Raymond de Souza: Canada’s anti-racism strategy needs to redefine Islamophobia
All religions need critical engagement. In this moment of history, that need is pressing in the world of Islam
Some time back I was booking a flight and had an option to fly EgyptAir, with a connection in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The times were convenient and the price right. I declined and found another option.
Why? Because I would not want, even as a mere stopover, to be in Saudi Arabia without prior guarantees from the government that I would not be subject to imprisonment or worse because I am a Christian.
If I were made of sterner stuff, I suppose I might welcome the chance to minister as a fellow prisoner to those Filipino and Indian “guest” workers caught praying and thrown into an extra-judicial jail, perhaps never to be heard of again. But I am not, and so opted to give Jeddah a pass.
I opted to give Jeddah a pass
Now is that Islamophobic? I suppose yes, in that I would be afraid for life and liberty because in Saudi Arabia a certain form of Islam is practiced and given sanction by the state. To put it another way, I would be happy to connect in Johannesburg but not Jeddah, and the reason is related to the latter being in an Islamic country.
Yet, I would also be happy to connect in Jakarta, in the world’s most populous Muslim country, so maybe I am not Islamophobic after all. And I would be happy to visit India, where there are more Muslims than in Saudi Arabia.
Is it Islamophobic for a Catholic priest not to stop over in Saudi Arabia? What if there were mechanical problems and we were required to leave the airport to stay overnight in a hotel? In a country where carrying a bible or a rosary can get you thrown into religious jail? Where Catholic priests have to minister incognito, like the worst days of Elizabethan England? Whoops, did I just reveal a latent Anglicanophobia? I might be a simmering cauldron of bigotry.
Of course it’s not Islamophobic. Christians are quite right to be circumspect of Wahhabi Islam as it is practiced in Saudi Arabia and exported to the world in various murderous guises.
All of which is brought to mind by the federal government’s new “anti-racism” strategy. The program grew out of a controversy some years ago over M-103, an anti-Islamophobia motion in Parliament. So the strategy includes an Islam component, perhaps not pro-Islam but at least anti-anti-Islam. It’s aimed at protecting Canadian Muslims from harassment and discrimination.
It’s tiresome to point out that Islam is not a race, despite the government’s determination to treat it like one. It would be possible to harbour prejudice against Arabs and be fiercely pro-Muslim, as the majority of Muslims live east of the Persian Gulf and in parts of Africa, outside the Arab world. But leave the confusion of race and religion for another day.
Islam is a many-differentiated thing. Saudi Wahhabis and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Toronto are not the same
It’s a mistake to treat Islam itself as if it were a monolithic thing, an undifferentiated block approaching two billion people. Islam is a many-differentiated thing. Saudi Wahhabis and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Toronto are not the same.
That’s the problem with the definition of Islamophobia adopted by the anti-racism strategy. It includes “racism, stereotypes, prejudice, fear or acts of hostility directed towards individual Muslims or followers of Islam in general. In addition to individual acts of intolerance and racial proﬁling, Islamophobia can lead to viewing and treating Muslims as a greater security threat on an institutional, systemic and societal level.”
Is it anti-Muslim prejudice to say that all Muslims constitute a security threat? Yes. Is it discrimination to direct acts of hostility toward followers of Islam in general? Yes.
The government’s strategy takes a dim view of any critical look at Islam
But the house of Islam has many rooms, and not all of them are filled with sun-dappled butterflies. The same would be true of Christianity. But it is not bigotry to consider that. For example, while Toronto is proud to host the Aga Khan Museum, it would be rather a different matter to build the Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Museum in Canada.
All religions need critical engagement. In this moment of history, that need is pressing in the world of Islam. Muslims, after all, pay the most lethal price for jihadist violence. Yet the government’s strategy takes a dim view of any critical look at Islam, which would actually put a great number of important Muslim voices offside.
I have profited over the years from many fruitful encounters with Muslims, both in Canada and overseas. Given the type of Muslims who are typically willing to engage in Christian-Muslim encounters, it is quite common to hear complaints about Islamist extremism from them, long before any non-Muslim raises the matter.
It is quite likely that, like many federal strategies, nothing much will be accomplished by this anti-racism strategy. But if it is effective, it should not prevent a critical engagement, theological and otherwise, with the world of Islam, both lights and shadows.