Why is Islamophobia still so prevalent, and what can we do to address it?

Newsroom authorby Jon KuiperijJan 27, 2023
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A graphic explaining Sheridan's Take 5 series in which experts share insights

In Take 5, Sheridan’s thought leaders share their expert insight on a timely and topical issue. Learn from some of our innovative leaders and change agents as they reflect on questions that are top-of-mind for the Sheridan and broader community.

Sheridan professor Dr. Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui looks up from a desk where she is seated and writing in a book.On January 29, Canada will observe the National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action Against Islamophobia, remembering the 2017 mass shooting that left six Muslim men dead and 19 others injured.

In this installment of Take 5, Dr. Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui — a sociology and criminology professor who was recently appointed to Sheridan’s Inclusive Communities Department — discusses the prevalence of Islamophobia, its impact on Muslim communities, what Canadians can do to address it and more.

1. Many point to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as a root cause of Islamophobia, but Muslims are still targets of hate, bullying and discrimination more than two decades later. Why is Islamophobia still so prevalent?

It’s important to first distinguish between Islamophobia, which is more of an ideology, and anti-Muslim hate, which is the resultant discrimination. I personally don’t like the term Islamophobia because of the ‘phobia’ part of it, which implies that a person who is Islamophobic has a legitimate or credible reason to fear Muslims. It takes the onus away from them.

That said, it can be considered an umbrella ideology – a prejudice that feeds anti-Muslim sentiment, bigotry, racism, hate and violence. You can connect modern day Islamophobia back to what Edward Said calls Orientalism — depicting men from that region as barbaric and violent, and women as oppressed or exotic creatures. This Orientalizing of Muslims had been happening for a long time prior to 9/11, which became almost like a catalyst, speeding up the formation of a narrative that has now normalized the idea of Muslims as a problem.

“There's not enough media attention on the big gray area of Muslims who are just ordinary Canadians doing ordinary Canadian things like baking apple pie, shoveling snow and supporting the Raptors, people who are doctors, lawyers, engineers, community builders.”

In order to tackle “the Muslim problem”, policies continue to be put in place that ban the hijab or mandate the over-surveillance of Muslims at airports or of Muslim charities, for example. These policies, campaigns and political missions further concretize the notion that Muslims are problematic, not to be trusted, and that their women who are being oppressed need to be saved.

Our media also puts a great emphasis on the extremes because we as human beings are attracted to sensational stories and dramatic events. There has been a lot of coverage of “Islamic terrorism” and “honour killings”, but there’s not enough media attention on the big gray area of Muslims who are just ordinary Canadians doing ordinary Canadian things like baking apple pie, shoveling snow and supporting the Raptors, people who are doctors, lawyers, engineers, community builders. Biased and skewed coverage leads to the harmful stereotyping of an entire community in which we’re defining and judging them only by their extremes and not by their middle majority.

2. Islam was the second-most commonly reported religion in Canada in a 2021 census, with nearly 5% of people reporting themselves that way — up from 2% in 2001. As Canada’s Islamic population grows, are we seeing an increase or decrease in Islamophobia?

That’s a really interesting question because the same type of question arises time and again in America when we talk about anti-Black racism or violence against Black men by police officers: has racism increased, or has our recording/reporting of it increased?

We know there was a whopping 71% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes between 2020 and 2021. Shocking as that may be, we already know hate crimes are severely underreported: those numbers are very much impacted by somebody’s willingness and level of comfort to report, and the receiving officer’s discretion in how the crime is recorded. It could be that people were more encouraged to report in 2021 after four members of a Muslim family were run down and killed in a drive-by attack in London. These numbers don’t really say anything about lived experiences of everyday hate, though. If we look at other forms of research, we can see that year after year, overt and covert racism persists, institutional discrimination persists, structural inequality persists.

For example, there are stats that show Muslims have higher levels of education compared to first and second generation Canadians of other faith backgrounds, but they are poorer than those other communities. Why is that? Maybe they’re not getting the jobs they deserve to have because they’re being discriminated against because of their accent, the way they look, their faith or a hijab that they wear.

3. All of Canada’s major party leaders publicly denounced anti-Muslim hate after the drive-by attack in London, but Islamophobic violence did not emerge as a key issue during federal election campaigns just a few months later. And Quebec’s Bill 21 — which bars teachers, police officers, judges, government lawyers and other civil servants from wearing religious symbols while at work — particularly affects Muslim women who wear the hijab. What is our country doing to combat Islamophobia, and what more should we be doing?

