Islamophobia was first defined in 1991 by a Runnymede Trust report as being an “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” It includes the view that Islam cannot adapt itself to new realities, does not share values with other faiths, is inferior to Western religions, and is violent and terror-based. Syed Fida Bukhari, the Imam of Quebec’s first mosque, the Islamic Centre of Quebec, states that “One of the biggest problems facing Muslims in this day is misrepresentation [..], judgments are being made without enough knowledge.”
A 2010 poll showed that 58 per cent and 50 per cent of the British population associate Islam with extremism and terrorism respectively. Only 13 per cent thought Islam promoted peace, and 6 per cent believed it to promote justice. 33 per cent of the British population believed Islam to be a violent religion, with 68 per cent associating it with the promotion of female oppression. This poll was commissioned by the UK’s Exploring Islam Foundation (EIF), and conducted by YouGov, an internet-based market research company.
As a result of the poll, the EIF launched the Inspired by Muhammad campaign. The campaign explores Muhammad’s views on social justice, women’s rights, the environment, charity, education, healthcare, animal welfare, human rights, and coexistence, showcasing these views as the basis of Islam. Campaign posters – featuring Muslim Brits working in fields such as social justice and women’s advocacy – were placed in tube stations, in bus stops, and on cabs. Each poster’s photo of the profiled individual was superimposed with a message that parallelled their proclaimed individual social belief with Muhammad’s social belief on the same subject. One poster profiled a human rights barrister named Sultana Tafadar, with the message “I believe in women’s rights. So did Muhammad.” Each campaign poster showcased a variation of this message.
The website has a number of different sections, explaining who Muslims are, as well as who Muhammad was. A large portion of the site is dedicated to explaining what Islam is as a religion, and in the process, counters negative preconceived ideas about Islam’s connection to violence, Jihad, the status of women in Islam, and the hijab. While the public campaign posters do serve their purpose, inspiredbymuhammad.com has the benefit of reaching populations beyond the UK, seeing as Islamophobia and misconceptions about Islam are international.
One Muslim convert – living in Montreal and who chose to remain anonymous – is skeptical of the campaign. “It is difficult to change people’s minds when they have a set idea.”
Some of the ways the material was presented in this campaign also made this person uncomfortable, as they stated “It is mentioned that Islam came to correct some of the human errors that slipped into the practice of Judaism and Christianity. I can’t help but think of what human error has slipped into the practice of Islam.”
Imam Bukhari holds that there are other ways, beyond campaigns like Inspired by Muhammad, to reduce misrepresentation. “I always stress that the most effective way to break down these misrepresentations is to implement the teachings of our religion in our daily life, as our holy Quran told us and our Prophet (peace be upon him) showed us through his good example. Through our practices, we can show [...] how Islam places importance on human rights, dignity, social justice, family values, and equality,” Imam Bukhari said.
The topic of religion and by extension, Islamophobia, is an interesting one in secularized Canada. Canada’s Multiculturalism Policy aims to foster a better understanding and respect for religions, as well as highlighting the importance of religious coexistence. Imam Bukhari holds that Canadians are “open, kind, and understanding,” that there is a strong “Canadian spirit of acceptance,” and that Canada as a nation treats its citizens with “respect and dignity.” Nevertheless, Statistics Canada reports that in 2011 – the most recent year for which statistics are available – religion (though it was not specified which) was the second highest hate-crime motivation. In accordance with this, Imam Bukhari holds that Canadian Muslims have had to deal with negative Islamophobia-fueled encounters, especially when “viewed or categorized as outsiders who are to be tolerated or accepted.”
Quebec is a bit different from the rest of Canada. Its policy, as described by Michael Dewing – of the Social Affairs Division of the Parliamentary and Information Research Service, is one of “interculturalism.” Overlapping with this is Quebec’s strong emphasis on secularity, which reached a new high – or low – when the ruling Parti Québécois government announced that in the fall of 2013, it hopes to introduce a Charter of Quebec Values that would effectively ban the wearing of religious symbols such as the hijab, the kippah, the turban, and the crucifix in the public sector, including schools and hospitals.
While a problematic issue in itself, it should be emphasized that this Charter is not directly a reflection of Islamophobic attitudes. Nevertheless, concerns do exist, as evidenced by the previously mentioned Muslim convert, about Islamophobia at least partly fueling the bill.
The Muslim convert goes on to say, “When I tell people that I lived in Algeria they invariably ask me if I had to wear the veil or if I had any trouble as a woman…no and no. There is always this assumption that it is a Muslim country, so it must be oppressive to women.”
Misconceptions like these are damaging to the Muslim population living in Quebec. Programs, campaigns, and overall education about Islam are therefore necessary in order to finally end Islamophobia.