Why Would Jews Have a Problem With the Term 'Islamophobia'?

The decision by a major Canadian Jewish organization to oppose a parliamentary motion condemning Islamophobia after a shocking mosque attack, because the term is 'politically charged and imprecise,' has vocal challengers.

Mira Sucharov
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A demonstrator holds a sign that reads 'Protect Muslims' outside of the U.S. Consulate General during a protest in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.
A demonstrator holds a sign that reads 'Protect Muslims' outside of the U.S. Consulate General during a protest in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. Credit: Cole Burston/Bloomberg
Mira Sucharov

When a multicultural country like Canada faces a stark rise in hatred targeting one ethnic group, it’s social and ethical solidarity is put to the test. The question for Canada’s Jewish establishment is: How will it respond to the shocking spike in hatred targeting the Muslim community?

On the heels of the Quebec City mosque shooting, which left six worshippers dead, and then a hate-filled protest outside of a Toronto mosque last Friday,  a private member’s motion to condemn Islamophobia was introduced in parliament. Regrettably, CIJA (the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the organized lobbying arm of the Jewish Federations in Canada) is opposing the motion, at least in its current form.

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid introduced the non-binding motion (M-103) urging the government to “better reflect” the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by “quell[ing] the increasing public climate of hate and fear,” while “condemn[ing] Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.” Her motion also asks parliament to convene a study to address these issues and “to conduct needs assessments for impacted communities.”

As the motion - intended to express the will of parliament but falling short of having any legal force - acknowledges, there are already Charter provisions for opposing racism and discrimination. And Section 319 of the criminal code already outlaws “communicating statements in any public place, incit[ing] hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace.”

But sometimes the law is not enough to signal collective revulsion.

The Friday demonstrators outside a downtown Toronto mosque held signs such as “Ban Islam” and “Muslims are terrorists.” Interviewed on camera, one of the protestors make the following chilling observation: “They [she presumably means Muslims] start out friendly, and before you know it, they grow so much in population that they take over.” The interviewer challenges her: “This sounding a lot like what people said about Jews at one time,” to which the protestor replies: “There’s no comparison. Jews were not evil.”

For its part, CIJA calls M-103 “flawed.” As CIJA head Shimon Koffler Fogel writes, the motion “requires us to silence legitimate concerns or suppress a public conversation about those strains of Islam that pose a real and imminent threat to Jews around the world,” adding that the motion “denies space and opportunity within the Muslim community to confront those strains of Islam that do indeed exist and do indeed cause harm to the majority of Muslims who do not subscribe to an extremist ideology.” For these reasons, CIJA is urging lawmakers to oppose it.

It’s not the first time a private member’s motion has been introduced to focus Canada’s attention on a specific form of hatred. In 2015, Conservative MP James Bezan asked “all members [of parliament] and all Canadians [to] join me in denouncing anti-Semitism.” In 2015 Liberal MP Irwin Cotler asked the “House [to] condemn the alarming development of a new anti-Semitism.” And then, of course, there’s the 2010 Ottawa Protocol on Combatting Antisemitism, which convened parliamentary representatives from an array of countries to call out anti-Semitism.

CIJA Director of Communications Martin Sampson shared with me the amended text of the motion CIJA proposed to Khaled, including trying to add a clause that would “recognize that criticism and condemnation of any and all forms of extremism is not only acceptable but necessary in a free and democratic society; and tasking the proposed study to define “Islamophobia in Canada.” “

Bernie Farber, former head of Canadian Jewish Congress and now head of the Toronto-based Mosaic Institute, a diversity, peace and justice organization, says he is “baffled and stunned” by CIJA’s opposition to the motion.

Is the lack of explicit acknowledgment of the legitimacy of criticizing religion a problem, as CIJA is suggesting? No. Parliamentary motions have no legislative force. The existing criminal code — including laws governing freedom of expression — will remain unaffected. Fogel's claim that the motion will silence criticism by force of law is simply wrong. It may serve to dampen enthusiasm for the kind of hateful anti-Muslim demonstrations we saw in Toronto, but that is the point.

Or perhaps the vagueness of the term ‘Islamophobia’ is a problem. Sampson calls the word “politically charged and imprecise.” Former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, for instance, is suggesting that M-103 be amended to say “anti-Muslim bigotry.”

Demonstrators rally to support Muslims in Vancouver, British Columbia, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017.
Demonstrators rally to support Muslims in Vancouver, British Columbia, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. Credit: Ben Nelms/AP

But, like homophobia, Islamophobia is simply the term that exists to denote this form of bigotry. When I asked historian of language Liora Halperin why the term got saddled with the more clinical “phobia” suffix instead of acquiring the more straightforward “anti-“ prefix, she acknowledges that phobias are psychiatric diagnoses, not ideologies. But, she adds, “in practice, fear is indeed part of racism.”

The term anti-Semitism -- which ironically was coined by a German anti-Semite himself — captures the unique phenomenon of Jew hatred. Similarly, Farber says, “hatred of Muslims needs its own specific word to get people to understand the importance of what this kind of hatred of Muslims can do. And we’ve seen it, sadly, right here in Canada.”

These times call for solidarity in the face of rising tides of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of racism. In the wake of the mosque massacre and the hateful protests on Toronto’s usually peaceful streets, coupled with the shadow of Trump’s xenophobic policies, the time is now for Canadians to stand together against Islamophobia. That’s the word we have, that’s the member’s motion being proposed, and that’s the wave of hatred — one prominent wave among many, sadly — that we urgently need to address.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @sucharov