The response of our leaders after the London killings is an instance of what I and many other people refer to as performative allyship or performance-based solidarity. We’ve seen this with the Black Lives Matter movement as well, when organizations and companies give strong statements about their support, but then don’t back it up with policies that actually help equity- deserving groups.

As a Muslim woman who has young children who were born and raised in Canada and goes on walks with her family, that attack in London was extremely traumatic to process. I felt comforted by the community support, but I also felt like ‘Surely, this is it. It is the final straw.’ It was the same after the Quebec City Mosque shooting: ‘Surely, this is it. They have to believe Islamophobia is a problem now! This is the time when we are going to see some real action take place.’ And it wasn’t.

As always, there is a lot of talk and no action to combat the real causes of Islamophobic hate – institutional systemic discrimination and policies that unfairly target Muslims.

4. As a researcher, you have extensively explored the ways in which Western Muslim communities navigate their social worlds amidst rising Islamophobia. What have you learned in your research?

In my PhD dissertation at McMaster University, I looked at the experience of Muslims living in Canada, focusing particularly on refugee Muslims who came from countries like Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia. In that research, I found that being a Muslim made the experience of being a refugee harder; that being racialized made the experience even harder; that being a Black Muslim refugee was even harder than that; and that being a Black Muslim refugee woman who wears the hijab could lead to experiencing the worst forms of anti-Black racism, anti-Black Islamophobia, gender based violence, anti-refugee hate and anti-immigrant hate.

What this means is that we need to have intersectional analyses of racism and Islamophobia. We can’t just talk about Islamophobia as a broad term that affects everybody equally, because it doesn’t. There are Muslims who are white and don’t have accents, so they won’t experience Islamophobia in the same way as someone who is racialized and visibly belongs to the Muslim community, or as someone who is Sikh and may get mistaken for a Muslim because of the turban on their head.

Muslim youth are also particularly vulnerable because they may not have the power to recognize or address when they’re being discriminated against. Islamophobia in the school systems scares me because it can determine the trajectory of a human being, whether it’s the trajectory of their career or their mental health.

5. If Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate has always been a problem, does that mean it will always be a problem? If so, what can we do to address it?

We need to be realistic that we’ll never live in complete harmony. Human beings are capable of doing terrible things and they will continue to do terrible things. History is proof of that.

What can change, however, is our response to these terrible things. We need to have systems in place that will address incidences quickly after they happen or provide recourse for people who are discriminated against. Jacinda Ardern’s leadership as the Prime Minister of New Zealand is an inspiring example, banning military-style semi-automatic and assault rifles within days of the 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch that killed 51 Muslim worshippers. That instant reaction led so many people around the world to wonder why their leaders haven’t responded that way when bad things have happened.

“It’s not just a mass shooting at a mosque or the killing of a family that should concern us. These types of one-off tragic events get us to stop and pay attention, but only momentarily. We need to address the everyday racism and the insidious forms of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia.”

Consider the ease with which the Quebec mosque shooter could go in and attack and kill so many people. How could that have been prevented? Maybe if there was better security in places of worship or better surveillance systems that can be government-funded. That would have been a good response, showing that we are doing everything in our means to prevent something of this scale from happening again and will do everything in our power to make sure people are prepared.

It’s also important to remember that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism and discrimination take many forms. It’s not just a mass shooting at a mosque or the killing of a family that should concern us. These types of one-off tragic events get us to stop and pay attention, but only momentarily. We need to address the everyday racism and the insidious forms of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia that is prevalent in schools, hospitals, prisons, workplaces, every institution you can name, and has been described by some as the death by a thousand cuts. Policies like Bill 21 feeds the Islamophobia narrative that feeds outward hate. Addressing that kind of Islamophobia is what Canadian Muslims deserve.

Dr. Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui is a professor of sociology and criminology at Sheridan College, where she was recently appointed to the institution’s Inclusive Communities Department. Sabreena is also a multiple award-winning public speaker, well-known media commentator, trusted community leader and social justice advocate, renowned leadership coach and independent consultant who provides expert analysis, training and strategies on DEI, communications, public policy, organizational development and public relations. Inspired by her mother’s cancer journey and experiences in the healthcare system, Sabreena began researching and writing about health inequities, disparities and barriers for racialized immigrants more than 15 years ago. Her research and advocacy efforts have since expanded to explore and shed light on other forms of discrimination, unconscious bias and microaggressions in various public and private settings.

Interested in connecting with Dr. Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui or another Sheridan expert? Please email communications@sheridancollege.ca

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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