Islamophobia in Canada: A Primer


Ten years after September 11, 2001, the term “Islamophobia,” once largely obscure, has become all but inevitable when discussing contemporary politics. As Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden became household names, Western fear of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims has also grown. Canada has been no stranger to this phenomenon. Despite its reputation as a haven of multicultural tolerance, one 2011 poll showed that 56% of Canadians believe Western societies are in “irreconcilable conflict” with Muslim societies. 40% of the 1500 respondents approved the profiling of airplane passengers who appear Muslim.  As Canada enters its seventh year of Conservative rule, how are progressives to understand and respond to this trend?

Islamophobia relies on characterizations of Islam and its adherents as uniquely prone to certain things, such as violence and sexism, and uniquely hostile to others, such as democracy and secular government. It includes discrimination based on perceived religious identity, such that non-Muslims, including Sikhs and Arab Christians, have also been targets of anti-Muslim violence in cases of “mistaken identity.” Meanwhile, Muslims in North America who do not appear to come from the Middle East or South Asia, such as Muslims of European or East Asian descent, have been less centrally targeted in this blurry overlap of religious and racial discrimination.

In this primer, we do not attempt to cover every instance of Islamophobia in Canada in the past decade. Rather, we provide an overview of its broad assumptions, particularly focusing on two themes that have proven central to discussions about Muslims: sexism and violence.

In offering this analysis, we stress that responses to Islamophobia must be placed within the context of Canada’s ongoing conservative political shift — from its increased military engagements around the world to its anti-immigrant policies at home, and from its vast cuts in social service funding to its ever-increasing levels of state surveillance. While numerous civil liberties and human rights organizations have reported on the rise of anti-Muslim hate crimes in Canada, we emphasize that Islamophobia is not just interpersonal: it is systemic. In fighting it, therefore, we must engage with the many other forms of oppression that also organize Canadian society.


Mainstream Canadian discussions about Muslim women generally exhibit an indefatigable insistence on “liberation.” This often-militaristic saviour complex, best demonstrated by the invasion of Afghanistan, requires a willful denial of the intelligence and resilience of Muslim women.

Yet Muslim women, in surviving and resisting the intersecting forces of oppression in their lives, suffer not from a lack of leadership, but of mainstream recognition. Thus, in opposing Islamophobia, we must engage with Muslim feminist leadership. These are women who challenge both mainstream stereotypes of Muslim women and comfortable liberal conceptions of free will. Recent controversies around the niqab (face veil) and Toronto’s Valley Park Middle School offer two instructive examples of leadership by Muslim women.

Niqab: From Quebec to the Queen

In 2010, Quebec proposed Bill 94, which would deny essential government services, public employment, education, and health care to Muslim women who wear niqab. Proponents relied on the misconception that no woman would freely choose to wear a niqab. Moreover, they insisted that women who do choose to wear the niqab must be civilized into disrobing. They argued that by forbidding women from wearing certain clothes, they were in fact protecting a woman’s right to sartorial choice.

In response, Muslim women and their allies pointed out that the Bill would legislate a culture of paranoia around the small number of women who wear the niqab by forcing them to choose between their clothes and essential government services. Further, while many Muslim women do freely choose to don various forms of veiling, legislating shame around those who veil under external pressure only reinforces their marginalization, because Bill 94 would exclude those very women from public spaces.

For instance, the Right 2 Wear group, formed in 2011, stated that “We are tired of everyone — governments, our families, religious scholars, the justice system, our peers — being obsessed with what we wear. Muslim women and girls have the right to choose how we outwardly express our faith and religion.”

On the other hand, Bill 94’s supporters include Tarek Fatah, founder of the regressive Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC). In one moment of staggering cliche, he proclaimed, “I welcome the rescue of all Muslim-Canadian women.”  Fatah has also declared that the Ontario Court of Appeal “made a fool of the Canadian judicial system and values of gender equality” for allowing a  rape victim to testify against her alleged attackers in court in the clothes in which she felt most comfortable, namely her niqab.  For all his concern for “gender equality,” Fatah refuses to acknowledge that he infantilizes Muslim women by constantly policing how they dress.

Yet however trite Fatah’s language may be, it is effective. By using liberal rhetoric as a vehicle for conservative ends, Fatah appeals to people from across the political spectrum. Thus, he has become a media darling, the go-to Muslim mascot for sexist and racist policies.

2011 was also the year that Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, famed homophobe and anti-abortion activist,  banned the niqab from citizenship ceremonies. Kenney, whose contempt for the rule of law in immigration tribunals has already invited the condemnation of Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin,  harrumphed “I’m sure they’ll trump up some stupid Charter of Rights challenge.”

In January 2012, the MCC officially applauded Kenney for the ban. At that event, Raheel Raza, another MCC spokesperson, posed in a niqab only long enough to tear it off for Kenney’s benefit.  Kenney promptly used the photo-op as proof of “widespread” support. This disingenuousness is unsurprising, coming from a man who describes renowned environmental and First Nations groups who oppose tar sands development as “radical” foreign-funded saboteurs. Indeed, Kenney has managed to connect faux-feminism even with his rampant anti-environmentalism: he actively supports the Conservative-backed Ethical Oil project, on the basis that local tar sands are the only ethical alternative to importing oil from Saudi Arabia, because of its record on women’s rights.

