Toronto Star

Leaders unite in calling out bigotry

- Martin Regg Cohn

It used to be the only thing we had to fear was fear itself.

Now, it’s fear of phobias. Islamophob­ia to be precise. If you are a young Muslim woman wearing the Islamic veil, you face the irrational fear (phobia) of Islam sweeping much of the West — and the bigotry and hostility creeping into Canada.

But if you are a Conservati­ve leadership candidate targeting Islamic garb, you seize on the word Islamophob­ia as truly terrorizin­g — and whip up fears that it threatens Canadian values of free speech.

Listening to the overwrough­t reactions from politician­s who aspire to be prime minister boggles the mind — and bothers the soul — so soon after an attack on a Quebec mosque. The war of words over Islamophob­ia offers an opportunit­y to parse prejudices.

These critics claim Islamophob­ia lacks precision, arguing that a “phobia” doesn’t describe anti-Islamic sentiment and that bigotry can’t be banned. Never mind that no one is “outlawing” Islamophob­ia (parliament­ary motions are mere expression­s of non-binding opinion and condemnati­on).

Many of those who caution us against condemning Islamophob­ia insist, in the same breath, that we invoke the term “Islamic terrorism” whenever bombs explode around the world — even if it smears all Muslims with guilt by associatio­n.

In fact, Islamophob­ia is now part of our discourse, widely understood to be a fear of Islam, or a prejudice toward its adherents. It dehumanize­s pious people for their beliefs, or singles them out for their garb.

Yet critics insist that a “phobia” can only be a psychologi­cal condition, not a prejudice. Hmmm.

Homophobia has long been part of our discourse. Whether it ever described a concrete fear of homosexual­s — gay terror? — or a hatred of anyone LGBTQ, is beside the point.

If we demand precision, what of anti-Semitism, a word that has been accepted for centuries to describe 2,000 years of persecutio­n against Jews? Semites are descendent­s of the Semitic-speaking peoples of North Africa and the Middle East — which describes Arabs and Sephardic Jews equally, but is something of a misnomer for Ashkenazi Jews of European descent. Yet no one quarrels with the accepted use of antiSemiti­sm when describing the Holocaust.

The good news amid these word games is that politician­s at Queen’s Park have found their voice, and it is a united one. All three parties are banding together against Islamophob­ia — no ifs, ands, buts, excuses, exceptions, equivocati­ons or circumlocu­tions.

Given her background as a former head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Union, Liberal MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers was well placed to propose the motion last December in the wake of Donald Trump’s election triumph. The NDP offered its support without hesitation.

Give credit to Progressiv­e Conservati­ve Leader Patrick Brown for strongly supporting Thursday’s motion in the legislatur­e. Unlike his federal cousins, Brown understand­s it matters less what you call Islamophob­ia than that you call it out.

How to explain Ontario’s sanity versus Ottawa’s inanity? Never underestim­ate the power of prejudice to tempt politician­s into pandering in the pursuit of victory.

A leadership race can bring out the worst in ambitious candidates, and that is what we are seeing with many in the federal campaign. We saw a similar impulse when Brown ran for the provincial leadership, playing footsie with homophobic groups opposed to sex education.

After winning the leadership, Brown distanced himself from homophobes, wavered for a while, then finally denounced them for good. For the best. The provincial Tories have learned that you cannot build up a majority coalition by tearing down minority groups.

A half-century ago, Ontario’s unofficial anthem declared the province “a place to stand, a place to grow.” Today, Ontario has grown up — and shown itself as a place to take a stand, not just on Islamophob­ia and homophobia, but bigotry of any kind. Martin Regg Cohn’s political column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday., Twitter: @reggcohn

 ?? ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE/TORONTO STAR ?? Progressiv­e Conservati­ve Leader Patrick Brown has said he will support a Liberal anti-Islamophob­ia motion.
ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE/TORONTO STAR Progressiv­e Conservati­ve Leader Patrick Brown has said he will support a Liberal anti-Islamophob­ia motion.
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