Let’s take the violence of Islamophobes more seriously

by Jasmin Zine (2017)

Image Copyright: National Post

When I read Barbara’s Kay’s column about me, it was with a mixture of anger, frustration and a heavy heart. I came upon it as I was about to board a flight to a conference in Berkeley where I was to be a keynote speaker. The column was devoted to maligning my work and that of my esteemed colleague Dr. Hatem Bazian from the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at UC Berkeley, where I serve as an affiliated faculty member.

Before my trip, Kay had sent me an email, asking me for my definition of Islamophobia. She was perturbed that M-103, a parliamentary motion to condemn Islamophobia, put forward by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, was about to be passed without it providing a clear definition of Islamophobia. She said Muslim community members she spoke to could not give her one.

I let her know that plenty of people use terms like, say, “racism” without having a textbook definition for it, but they know when they experience it or witness it.

When I read Barbara’s Kay’s column about me, it was with a mixture of anger, frustration and a heavy heart.

I informed her that I found the traditional definition of Islamophobia as a “fear or hatred of Islam and Muslims” to be limiting. So in my definition, I place it in a broader sociological framework where fear and hatred manifest into individual, ideological, and systemic practices (on this, other scholars might differ). Individual practices include things like name-calling, vandalism, assaults, and the like. And that the ideologies that justify these actions include stereotypes such as seeing Islam as a violent faith or seeing Muslims as terrorists, or as people who do not accept “Canadian values,” and these notions are inculcated into systemic practices such as racial profiling and domestic security policies targeting Muslims.

In my exchange with Kay, I pointed out that while she often criticized the concept of Islamophobia in her writing, I was surprised that she did not have a definition of it herself. And, yet, her lack of knowledge on the subject had not stopped her from critiquing something she was clearly unsure about.

She began to lecture me about “free speech,” proceeding to argue that a non-binding federal motion — one that looks to study manifestations of Islamophobia in Canada in the aftermath of a massacre of Muslim men praying in a Canadian mosque — would curtail her right to criticize Islam. I reminded her that hate-speech laws would govern what can and cannot be said within the boundaries of lawful dissent. While the law permits a legitimate critique of religion, the demonization of a particular faith is different. This type of demonization becomes mapped onto its adherents and can lead to mass violence and genocide, and to argue otherwise works against the weight of history. Kay might not see how Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism and violence are connected, but we have already seen how this has led to unprecedented and deadly consequences in our country.

While Kay often criticized the concept of Islamophobia, I was surprised she did not have a definition of it herself. And yet, her lack of knowledge on the subject has not stopped her from critiquing something she was clearly unsure about.

It is telling that Kay admitted to me that she was concerned that after M-103 passed, her columns would be branded Islamophobic. I told her that ship had already sailed and that this motion alone would not curtail her from expressing her views. Still, it was interesting that she was more worried about being labelled Islamophobic than she was about the Islamophobia that evidently led to the deaths of six innocent Canadian men.

While Kay lamented to me the backlash against people like Bridget Bardot and Georges Bensoussan in France for their views criticizing Islam and Muslims, she has no problem lambasting my research on Islamophobia, which she paraphrases poorly, twists and takes of out context, while stopping just short of accusing me of supporting terrorism, all to further her fearmongering against Muslim academics.

Kay needs to acknowledge that the things she writes play a part in this onslaught of hate directed towards Muslims. Her rhetoric is taken up by and helps fuel the white supremacist and neo-fascist groups that are on the rise in Canada. In the aftermath of her column, since arriving home from California I’ve received several hate-filled emails, with subject lines such as “Islam is Satanic.” I admit this is nothing compared to the 50,000 hate-filled emails Khalid received after she proposed M-103 and many Muslim academics I know have received death threats.

Along with my fellow Muslim academics and our allies, I will not sit quietly as Kay discredits, maligns and slanders me and other scholars who work in this field. The day Kay applauds my work is the day I’ll be concerned. For now, attacks by her and others of her ilk confirm that I am standing on the right side of history.