In June, I had the honour of speaking on a panel at the Sisters of the Roundtable, organized by the women’s committee of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council. At that event, Sarah Ali spoke with such passion and eloquence about Islamophobia, and how we must combat hate, that I wanted to share it here.
— Laura Kaminker, President, Mississauga Library Workers Union
My name is Sarah Ali and I am a member of the Organizing Committee Against Islamophobia (OCAI). We are a committee of progressive community organizations, political parties, cultural groups, non-profits, unions and faith centers. We have come together from many different areas of struggle to recognize that the current political climate in North America is one of white supremacy and Islamophobia.
Islamophobia does not exist in a vacuum. We are 16 years into the War on Terror. Sixteen years that have marked a ramping up of Islamophobic political and public discourse. A political and public discourse required to justify the invasions and wars of imperialism and regime change in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and the list goes on. A discourse that dehumanizes Muslim lives, and renders brown bodies disposable. The same discourse that says that it is normal or even brave to kill Muslims through drone bombing in Pakistan, also says that Muslim women require saving. From themselves, from Muslim men, but never from the white security guards who, under [former Prime Minster Stephen] Harper, would force women to remove their veils for the citizenship oath.
This discourse is enormously pervasive. Studies show that Canadians fear Muslims far above any other minority. And it is enormously useful. This discourse allows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to increase Canadian military spending by 65 billion dollars, and simultaneously call his foreign aid policy “feminist”. To applaud himself for accepting 25,000 refugees while taking part in the invasion and war of regime change in Syria. As though there are no women there. It allows for the unconditional support of Israel and the occupation of Palestine. A place where women give birth at checkpoints because even the unborn babies in their bodies represent a “security threat”.
Islamophobia doesn’t just justify a foreign policy that destroys the lives, homes and families of Muslim women. No, it also plays a key role in shaping surveillance culture domestically. I refer to Bill-C51: the bill initially packaged as the Omnibus Crime Bill, but now referred to as the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2015. Or how about the Barbaric Cultural Practises Act proposed by Kellie Leitch and passed under Harper? A law that codifies whistleblowing against Muslim families, but purportedly saves Muslim women. Or the Safe Third Country Agreement, which bars Muslim women fleeing violence in the United States from entering Canada, even though Donald Trump has openly called for a Muslim registry, and a ban on travel, among other things.
But, Islamophobia is not just harmful to Muslims. Sikh men have been targeted, attacked, and even murdered in Canada because the sheer ignorance of white supremacy confuses the Pagh for the Imama. Hindu women have been told to “go back to Arabia”, because the existence of brown skin on a woman labels her foreigner, terrorist, enemy, Muslim.
It is within this foreign and domestic policy context that we see the recently released report citing the 60% increase in hate crimes and hate related attacks against Muslims. It is within this context that we see the increasing visibility of Islamophobia – in the candidacies of Kellie Leitch and Marine LePen, and the elections of Donald Trump and Theresa May. Public figures now openly call for the surveillance, detention, deportation, and bans on Muslims.
At the same time, we are confronted by the open presence of far-right, nationalist, and fascist groups. Fascist groups that make unlikely bedfellows, but who find themselves able to recruit, unite and attack under a common hatred of Muslims. The JDL (Jewish Defense League), the Soldiers of Odin, the III%ers (three percent-ers), and even Hindutva fascist groups have diametrically opposed ideological bases, but come together once a month to convene at Nathan Phillips Square. They show up at Peel School Board meetings and performatively rip up Qurans as a gesture of their strength. All the while, standing shoulder to shoulder with Toronto Police Services.
The message is clear. Muslim lives, and especially Black Muslim women’s lives are disposable. Muslim children’s ability to pray in schools – a policy that was implemented decades ago – is no longer acceptable. When Ottawa police services killed Abdi Rahman Abdi, and then parade about the city with bracelets that “stood in solidarity” with the officer who murdered him, they are simply protecting public good. When Black and brown children in Toronto have armed officers in their classrooms, they are providing a “healthy learning environment”. When six Muslim men are massacred in a mosque simply for being Muslim, it is a “lone wolf”. Excuses after excuses being made to tell our community what we already knew. We are useful scapegoats.
We are useful scapegoats for austerity and unemployment. How often have you heard that immigrants, refugees, and “brown people” are taking our jobs? Of course, it is our government who is cutting social programs, selling off public services, closing schools, and gutting the welfare state.
So I’m sure the question on everyone’s mind is where to we go from here. The situation looks bleak, and for Muslim women, it feels even bleaker.
The answer lies in building a coalition of progressive forces.
When the JDL and the SOO show up on the streets of cities across Canada, it is our duty to confront them. When they argue in public forums that Muslims, refugees and immigrants are causing unemployment and austerity, we must continue the fight for a $15 minimum wage. When Desmond Cole and Black Lives Matter call on us to eject armed police officers from Toronto school boards, we need to be there – physically, with our letters to the editor, and on social media. When Indigenous communities say that Grassy Narrows needs clean water and that Canada 150 is actually 150 years of genocide and colonialism, we give up our Canada Day plans and stand in solidarity with them.
We must build a people’s coalition that calls for policy change. That unites to repeal the legislation that makes Canada unsafe.
We must abolish indefinite immigration detention, and create a path to residency and citizenship for undocumented workers and their families living in Canada.
We must ending the support for wars of imperialism and regime change. We must get Canada out of NATO, take back the money that is being spent on war and militarism and use it to support our communities through publicly owned housing, schools, and childcare.
We need a judicial system that supports victims of domestic and sexual violence, brings justice for the 1500 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, stops the police from killing unarmed young Black men, and provides comprehensive mental health care to LGBTQ youth.
Our struggles are connected, and we must fight together for a better future. It’s all of us or none of us. An injury to one is an injury to all!