Why Motion 103 Will Create More Islamaphobia, not Less

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Motion 103, which essentially condemns irrational fear and criticism of Islam, is set to be debated this week in Parliament.  While the intentions of those who support the bill might be good — Canadians generally like to please — in reality, Motion 103 will stifle open inquiry and debate about religious accommodation in Canada, foster suspicion and resentment toward Muslims by other identity groups, and will strengthen right-wing populism by fortifying the narrative that western governments are moving toward Islamic exceptionalism.

Although free-speech is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with the growth of protected identities, the institutionalization of speech codes, and our Human Rights Commissions, free speech advocates claim that free-speech and free-expression have been eroding in Canada for a couple of decades now.

Motion 103 unequivocally moves us closer to speech codes relating to Islam, which leads many critics to question if Canada is moving toward blasphemy laws.  Although Muslims do face some prejudice in Canada, the reality is that 54% of hate-crimes in Canada are against Jews and their property.  And, because it is relevant, it must be noted that multiple Islamic schools in Canada have been exposed for fostering hostile attitudes toward Jews.  This obviously begs the question of why Canada would seek to offer special protections to a religious group that suffers fewer hate-crimes than another religious group in our society.

We must consider deeply if our Human Rights Commissions are equipped to determine the  acceptable boundaries of speech around Islam, and to what degree they themselves are politically motivated actors.  Will it become illegal in Canada to criticize female genital mutilation, child marriage or the sublimation of women under Sharia law?  Will it become illegal for a non-muslim to quote one of the more disagreeable passages of the Quran?  Will it become illegal to point out that ISIS claims to be emulating the life of Mohammed?

Or, should we expect Muslims to put on their grown-up pants and take a seat at the table of rough and tumble liberal democracy with every other identity group?  Special speech codes to protect Islam from criticism can also be seen as a way of infantilizing Muslims and treating them with the prejudice of low expectations.  It must also be noted that the motion refers to Islamophobia as a form of racism, when in truth, Islam is practiced across many racial groups.  The motion appears to racialize Islam so that it can label those who criticize it, racist.  It is a cheap trick that is used to marginalize detractors and is no less disingenuous than calling Christianity a race.

Like all immigrant groups, it will take time for new waves of Muslim immigrants and refugees to find their place in Canadian society.  The reality is that we have been seeing issues of cultural accommodation around Muslims in the news for years: a male soccer team from an Islamic school refuses to play another team with a girl on it; Muslim parents demand exemptions for their kids from music and sex ed classes; an Islamic neighbourhood is proposed in Quebec where women will be expected to dress according to Sharia law.

None of these issues are reasons to turn against Muslims or their faith; but they are issues that need to be discussed in the open.  While Prime Minister Trudeau argues that we are a post-national country lacking in values of our own, there are many, many Canadians who beg to differ.  Chipping away at the foundational principles of our liberal democracy to avoid uncomfortable conversations and hurt feelings only fuels the alt-right narrative that western governments are caving to Islamic exceptionalism.

Like the debates over the place of Sikh Turbans and Kippas in the nineties, it is important that Canadian society has an open dialogue with its Muslim population, and that the boundaries of this dialogue are determined not by state intervention, but through public discourse.  Atheists criticize Christians, feminists criticize the patriarchy, country folk criticize city folk, and on and on — and through all this, the glue that keeps our society functioning is restraint in the face of offense, not the weakening of free speech and free thought.

The Canadian government would do well to foster constructive conversations between Muslims and the rest of the population rather than silencing citizens through erroneous and politically motivated speech codes.  If the European elites had allowed difficult conversations about immigration and religious accommodation to take place over a decade ago, perhaps we wouldn’t have Brexit and the recent rise of nationalist populism throughout Europe.  Canada should heed that warning.

Motion 103 and any laws that come from it will likely increase levels of so-called Islamophobia in Canada, not reduce them, and will unnecessarily fuel right-wing populism.  Canada’s heart is almost always in the right place, but on this one, it needs to use its head.  Motion 103 should be dropped before it starts Canada down a divisive path that will deliver the opposite of its intended result.

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