSIS, the RCMP and others are tasked with investigating threats to national security and do a damn good job of it (yes I am biased having worked for CSIS and proud of it!).   The increase in spending may have been a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 but it has led to counter terrorism successes (see point 5 below)
  4. The proliferation and broadening of terrorist offences now include vague crimes like “promoting or advocating the commission of terrorism offences in general”.  I agree with Ms. Kanji that this is an area that needs work but her dismissal of the seriousness of terrorism promotion and advocacy underscores her lack of knowledge on how radicalisation to violence happens.  Furthermore, I am unaware of any charge to date on this basis and the courts will ultimately decide on what is a legitimate security threat and what is not.
  5. The “irrational fear” of Muslim terrorism is accurate – to a point.  North Americans, including some Canadians, have a disproportionate angst about Islamist extremism (but for the record there has not been one single death due to terrorism in Canada since 9/11 at the hands of someone who was NOT an Islamist extremist, so can we put that canard to bed please?) and that is not good.  But the suggestion that there  is no Islamist extremism in our country is a blatant blindness to facts: the Toronto 18, SAMOSSA, Via Rail, Victoria legislature, St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, National War Memorial/Parliament, 100s of foreign fighters with Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Al Shabaab…need I go on?
  6. Muslims have been made to bear the brunt of suspicion and feel less secure.  Do they?  Not the majority that I talk to.  Maybe Ms. Kanji and I walk in different social circles.
  7. Raising Maher Arar (sent to Syria by the US, NOT Canada), Al Maati/Nureddin/Al Malki (imprisoned by Syria for whatever reasons they had at the time NOT Canada) is an obvious tactic.  Were mistakes made?  Commissions of inquiry determined that there were.  Was Canada responsible for their mistreatment?  Not in my books (personally I would cast the blame for that on the Syrians). Should we do things better?  Absolutely.  We will learn and we must learn.
  8. The “secret trial five” on national security certificates (which were never “trials”) is also not surprisingly brought up.  It is here that Ms. Kanji betrays her failure to grasp basic facts.  These men were deemed inadmissible to Canada by the immigration department, not by CSIS or the RCMP, under certificates which were found reasonable by multiple judges over years.  Is the tool a good one?  No, it is terrible, but it was all that we had.  We need to do a better job of integrating intelligence (which is not evidence) into our decision making, not dismiss it out of hand because it does not meet the normal evidentiary threshold.  Furthermore, the tool has been used 27 times since 1991 and, to the best of my knowledge, only 5 occasions have involved Muslims.  What then do we make of the other 22?
  9. And finally, she says that the national security apparatus is rampant with “systemic Islamophobic bias”.  This is indeed an interesting accusation and one that I am sure is based on Ms. Kanji’s intimate and deep knowledge of scores of men and women who work in national security.  I doubt it.  It is funny how over 32 years in that apparently Islamophobic national security community I failed to come across such bias.  Are there a few bad apples?  Sure, but to tar that entire group of dedicated professionals with baseless accusations is disgusting.
  10. All in all a poor rant by someone who does not appear to have any true experience with the subject matter.  It is clear she is writing from her heart and this is admirable. Pity she did not let her head have a say at the same time.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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