Diane Bederman: How do we define Islamophobia?

Editor's Note: In 2017, the Canadian Parliament passed a motion, Motion M-103, condemning “Islamophobia.” Yet, as Diane Bederman points out, “Islamophobia” can be defined so broadly that a law arising from Motion M-103 could preclude any reasonable discussion of Islam. And four major Canadian media outlets could offer no definition of “Islamophobia.” “It is obviously a weaponized word that our leaders would do well to avoid.

MOTION 103 That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear; (b) condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination and take note of House of Commons’ petition e-411 and the issues raised by it; and (c) request that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage undertake a study on how the government could…

We talk a great deal about Islamophobia in Canada. And rightly so. We are having discussion about Motion 103 which includes the word Islamophobia. I contacted four major media outlets and asked them for their working definition of Islamophobia. The National Post and the CBC did not reply. The other two, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, said they don’t have one. How can we have a meaningful conversation about Islamophobia if we do not agree upon a definition? I did some research and came upon the Runnymede Trust definition from 1997, four years before 9/11, on behalf of the Commission for British Muslims & Islamophobia (CBMI). It has been accepted by the European Union and remains the most widely referred to definition in Britain and Europe today. This is Islamophobia: Islam as seen as a single monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to new realities.

  1. Islam as seen as separate and other; not having any aims or values in common with other cultures; not affected by them; not influencing them

  2. Islam as seen as inferior to the West – barbaric, irrational, primitive, sexist.

  3. Islam as seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism, engaged in ‘a clash of civilisations’.

  4. Islam as seen as a political ideology, used for political or military advantage.

  5. Criticisms made by Islam of ‘the West’ rejected out of hand

  6. Hostility towards Islam is used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.

  7. Anti-Muslim hostility is accepted as natural and ‘normal.’

If we were to follow this definition when talking about other groups we would never be allowed to discuss the Dalit of India.

Kamlesh was pushed on to a pile of burning rubbish for walking on the “wrong” road

Uma, a Dalit woman, cleans human excrement by hand from a latrine I was first introduced to the Dalit in India by the esteemed journalist, Stephanie Nolan, of the Globe and Mail. It was her article that informed me about a group of people treated as “Untouchables;” not because of their actions, but by dint of birth. I remember the articles and the horror I felt. She was writing about discrimination based on caste and gender that continues to bedevil India. Amrit Dhillon, a New Delhi journalist wrote about the Dalit; again in the Globe and Mail. There are 160 MILLION Dalit in India. The “the Dalits (earlier known as “untouchables”) of India were exploited, demeaned and oppressed by the Hindu upper castes for 2,000 years.” Did you know they had foods they were forced to eat, clothes they were told to wear and that they had musical instruments they had to fashion for themselves because they were not allowed to play certain kinds of instruments? Or “Dalit women, for example, had to wear their sari in a particular way and were allowed to wear only certain ornaments, such as tin bangles. Dalits had to wear a bell around their necks, which they had to ring to alert any oncoming Brahmin of their presence lest it pollute him”? Shouldn’t Canadians be allowed to discuss these other ways of life? Including Islam which also restricts certain people from full participation as a citizen? Under the Runnymede Trust definition we would not be allowed to criticize the Pact of Umar.

The Pact of Umar has served to govern the relations between the Muslims and “the people of the book,” such as Jews, Christians, and the like, down to the present day. These are the conditions to which Christians ( and Jews) agreed… “…that we will not make a show of the Christian religion nor invite any one to embrace it; that we will not prevent any of our kinsmen from embracing Islam, if they so desire. That we will honor the Muslims and rise up in our assemblies when they wish to take their seats; that we will not imitate them in our dress, either in the cap, turban, sandals, or parting of the hair; that we will not make use of their expressions of speech, nor adopt their surnames [infidels must not use greetings and special phrases employed only by Muslims]; that we will not ride on saddles, or gird on swords, or take to ourselves arms or wear them, or engrave Arabic inscriptions on our rings; that we will not sell wine [forbidden to Muslims]; that we will shave the front of our heads; that we will keep to our own style of dress, wherever we may be; that we will wear girdles round our waists [infidels wore leather or cord girdles; Muslims, cloth and silk].That we will not display the cross upon our churches or display our crosses or our sacred books in the streets of the Muslims, or in their market-places; that we will strike the clappers in our churches lightly [wooden rattles or bells summoned the people to church or synagogue]; that we will not recite our services in a loud voice when a Muslim is present; that we will not carry Palm branches [on Palm Sunday] or our images in procession in the streets; that at the burial of our dead we will not chant loudly or carry lighted candles in the streets of the Muslims or their market places; that we will not take any slaves that have already been in the possession of Muslims, nor spy into their houses; and that we will not strike any Muslim. All this we promise to observe, on behalf of ourselves and our co-religionists, and receive protection from you in exchange; and if we violate any of the conditions of this agreement, then we forfeit your protection and you are at liberty to treat us as enemies and rebels. There have been other attempts to find another universal definition. UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance defined Islamophobia as:

“a baseless hostility and fear vis-à-vis Islam, and as a result, a fear of and aversion towards all Muslims or the majority of them. [Islamophobia] also refers to the practical consequences of this hostility in terms of discrimination, prejudices, unequal treatment of which Muslims (individuals and communities) are victims and their exclusion from major political and social spheres.”

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Observatory on Islamophobia defined Islamophobia as:

“an irrational or very powerful fear or dislike of Islam and the feeling as if the Muslims are under siege and attack. Islamophobia however goes much beyond this and incorporates racial hatred, intolerance, prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping. The phenomenon of Islamophobia in its essence is a religion-based resentment.”

Neither have been widely used or accepted at the international, European or British levels. If we accept the definition provided by the Runnymede Trust 1997; embraced by the European Union; and universalize it, we will restrict our ability to call out discrimination as described in India. And if we do not have a universal definition how will we know if we cross a line? Is this in the best interest of all Canadians? From the Ethics of the Fathers: “Rabbi Tarfon used to say, it is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but you are not exempt from undertaking it.” This article was originally published on January 21, 2017 on Diane Bederman's website, and can be viewed on her site by clicking here.

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