OTTAWA – Islamophobia is certainly a bad thing. There are no good phobias, are there?
In March, the House of Commons passed M-103, known as the “Islamophobia” motion, which called for the government to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.”
Controversy erupted over the ambiguity of the term “Islamophobia.” Did it include any comments critical of Islamic doctrine and practice? Islamophobia is a bad thing, but what kind of thing is it exactly?
The House of Commons Committee on Canadian Heritage is holding hearings on M-103, and I was invited to appear before the committee to offer some views. I appeared on Wednesday, and on the whole it was a positive experience.
In a departure therefore from what I usually write in this space, I thought readers might profit from a report on my experience before the committee.
Here is the motion itself. A disclaimer: the language is as it was passed in the House and its appearance on Convivium does not indicate that the editors have abandoned their view that the English language ought to be both clear and beautiful.
That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear; (b) condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination and take note of House of Commons’ petition e-411 and the issues raised by it; and (c) request that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage undertake a study on how the government could (i) develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, in Canada, while ensuring a community-centered focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making, (ii) collect data to contextualize hate crime reports and to conduct needs assessments for impacted communities, and that the Committee should present its findings and recommendations to the House no later than 240 calendar days from the adoption of this motion, provided that in its report, the Committee should make recommendations that the government may use to better reflect the enshrined rights and freedoms in the Constitution Acts, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Private Members' Business M-103)
I include here my remarks to the committee, followed by some observations of the hearing itself. Here is what I prepared:
Thank you for the invitation to address this committee regarding M-103. There are several issues addressed by the motion, and the language is sufficiently bureaucratic to make it difficult for an ordinary person to understand what exactly is being contemplated. It is difficult therefore to respond with any specificity. Permit me, then, to make four points.
- Racism and religious discrimination are different things, though this motion appears to treat them alike. Race regards characteristics inherited at birth. Religion is a matter of faith and practise, which can change. For example, a Pakistani who decides to become Christian does not change his race or nationality, but his religion. I am honoured to be in the presence of Peter Bhatti, brother of the martyr Shahbaz Bhatti.
Shahbaz was killed out of hatred for his Catholic faith by people who shared the same race, but were of the Islamic faith. Religions, of course, include many different races. For example, my Church, the Catholic Church, is by far the most multiracial institution on earth today. Every day Catholics endure persecution, even martyrdom, and it is not because of race. Anti-racism efforts do not address the problem of religious discrimination.
- The motion condemns all forms of religious discrimination, and calls upon the government to advance initiatives to “better reflect” the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I note that “freedom of religion and conscience” is the first fundamental freedom enumerated in our Charter of Rights. I welcome a robust embrace of religious freedom, but point out it is often the government, through legislation and regulation, that impinges upon religious freedom.
That is true for Jews and Christians as well as for Muslims. Therefore to focus on one religion alone, as M-103 suggests, would be unwise. A renewed culture of religious freedom is to be welcomed, especially in a political culture where often all religious belief and practice is accorded second-class status. Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religious believers do encounter a sort of secular fundamentalism that is incompatible with Canada’s heritage of religious freedom, pluralism and tolerance. If M-103 leads to a renewed culture of religious freedom, that would be a praiseworthy outcome.
- Islamophobia is a term that, I suppose, is meant to capture hatred of Muslims, which it is rather straightforward to deplore. The question is whether “Islamophobia” includes any critical evaluation of Islamic doctrine and practice. For example, Christians and Muslims have quite different understandings of God. One sees this made clear, for example, in the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which quote passages of the Koran that deny the doctrine of the Trinity, the foundational doctrine of Christianity. Such doctrinal and moral disagreements can be engaged as we live together with our differences. I don’t imagine the government of Canada wishes to engage in theological matters, which are outside its competence, but neither should it seek to discourage theological exchange, even critical theological exchange.
- Honest and respectful theological exchange is all the more important in the face of religiously inspired violence. I quote, for example, former President William Clinton, on the question of radical Islamist violence: “How should we respond? We can try to kill and capture them, but we can’t get them all. We can try to persuade them to abandon violence, but if our arguments have no basis in their own experience, we can’t fully succeed. Our best chance is to work cooperatively with those in the Muslim world who are trying to reach the same minds as the radicals by preaching a more complete Islam, not a distorted, jagged shard.” It is extraordinary to hear a statesman speak about the need for a better “preaching” – which is the task of theologians and clergy, in the first place, not government. Yet President Clinton acknowledges what we all know, namely that this better preaching is an urgent task. Canada is perhaps well-situated for this necessary dialogue and exchange to take place. We have here an Islamic community that is able to speak freely, and carry out respectful dialogue with other religions. That is not the case everywhere in the Islamic world. Such theological work will be challenging and perhaps even provocative. Concerns about Islamophobia ought not to prevent that necessary work from being done, work that Canadians are well situated to do.
Thank you for granting me the opportunity to address you, and I pray God’s blessings upon your work.
The other witnesses made points that I found of interest:
- Jay Cameron of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms noted that “to quell” – used in the motion – is usually used in the context of riots, where governments employ overwhelming force to put down an unlawful uprising. Such language is troublesome in a motion intended to promote harmony.
- Peter Bhatti, chairman of International Christian Voice, spoke of the experience of Pakistani Christians now in Canada. He recalled how, some fifteen years after independence, the Democratic Republic of Pakistan became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the situation of religious minorities deteriorated. His community is worried that M-103 marks the beginning of the Canadian government accommodating itself to an Islamic agenda that has advanced to the detriment of fundamental freedoms and social peace in major European cities.
- Peter Bhatti also asked what might happen if the Canadian government were to identify, say, Christians of Pakistani origin, as promoting “Islamophobia” if they made comments critical of Islam? Would their relatives and friends still in Pakistan be implicated as “defaming” Islam, and perhaps run afoul of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which carry severe penalties, including death?
- Jenny Kwan, an NDP MP on the committee, lamented that M-1o3 could not be a moment of non-partisan harmony and consensus. I responded that some delicate issues are best not inserted into the partisan atmosphere of the House of Commons precisely because they can lead to increased tension.
- Raheel Raza, president of the Council of Muslims Facing Tomorrow, delivered a powerful presentation; no surprise to those who have heard her before. She pointed out that in international forums, Islamic countries often work in concert to rule out of bounds any discussion of human rights violations precisely on the grounds of “Islamophobia.” She argued that the term is a defensive shield for ideas that ought not be defended.
- Raza also noted that there are significant reforming movements across the Islamic world, and Canada, to the extent it is able, ought to be encouraging these rather than policing those who might be critical of Islam.
- Finally, Raza had a interesting formulation. She noted that religious beliefs are ideas, and “ideas have no rights – people have rights.” As a Catholic I was struck by that formulation. For a long time in the Catholic tradition, the phrase “error has no rights” was employed to argue against religious freedom. How could an erroneous religious belief have rights? That was clarified at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Error indeed has no rights, but errors are held by people, who do.
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 William Clinton, “Introduction” in Madeleine Albright and Bill Woodward, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.