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The Last Bastion Of
Acceptable Prejudice...

By Bahija Réghaï

10 October, 2008

The elections on both sides of the Canada-US border have revealed that prejudices against Arabs and Muslims are the last bastion of acceptable prejudice in North America.

Most recently, Liberal MP Ken Dryden while on the campaign trail at Beth Emeth synagogue in Wilmington called for Canada to “stop all aid that flows into Gaza. While that may seem a harsh measure that will hurt Palestinian civilians… it is the right thing to do at this time.” Collective punishment of civilians is never “the right thing to do”, and indeed constitutes a war crime under international law. Even Stephen Harper’s government has not cut off all aid to Gaza, but funnels it through appropriate UN agencies.

On 10 September, Corus radio network’s 98.5 FM Montreal broadcast an interview between their radio host, Benoît Dutrizac, and Samira Laouni, a Muslim candidate running for the NDP in north-end Bourassa riding. Mr. Dutrizac called Ms. Laouni’s headscarf “sexy”, wrongly accused Islam of forcing children to fast and wear headscarves, and said that were he to rape her there and then she would never be able to prove it because under shari’a law she would need four witnesses. The Montreal Gazette reported the incident, but no media or public outrage has resulted, except a joint call on 26 September by CAF and CUPE Ontario for Mr. Dutrizac’s dismissal. In response, Mr. Dutrizac denied any wrongdoing and claimed he was “insulted” by the suggestion that he is a racist. He protested that he
had treated Ms. Laouni “with respect”. If this is what passes for respect for women and Muslims these days, then our battle is surely very steeply uphill.

In the US, Rush Limbaugh recently (and falsely) reported that Barack Obama is an Arab- rather than African-American. Racism against African-Americans in the US may not be sufficient to block Senator Obama from the Presidency. But Limbaugh hopes the suggestion that he is actually of Arab ethnicity could do the trick. To compound the insult, the incident was widely reported as a “smear” on Mr. Obama, just as false accusations of him being a Muslim are frequently recounted.

And when we look at the climate of racist impunity in Canada, we need look no further than the Gear Up Motors website where Muslims were referred to as "rag-headed, heathen, bastards". Women and Liberals were also fair game. The fact that Gear Up was not some obscure small business, but a Department of National Defense supplier, suggests that commercial operations need not worry about their social reputation when it comes to openly displaying insulting attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims. Indeed, parents caution their children against posting tamer material on their Facebook pages for fear of losing job and university entrance opportunities as a consequence. Gear Up only removed the offending material when Liberal MP Scott Brison complained. However, the basis of
Mr. Brison’s complaint was not that such comments about Muslims are unacceptable, but such sentiments voiced by a Canadian military supplier could endanger our troops in Afghanistan.

These are not isolated incidents, but instead are part of a pattern of representation and public discourse about Arabs and Muslims in North America. In movies and television, Arabs and Muslims are overwhelmingly portrayed as blood-thirsty terrorists, irrational, dishonest,anti-Western, anti-Jewish, and anti-Israeli, ignorant and rabid. The fact that Little Mosque on the Prairie does not represent Muslims in this way made national and international news.

Instead of asking why open racism and prejudice against Arabs and Muslims persists when similar sentiments against other visible minorities and religions are not acceptable in polite North American society, one perhaps should ask what they serve. During the World Wars, stories portraying the inhumanity of the Germans and Japanese served to mobilize public opinion in favour of the war and justify the war effort. Canadian war efforts also included persecution and internment of German and Japanese Canadians at home, although there was and is no evidence that Japanese and German Canadians posed any threat.

But today, no Arab or Muslim state is at war with Canada. Instead, Canada is involved in a war against an amorphous “terror”—amorphous because terror is not geographically bound or defined but is a tactic. Yet this very lack of corporeal definition leaves open who is a terrorist. Instead of internment camps, Canada has employed a pinpoint approach: security certificates, domestic anti-terrorism laws and security agency surveillance of Arab and Muslim Canadians.

Canadians of all backgrounds want to see the election candidates express more than cheap talk denouncing unfounded prejudice against and mistreatment of Arabs and Muslims, both here and abroad. They want to see a repeal of draconian laws and polices and a return to rule of law along the time-proven principles of habeas corpus and civil liberty. They want to see reform of our foreign policies so that international human rights and humanitarian laws are equally applied to all people. And they want to see real changes in how our public officials and those they deal with speak about and to Arabs and Muslims—and meaningful challenge and
consequence when boundaries of respect and dignity are transgressed.

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