Leaders unite in calling out bigotry
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. email@example.com, Twitter: @reggcohn