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November 7, 2015

Harper may be gone, but his spirit lingers

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Millions of Canadians were pleased to be rid of Stephan Harper with the October 19 federal election.

After nearly 10 years, they’d had enough of cuts to essential services, lack of commitment to environmental action, the muzzling of government scientists, cancelling of the long-form census, insults to experienced senior officials such as our country’s chief justice, questionable “reward” appointments, the Senate corruption scandal, disregard for Canada’s constitutional values, persistent refusal to communicate transparently with the public, and a long list of other policies that have sent our country back decades in the eyes of the world.

But I can argue confidently that no community is more relieved to see the end of the Conservative regime than Canadian Muslims. Adding to a long list of reasons why Harper overstayed his welcome was his blatant exploitation of distrust and hate toward Muslims and Islam in order to gain votes from the fearful and uninformed. Fortunately, his racist politics did not translate into the national votes he expected; unfortunately, the racist card gained him 8 more Conservative seats in Quebec, for a total of 12.

Both before and during the marathon 2015 election campaign, Harper and his supporters tried their utmost to sell the argument that one million Muslims already in our midst are somehow dangerous and un-Canadian. Moreover, we should not trust Muslim refugees from places like Syria to come and live peacefully here either.

Traditional political wisdom holds that in a country such as Canada, whose population is predominantly immigrant-based, expressing hatred toward a significant minority and its faith damages your chances to win an election. Nevertheless, Harper and a disturbing number of his party’s most powerful candidates insisted on unapologetically targeting Muslims throughout the campaign.

I recall after meeting Stephen Harper in Ottawa when he was a newly elected MP, that I wrote “arrogant” in my journal beside his name. Seven years ago, I journalled about my first meeting with the young Justin Trudeau, writing “good listener.”  Both men were among some 100 Ottawa politicians from all parties whom I met over a ten-year period during my time as founding president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

After subsequent meetings with our now-former PM, I also wrote about Harper that; “He subscribes to an extreme ideology but does not show it . . . But MP Stockwell Day has the same extreme ideology, but is open about it. Harper is more dangerous of the two.”

Throughout Harper’s reign as Prime Minister, there was no attempt by him or his government to hide a clear anti-Islam bias, which was disappointingly shared by a number of mainstream media, notably the National Post. Instead of challenging and shaming Harper, the NP was particularly insistent on treating the Conservative anti-Islam / anti-Muslim rhetoric as politically acceptable, even more so during the election campaign. Harper’s electoral hate-talk reached its climax when he announced a so-called “barbaric cultural practices” phone tip (snitch) line and proposed on national television that the niqab (woman’s face veil) be banned for all who either dispense or receive public services.

Harper may be gone from Canada’s top office, but the far-right media can be counted on to continue supporting his anti-Islam agenda. Witness a recent (October 29, 2015) National Post article headlined “Canada Ran Away: Online Jihadists celebrate Trudeau’s win as they anticipate end to air strikes.”

The article states in part that jihadists feel “elation and a sense of triumph at a perceived defeat of Canada over last week’s election results as they anticipate the Liberals’ promised end to airstrikes in Iraq and Syria . . . The Middle East Media Research Institute study said ‘known jihadists’ and supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS / ISIL) were rejoicing at the election of a government committed to halting Canada’s involvement in the international air coalition.”

Harper and his advisers knew that propaganda works best when people are most susceptible to its message – fear of the unknown and changing demographics are powerful drivers of prejudice. Take Bill C-24, for example, now law. Personally, I do not object to having one’s Canadian citizenship revoked as an appropriate punishment for very serious crimes. But this should be a prerogative of the courts, not a blunt instrument to be used as Harper did in blatant efforts to attract anti-Islam voters coast to coast.

The recent election campaign also illustrated a disturbing selectivity in Harper’s focus. He generally ignored or dismissed his bias against aboriginals, blacks, and other marginalized Canadian minorities to relentlessly target Islam and Muslims.

Propaganda that demonizes an entire faith community has negative consequences on the entire country, especially when reinforced from the top down by a Prime Minister and his governing party. This scenario bears an alarming resemblance to the case of European Jews during the years leading up to the Holocaust. A widespread belief in Jewish plots to take over Europe resulted in their community being treated as alien “others.” Similar animosity has been historically exerted in various parts of the world against other faith groups, such as Catholics.

Canada must embrace a “never-again” campaign to protect its Muslims and other marginalized minorities from racist government policies and the politics of hate.

It will take a long time for our nation to heal from a decade of damaging majority Conservative rule. But Canada can “thank” Harper for bringing out greater numbers of Muslim voters – along with the youth vote, aboriginal vote, non “old-stock Canadian” vote, and above all, the decent “ordinary Canadian” vote.

Now the way is open to embrace a new attitude of healing and change, starting on November 4th with the swearing-in of our new government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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