With the federal election season upon us, the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois have been fuelling a debate on whether or not to allow people to take the citizenship oath while wearing a niqab. Other parties have called out these arguments as unnecessary fear mongering, but the fact that none have framed it as what it is – xenophobia – is deplorable and symptomatic of pervasive racism and Islamophobia in Canada.
Islamophobia is on the rise in Canada, further bolstered by recent political actions. Conservative ‘anti-terror’ legislation Bill C-51 criminalizes the advocacy or promotion of terrorist acts and makes it easier for police to arrest someone suspected of being a terrorist, while Bill C-24 ascribes a ‘second-class’ citizenship to Canadians who were born abroad – revocable for convictions of terrorism or treason. These pieces of legislation don’t name Muslims as explicit targets, but due to the prejudiced association between Islam and terrorism, their implementation will disproportionately impact Muslims, especially Muslims of colour. Similarly, the proposed Quebec Charter of Values, which nominally addressed all religious attire, was widely criticized for Islamophobic intentions.
Party leaders are also exhibiting and profiting off of xenophobia. In a recent campaign ad, Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe argued that the NDP’s support for allowing people to wear a niqab while voting was “the last straw” that would push Quebecers to change their vote to the Bloc. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently spoke of new or “current” Canadian citizens as distinct from “old-stock” Canadians, further marginalizing recent immigrants and reinforcing the xenophobic undertones that run through Canadian society.
Only a small proportion of Canadian Muslim women wear full face-covering niqabs or burqas, which has allowed party leaders to trivialize the citizenship oath issue: Green Party leader Elizabeth May said it was a “false debate,” and NDP leader Tom Mulcair called it a “weapon of mass distraction.” In so doing, they sweep under the rug the widespread sexist and Islamophobic attitudes that the issue has revealed, and ignore the impact those attitudes have on the everyday lives of many Muslim women, whether they wear the niqab or not. For example, just last week, a woman in Montreal was attacked by two boys who tore off her hijab in a hateful act of violence. Two days later, the Quebec National Assembly passed a motion put forward by Québec Solidaire condemning Islamophobia, in stark contrast to the federal party leaders’ silence on Islamophobia.
If the Islamophobic and racist attitudes at the root of this discussion are not addressed, they will continue to go unchecked in Canadian society. When political parties are so overtly Islamophobic, it is serious cause for concern and shouldn’t be brushed off as a non-issue. Instead, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia in Canada should be addressed head-on. In failing to call out Harper and Duceppe’s positions on the niqab debate as racist and Islamophobic, their opponents trivialize and normalize oppression in the country they hope to lead.
—The McGill Daily editorial board