By Dr. Katherine Bullock
On his way to a recent caucus meeting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appealed for people to stop targeting Canadian Jews and Muslims in the wake of Hamas’ violent October 7th attack on Israelis and Israel’s subsequent retaliatory war on Gaza.
“This is not who we are as Canadians,” he said.
Unfortunately, as any Indigenous, black, Jewish, Asian, or Muslim person will tell you, this is who many of us are. Racism occurs everyday. From nasty looks, verbal harassment, to physical abuse: minorities suffer daily indignities, hurt and trauma.
After all, the trial for a young man from London, Ontario, accused of deliberately killing Muslims with his truck, has just concluded with a guilty verdict. The subtitle of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights’ new report about Islamophobia in Canada is “Rampant Islamophobia is costing Canadian Muslims their peace of mind, their physical well-being and even their lives.” They toured the country last year speaking to Muslims.
We can be glad that during these divisive times, we have a leader calling out racism, saying it is unacceptable, and appealing for us to do better. This is better than remaining silent, or worse, being part of it.
But Israel’s war on Gaza is masking two long-standing insidious forms of Islamophobia that hurt even more at the current time.
The first is conflating all Muslims and all Palestinians with Hamas. One of the very first microaggressions I experienced after converting to Islam in the 1990s was when a fellow student accosted me in the department’s corridor about something Hamas had just done. I was barely yet a Muslim. I am not sure I even knew who Hamas was; perhaps vaguely aware of it as a Middle Eastern terrorist group fighting Israel. She was very angry with me. As if I agreed with what they had done. As if I were personally responsible for it.
Blaming me for something Hamas had done was a form of Islamophobia. Depicting rallies in support of innocent Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, who are being killed mercilessly, as “hate” rallies in support of Hamas, is a form of Islamophobia. Firing people for writing social media posts that criticise the Israeli version of events, is a form of Islamophobia.
I interviewed Muslim health care workers last year about their experiences of Islamophobia at work. Several of them mentioned an inability to talk safely about Palestine from a Palestinian perspective. An interviewee said that it is “not uncommon [even for innocuous] social media posts about Palestine result in a student being called into the Dean’s office…How do you square that with the fact that your identity is too controversial to speak about?”
One Palestinian student told everyone he was from Ecuador to avoid coping with anti-Palestinian racism in medical school.
Muslims are familiar with this binary straightjacket, where the logic, as George W. Bush, then President of the USA, said after 9/11, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
But there is a 3rd space. We can condemn the Hamas attack. We can condemn Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza. We can call for Palestinian human rights and freedom, and Jewish safety and security. It is not a zero-sum game.
This takes us to the second insidious form of Islamophobia ramping up in the current climate: the defence of Israel weaponized through anti-Muslim racism. A recent post on X featured an image of a big boot coming down to squash a cockroach. The boot was labelled “IDF.” The cockroach had a long red tongue, bushy black eyebrows, jagged teeth and a green headband.
It is easy to understand this as a reference to the Israeli Defence Forces squashing Hamas. This is a shocking image to use to defend against anti-Semitism – right out of the Nazi propaganda playbook that used to depict Jews as cockroaches.
The person who posted the image on X had appeared as a speaker at an Ottawa conference to combat anti-Semitism in mid-October. Even more shocking was that this conference was attended by top leaders of every political party, and yet none called it out as a form of Islamophobia.
Can you imagine if a Muslim speaking at an Islamophobia conference posted a picture showing a Hamas boot coming down to squash an Israeli soldier drawn as a cockroach, with the blue and white colours of the Israeli flag as its tongue, eyebrows and headband?
Trudeau’s call to Canadians to “understand and acknowledge our neighbour’s pain” is an important appeal to social solidarity in the face of an explosive overseas issue that could rend Canada’s social fabric apart.
Tackling Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Canada can only be done with a full understanding of their history, context and triggers.