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September 22, 2010

Islamophobia didn't begin on 9/12 but...

Scott Stockdale

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While a couple of Canadian university professors agree that Muslims are marginalized and stigmatized in Canadian society, they view the problem, and thus solutions to it, very differently.

In a recent interview on the CBC radio show The Current, Michael Marrus, who teaches law and history at the University of Toronto, mentioned the September 6, 2010 front page headline in the New York Times, American Muslims Ask: Will We Ever Belong?

While both he and Dr. Jasmin Zine, a sociologist at Wilfrid Laurier University, agree that  that there is a problem of Muslims feeling alienated from the mainstream of society, in both the U.S. and Canada, Mr. Marrus draws parallels to other groups, such as Catholics, Jews and Italians, who were marginalized in both societies, but are no longer. But Ms. Zine said it's far more complicated than that.

“It's not an issue of people feeling they don't belong or feeling sentimental about some people's attitudes. Islamophobia is a system of oppression and therefore it's mapped into policies, how media represent issues; and it affects how Muslims are able to get jobs or find housing. These are things that have been documented in post 9/11 research, but Islamophobia didn't begin on September 12.”

However, she noted that the current manifestation of Islamophobia is far more ubiquitous because we have more media outlets, such as the internet, that act as avenues for Islamophobic narratives to be circulated.

“Those narratives and ideas are part of a broad campaign of misinformation about Islam and about Muslims and their place in society.”

These narratives, which portray Muslims as dangerous outsiders and enemies within, are very destructive, Ms. Zine said; and she gave examples of how they have implicated government policies.

“The Dutch immigration videos were designed toward Muslims, to try and weed out those they felt would be culturally irreconcilable with Dutch values. Similarly, the citizenship test in Germany is for the same reason. It's specifically geared toward Muslims, to decide if they're civilizationally and culturally acceptable to be reconciled to the cultural values within Europe.”

In response, Mr. Marrus said he disagreed with Ms. Zine's assertion that Islamophobia is finding its way into politics, whether at the federal, provincial or municipal level.

He mentioned the municipal election campaign in Toronto, which has a large field of mayoralty candidates, none of whom, Mr. Marrus said, are hatemongering or proposing measures of oppression. As for those who do espouse these types of views, Mr. Marrus characterized them as “nuts (who are) finding themselves on the front pages of the New York Times and now the Globe and Mail.”

Although he added that he's entirely sympathetic to those who see dangerous inclinations here, it appears that he's not one of them.

“But I do not see another holocaust. I do not see patterns of oppression. I do not see anything that parallels internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War”

However, he does acknowledge that there is a problem and he feels that encounters and dialogue are important ways to allow people to express various points of view, in order to bridge the gap between Muslims and the rest of Canadian society. And he stressed that leadership at the municipal, provincial and federal levels is a key component of this process.

“Here, I think we have some serious work to do,” Mr. Marrus said. “I think for example, the case of Omar Khadr, is a national scandal and increasingly recognized as such. There we have a child soldier who is being tried at Guantanamo Bay, the only non-American who has not been sought by his own government.”

Subsequently, Ms. Zine stressed that this is not about individual attitudes that people have. She feels that anti-Muslim sentiment is woven into various policies and practices that are institutionalized and systemic.

“That makes this form of oppression far more insidious; and very much supported by media types with narratives that you'll hear, particularly in the United States, but elsewhere, as well. I think a lot of the coverage has been about creating moral panic and fear; and I think there's very few counter narratives to work against the barrage of images you'll see on CNN, or many other media programs, that are pointing toward this idea of the enemy within.”

She said these narratives do have implications in terms of the day-to-day lives of Muslims living in America, or living in other countries in the world.

“This attitude and these narratives are supporting the war on terror and are very much a justification for this campaign: the idea of demonizing and dehumanizing Muslims very much plays into the logic of these kinds of material practices.”

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