Love, courage not enough in fighting hate
Rhetoric and action needs those, plus alarm and concern to effect change
“No ma’am, he’s a decent family man and citizen.”
That was Sen. John McCain’s response during the 2008 presidential contest to a woman who told him she can’t trust Barack Obama because “he’ an Arab.”
McCain was clearly becoming uncomfortable with the extremism and hate emanating from his supposed supporters at a town hall meeting. He attempted to recapture the civility of earlier presidential contests and reassure the crowd they have nothing to fear of a presidency under Obama.
And he did so by asserting that Obama is not Arab (or Muslim), but rather a “decent family man.”
That exchange led Colin Powell to break rank with his party and state the obvious: “What if he (Obama) is a Muslim? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer: No, that’s not America.”
Fast forward nine years and Jagmeet Singh, a candidate for the federal NDP leadership, had a similar experience. His response, however, was nothing like McCain’s.
At a town hall meeting with Singh, cheekily called “Jagmeet and Greet,” a woman jumped to the front and made a spectacle. She accused Singh of wanting to bring in Sharia law into Canada and being associated with extremism.
The video of Singh’s handling of the incident has become an internet sensation and his response was praised internationally. CNN’s Dean Obeidallah cut to the chase with the headline, “The Canadian politician who could teach Americans a lesson in love.”
Singh’s response was notable not only for the calm and poise with which he reacted to a difficult situation, but also for the substance of the message he chose to send.
Singh, as most know, is not Muslim, but Sikh – visibly so. He is the first recognizably Sikh politician campaigning for the leadership of a major Canadian political party, and instead of simply telling the woman that he is not Muslim and hence not particularly invested in Sharia, he focused on a message that hate is not acceptable. Period.
In followup interviews, Singh specifically addressed why he had chosen not to correct the misperception of the heckler that he is Muslim.
“My response to Islamophobia has never been ‘I’m not Muslim.’ It has always been and will be that hate is wrong.”
Is it hateful to be concerned about Sharia law? Yes, most people who claim to be worried about Sharia (an Arabic word that simply means law) have remarkably shallow understanding of what it is.
In some ways, Sharia in the 21st century is now like popery, the pejorative term used for Roman Catholicism in the 18th century when the satirist Daniel Defoe observed that warnings about popery could bring “forty thousand stout fellows” to the streets “ready to fight to the death popery, without knowing whether popery was a man or a horse.”
As it happens, the woman at the Singh rally has predictably been outed as a member of extremist right-wing groups in Canada that have been organizing hate rallies and promoting Islamophobia. The result of such hateful activity and rhetoric has been seen in deadly violence in Quebec City and in Charlottesville.
I disagree with Singh that “love and courage” are the ways to deal with hate. Both are necessary, but not sufficient. There is rhetoric and action that crosses a line and should be managed with the appropriate level of alarm and concern.
While freedom of speech should remain sacrosanct, we have seen how certain type of speech is crossing the line into violence. A 2016 study sponsored by Public Safety Canada identified more than 100 right-wing extremist groups in Canada. The current law enforcement and legal frameworks seem ill-prepared and inadequate for the challenge. There have been only a handful of prosecutions to date.
Beyond law enforcement and courts, the language of hate, othering and exclusion has found a home in some media outlets, such as the Rebel, that was nurtured and supported by mainstream politicians in the Conservative Party.
Singh is right about one thing though, “hate doesn’t pick and choose.” The studies of rightwing extremism show the targets of violence are myriad. In the struggle against hate and exclusion, we must indeed all “hang together.” The alternative is frightening.
Jagmeet Singh applauds and laughs as Charlie Angus sings during a microphone check before the final federal NDP leadership debate in Vancouver, B.C., on Sept. 1.