Con­ser­va­tives bet­ting on rhetoric of fear

Toronto Star - - CANADA - Ed­ward Keenan

It seems quaint now that in mid-Septem­ber there was a de­bate about whether Stephen Harper’s off-hand use of the term “old-stock Cana­di­ans” was an ex­am­ple of him blow­ing a racial “dog whis­tle.”

Two weeks later, any im­per­cep­ti­bly high-pitched whis­tles the Con­ser­va­tives might be us­ing have been drowned out by the ca­coph­ony of their con­stant crank­ing of the bark­ing dog siren. It’s an ugly sound, an anti-Mus­lim alarm. And it’s all the uglier be­cause of its ap­par­ent ef­fec­tive­ness.

Con­sider Fri­day’s an­nounce­ment of an RCMP tip-line to re­port “Bar­baric Cul­tural Prac­tices against Women and Girls.” If you think for a mo­ment they are talk­ing about tak­ing ac­tion on the many hun­dreds of miss­ing and mur­dered abo­rig­i­nal women in Canada that or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, have been re­port­ing on this year, or per­haps the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of ru­ral Cana­dian women to sex­ual vi­o­lence high­lighted at last month’s On­tario premier’s Round­table on Vi­o­lence Against Women, then you haven’t been pay­ing at­ten­tion.

But if you have been pay­ing at­ten­tion, it’s ob­vi­ous enough that when Team Harper refers to “bar­baric cul­ture,” it means Is­lam.

And so this new elec­tion ini­tia­tive is in­tended to re­spond to some imag­ined Cana­dian epi­demic of “child and forced mar­riage,” “sex­ual slav­ery and so-called ‘hon­our killings’ ” and “fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion.” These things, of course, are hor­rific and are al­ready illegal. And while they do not ap­pear to be par­tic­u­larly com­mon here com­pared to other crimes (even com­pared to other crimes against women), there is al­ready an es­tab­lished na­tional re­port­ing mech­a­nism for those en­coun­ter­ing them: dial 911.

So noth­ing about this an­nounce­ment ac­tu­ally makes women any safer. In­stead it’s an ex­cuse to talk about Mus­lims as bar­bar­ians at a press con­fer­ence. It’s a transpar- ently BS an­nounce­ment to drum up hate and fear for their own sake.

Or, rather, for the sake of get­ting votes. It’s a strat­egy the Con­ser­va­tives have al­ready been em­ploy­ing, with some suc­cess, since mid-Septem­ber.

Harper’s equat­ing of Syr­ian refugees with ter­ror­ists, his gov­ern­ment’s illegal and ba­si­cally point­less ban on wear­ing the niqab dur­ing the cit­i­zen­ship oath, his pledge to re­voke the cit­i­zen­ship of dual cit­i­zens con­victed of ter­ror­ism: what they have in com­mon is that they a) im­me­di­ately ap­ply to and vil­ify some Mus­lim Cana­di­ans, and b) are al­most purely sym­bolic, with no dis­cern­able prac­ti­cal ef­fect on the lives of most Cana­di­ans what­so­ever.

As they’ve un­veiled these items, the Con­ser­va­tives have gone from third to first in many polls. Is it a co­in­ci­dence? There’s rea­son to think not.

A gov­ern­ment poll showed 82 per cent of Cana­di­ans sup­port the niqab ban, for in­stance. More­over, 8 per cent of vot­ers told Leger Mar­ket­ing that the niqab ban was the main is­sue de­ter­min­ing their vote. Con­sid­er­ing that the Con­ser­va­tives’ re­cent swing into the lead has been an in­crease of only about six points in their sup­port in most polls, it’s not crazy to con­clude this anti-Is­lam pos­tur­ing has made much of the dif­fer­ence for them. This brings us face-to-face with a pretty harsh truth about Canada, a coun­try in which peo­ple like me fre­quently re­fer to tol­er­ance of di­ver­sity, proud plu­ral­ism and re­spect for in­di­vid­ual free­dom as defin­ing val­ues, and a coun­try in which 93 per cent of peo­ple rank the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms as the most im­por­tant na­tional sym­bol.

We may think those things about our­selves. But we’re also a coun­try where it ap­pears an elec­tion may be won by bla­tantly dis­re­gard­ing the Char­ter and pro­mot­ing in­tol­er­ance for no dis­cern­able rea­son other than to stick our thumbs in the eye of a mi­nor­ity whose cul­tural and re­li­gious prac­tices we find off-putting.

In de­fence of his poli­cies, Harper of­ten points out that a ma­jor­ity of Cana­di­ans agree with him on these is­sues — as if the Char­ter didn’t ex­ist specif­i­cally to pro­tect against the big­oted whims of the ma­jor­ity, and as if some­how pop­u­lar­ity it­self is a co­her­ent jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for prej­u­dice.

That the anti-Is­lamic wedge-driv­ing has been pop­u­lar to some de­gree doesn’t make it right. In­stead, its suc­cess serves as an in­dict­ment of Cana­dian so­ci­ety we might hope had moved on from past racial and re­li­gious pan­ics: from the days when one Jew was thought to be too many; when we in­terned Ja­panese-Cana­di­ans as racially sus­pect po­ten­tial traitors; when we banned non-Euro­pean im­mi­grants; when we end­lessly bick­ered about whether it was an af­front to our val­ues for a Moun­tie to wear a tur­ban. Of­ten we may think we’ve pro­gressed be­yond the hurt­ful ret­ro­grade at­ti­tudes at the core of those his­toric de­bates.

That the Con­ser­va­tives have bet that they can swing an elec­tion on the premise that we haven’t pro­gressed is shame­ful. That they ap­pear to have a de­cent chance of win­ning that bet is ab­so­lutely hor­ri­fy­ing.

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