Canada’s misconception of Middle Eastern foreign policy

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Canada’s forty-second federal election campaign has left us with an interesting puzzle.  While past elections have revolved around issues such as healthcare and free trade, these two key topics have been remarkably absent from the public conversation this writ period.  Are these issues any less pertinent than years past?

The evidence points to a resounding no.  From the ballooning healthcare costs faced by both provincial and federal governments to the recent signing of the TPP, both issues are still very much relevant within Canada’s political discourse.  And yet, these are not the subjects that have enraged or impassioned Canadians this fall.  What, then, do Canadians care about in the context of this election?

Some analysts point instead to the state of Canada’s economy as the main point of contention in this election.  Despite this being what most Canadians’ votes come down to, the conversation about the economy has been anything but detailed.  Even with the relatively detailed tax presented by the federal parties, I would wager that very few ordinary Canadians could give you a detailed explanation of how either plan works (or does not).  Can we blame them?  Taxes are, in short, uninspiring, even if their consequences can lead to more inspiring social and political changes.

With three major parties that are not presenting plans that represent anything radical on the economic spectrum, many Canadians do not feel the need to wade into the crowded centre and decipher for themselves the differences.  Tax plans do not inspire Canadians, save perhaps for a select few, and most do not know enough about economic policy to have a truly informed opinion.

What has this election really been about, then?  I argue that the answer lies far away from Canada itself.  In my eyes, election forty-two will be remembered as the election where Canada tried to involve itself in a discussion relating to Middle Eastern policy – and utterly failed.  I use the term “Middle Eastern policy” broadly, because the manifestation of the subject of the Middle East in Canadian electoral issues has gone beyond what one would generally expect this term to encompass.  Rather than simply referring to Canada’s foreign policy as it relates to the Middle East (which is broad in itself), Canada’s love affair with Middle Eastern policy cuts across issues.

The Canadian federal election campaign of 2015 has been a decidedly divisive one on a number of issues, many of which fall under the umbrella of Middle Eastern policy issues.  The politics of fear and division are alive and well in Canada – one only needs to tune into the coverage of the upcoming federal election to see clear evidence of this.  More specifically, wedge issues have split the Canadian population.

Long before the writ dropped, the Harper Government received criticism for its use of Canada’s seemingly unconditional support for Israel as a way of shoring up the “Jewish vote”.  The Prime Minister and his caucus have made this issue of foreign policy a wedge issue in Canadian domestic politics – regardless of the fact that all three major party leaders openly support Israel’s right to exist and the fact that Canada’s support for Israel counts for little more than lip service on the international stage.

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Israel, and Canada’s relationship to it, particularly in the broader context of support from the Jewish community at home, has been central to the Tories’ campaign of the last few years. One of the most divisive and polarizing issues of Middle Eastern politics has been watered down and specifically packaged for Canadians’ consumption, all while losing sight of the facts on the ground, the historical context, and Canada’s diminished influence internationally.

Looking at a purely domestic level, the treatment of Muslim Canadians, many of whom have origins in the Middle East, has also been a nearly constant undertone of this campaign. From the Conservative Party’s proposed hotline for reporting “barbaric cultural practices” (clearly marketed by the party to mean Muslim practices), to the number of Syrian refugees Canada should accept, to the question of whether a woman should be permitted to wear a Niqab during a citizenship ceremony, these irrelevant, albeit impassioning, considerations have taken up considerable airtime.

The continued orientalizing of the Middle East, its people, and its major religion – Islam – are clear in these considerations. The classical orientalist narratives that enraged Edward Said and so many others are all present in how these debates have played out in Canada. They might be salient issues among the general population, but are they really threats or crucial considerations? If we really cared about the oppression of women and maintaining justice in Canada there would be a much larger push for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. As for the “Islam as a naturally violent religion” narrative – I don’t think this flagrant essentialism merits a dignified response.

Beyond its domestic manifestation, considerable time and energy have also been allotted during this writ period to the discussion of Canada’s place in the Middle East. This is a much more valid concern: As the Islamic State (IS) continues to control a sizeable portion of land in Syria and Iraq and further its position as the government of this region, there are essential concerns at play. None of these real questions, however, are being adequately addressed. Canada’s IS debate has come down to the question of “to bomb or not to bomb”, and has entirely forsaken any nuanced discussion of the region.

A large part of IS’ emergence and the factors behind it came from the failed intervention in Iraq by the Bush Administration, and more specifically from the failure of Western leaders and policymakers to understand the strong sectarian divides in the region. We see no clear answers when it comes to addressing IS, but when the Prime Minister says that “Muslims” want Canada to have a military presence in the Middle East, the question must be asked – “which ones?”

Canada’s chance at a substantive debate about military spending, peacekeeping commitments and foreign aid have been lost, and the airspace is instead devoted to fear mongering and warnings on this issue. Canada is losing the war against IS simply by refusing to have a nuanced discussion about the Middle East region. Despite the complexity of these issues and a striking lack of general knowledge regarding the Middle East, it seems every Canadian has an opinion on these issues – but why is this really so harmful?

I believe that everyone involved is hurt. The continued orientalized view of the Middle East only serves to perpetuate stereotypes and increase hatred toward inhabitants of the Middle East themselves, as well as toward Muslim Canadians. Muslim women in Canada have, since the start of the “Niqab debate” reported being threatened or attacked when walking through the streets. By allowing an entire group of Canadians to be “othered” and stereotyped, we are going against the multiculturalism that Canada prides itself on.

All Canadians also suffer in that the lack of a nuanced discussion simply leads to bad policies. The very fact that when Justin Trudeau was openly mocked for suggesting that in order to fight terrorism Canada would have to examine the “root causes” of extremism shows how uncommitted we are in this country to actually eradicating terror.

In many Middle Eastern countries there are terrorist organizations elected to governing institutions, and many are among some of the largest providers of aid and welfare to certain groups in their respective nations. There is a reason why terror is attractive – not the least of which is the recurrent damage that the West seems to inflict on the region with each new intervention and political meddling. Understanding the social determinants of terror, although less glitzy than what Mr. Harper is proposing, is actually a much more surefire way to keep Canadians safe.

For those concerned about Canada’s social justice impact on the world, the issue of the West’s problematic relationship with Saudi Arabia is a good place to start. For those interested in free speech and citizenship rights, the fact that Mohamed Fahmy’s lawyer openly called out the Canadian government for not doing enough to help his client after he was imprisoned in Egypt for his journalism is another issue we need to address.

The fact that these more pressing issues have been usurped by discussions about face coverings and the terrorist next door is an indication of how unwilling Canadians are to engage in real, substantive debates, and perhaps how uneducated we are as a nation about the context of these issues.

Greta Hoaken studies Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies at McGill University. Twitter: @ghoakz

 

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