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Despite claims to the contrary, Canada is still harbouring anti-Muslim sentiment

Photo: Paolo Bottazzi, CC, commons.wikimedia.org

Like it or not, Canada is not immune to the rise of Islamophobia that is plaguing Western society.

Many Canadians are naturally resistant to this idea, since part of our prescribed national identity is centred around being a society that is open to all manner of cultures, ethnicities, languages, and religions. In fact, some are even willing to defend this image aggressively, as demonstrated recently in Montreal where an anti-Islam group’s planned march was twice shut down by a much larger group of counter-protesters.

The hard truth is that this kind of anti-Islamic sentiment is not an isolated incident, especially when it comes to the subject of cultural dress.

Back in February, Quebec Court Judge Eliana Marengo refused to hear the case of Rania El-Alloul because she chose to wear a hijab to court. In the judge’s eyes, this religious clothing clashed with the secular sanctity of the court, even though such a decision contradicts a prior case settled by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2012.

Following this incident, El-Alloul reiterated in an article for the CBC that this national attitude towards dress policy is inconsistent, revealing that her religious dress was treated with respect during her citizenship ceremony: “I swore by God to be a good Canadian citizen. I was wearing my hijab, and the judge, I shook hands with him the same day I became Canadian. I was really very happy.”

In the wake of the court ruling, El-Alloul said the decision only made her feel alone and rejected: “What happened in court made me feel afraid. I felt that I’m not Canadian anymore.”

A few weeks later, this same kind of suppression of Muslim dress reared its ugly head again when Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that the wearing of the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

Even though this blanket statement paints all Muslims in a bad light, well-known Canadian scholar Charles Taylor revealed in an interview on Power and Politics that the prime minister actually went up in the public opinion polls in Quebec following that statement. This clearly shows that a significant portion of the Canadian population supports this sentiment.

Taylor remained wary of this development: “You have to be very careful that you don’t stigmatize Islam in general. The prime minister is playing along with an unfortunate tendency, an Islamophobic tendency, in North America as a whole. That is a direct danger to our security and it’s terrible for our society.”

Although this state of affairs is disconcerting, that doesn’t mean that nothing is being done to combat these misinformed viewpoints.

Outside of the efforts of people like Taylor and the anti-racism protesters in Montreal, students across the country are working towards provoking dialogue about these underlying prejudices.

Here at home, the University of Ottawa’s Muslim Students’ Association organized Islam Awareness Week in March, which sought to engage with students to help them learn about Islam from Muslims rather than through the media.

Such initiatives are organized in campuses all over the country, and have allowed us to address Islamophobia in a constructive and socially progressive manner.

Although it’s a great first step, we cannot be lured into this false sense that Canada is entirely prejudice-free. Islamophobia is still a pressing issue in our country, and it is something that needs to be properly addressed by our political leaders at local, provincial, and federal levels.