Valley Park Middle School: A Guide on How to Liberate Young Muslim Women

In July 2011, the Christian Heritage Party (CHP), the Jewish Defence League (JDL), and Canadian Hindu Advocacy (CHA) picketed the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), because it had allowed Muslim students to pray at Valley Park Middle School. The news went from a fringe story about extremist racists “fighting the Islamization” of the TDSB to front-page headlines when the media reported that the prayers were gender-segregated.

Public debate promptly shifted from Muslim lust for world domination to Muslim hatred for women. The liberal Toronto Star ran a column by Heather Mallick entitled, “Time for someone to speak up for shy young girls.”’s Women’s Rights administrators, Shelby Knox and Alex DiBranco, disseminated a petition opposing the prayer arrangement created by a fan of far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders (whose fan-base also includes Anders Breivik, the white supremacist Oslo terrorist). That petition has yet to have secured the support of a single Muslim women’s organization, least of all the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, whose name the website touts. In an email, DiBranco stated that “the petition itself has done better than many other actions we’ve emailed on,” missing the fact that prevalence of Islamophobia in North America is precisely what makes their petition possible and so popular.

Shortly thereafter, the CHA crowed on Twitter, “Thx to CHA, Islamist mysogyny [sic] in TDSB schools exposed. We hope once we liberate Muslim women from oppression, they’ll thank us.”  (The JDL, CHP, and CHA commemorated the tenth anniversary of 9/11 with a gathering at TDSB headquarters.)

Liberal or conservative, these positions are sexist. They assume that not only do Muslim women have no voices, their voices must — for their own good — be supplanted by those of their would-be saviours. In other words, these self-appointed saviours would rescue Muslim women not only from the male Muslim oppressors ever implicit in their lives, but even from themselves.

Accordingly, despite all the hand-wringing over the fate of poor Muslim women, public discourse failed to feature the perspectives or actions of the Muslim students at Valley Park. It is especially insulting to the young Muslim women — the so-called “shy young girls of tender age” — who bore the task of confronting the racist protestors’ hate, such as the anonymous Muslim middle-school students captured on YouTube footage  and on CityTV.

Yet female Muslim community organizers rallied together around Valley Park, as they do every day on the myriad of issues that impinge on the ability of all women in Canada to access substantive equality. From deputations at Toronto City Hall against proposed cuts to social service funding to community mobilizations to ensure shelters and schools are sanctuaries safe from the deportation-crazed Canadian Border Services Agency to classrooms across this country, from their homes and from their workplaces, these women are activists and community leaders who have amassed an awe-inspiring collection of histories and strategies.

Discussions about what gender-equitable prayer spaces would look like are ongoing within diverse Muslim communities. After all, it is Muslim women who have direct experience grappling with sexism in their prayer spaces and in organizing those spaces into arrangements that meet their needs. This work is deeply inspiring for the examples it provides of principled feminist solidarity. The courage and creativity of that work is entirely lost in a mainstream framing that persists in depicting Muslim women as devoid of strength or intelligence.

It is vital that leftists, when feeling flames of righteous rage on behalf of Muslim women (or other marginalized groups), do their research. For one thing, it is not enough to have allies, if our allies have proven themselves racist and sexist. For another, we need to acknowledge that the Muslim women most affected by the issue of the month were dealing with it long before the media ever picked it up, and that they will have already developed a diversity of perspectives and strategies.

Above all, if “solidarity” is to mean anything, we must remember to take leadership from marginalized voices, not space: feminism’s role is to facilitate, not liberate.


In a nationally-broadcast interview with Stephen Harper that marked the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the Prime Minister warned that “Islamicism” — a word he appears to have personally coined — offers the greatest current threat to Canadian security.  (His office later clarified he was referring to the threat of Islamic militants.) Harper attempted to qualify his statement by saying his comments were not applicable to all Muslims; however, a decade into the seemingly unending “War on Terror,” his words come as no surprise to an audience accustomed to constant warnings about the impending Muslim threat.

Indeed the most instinctual aspect of Islamophobia is to associate Islam with violence. Accordingly, an awe-inspiring amount of popular and academic attention has been devoted to proving Islam’s supposedly unique propensity for violence, whether by pointing to Qur’anic edicts that preach jihad or to cultural proclivities towards irrational destruction. The global rise of geopolitical actors espousing ideologies of power that use the language of Islam has made these assumptions hard to shake off. From Iran to Iraq, Palestine to Kashmir, New York to London: what is it with these Muslims? Why do they always seem to be killing? Must we not defend ourselves in response?

It is worth noting that these claims are not limited to celebrated racists like Canadian writer Mark Steyn or US political commentator Daniel Pipes. The more palatable liberal version of this claim simply differentiates between the good Muslims and the bad. The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful — it is simply a rotten minority that threaten our freedoms.

Hence many Muslim figureheads (including mainstream leaders, not simply fringe groups like the Muslim Canadian Congress) regularly rush to condemn any global act of violence committed by Muslims, often explicitly dismissing the very Muslimness of the perpetrators. The Islamic Supreme Council of Canada responded to Harper’s remarks about “Islamicism” by demanding he apologize because “the actions of fanatics do not represent Islamic beliefs.” Muslim community leaders repeatedly reassure us that anyone who perpetrates “terrorism” simply cannot be Muslim, because Islam is a religion that preaches peace, compassion and respect for the sanctity of human life.

While this reading of Islamic edicts may have its own merit, it simplistically assumes that events in the world can be read at face value and are not the product of complex social and political factors. Acts of war declared by liberal capitalist states are rarely interpreted as the result of liberal ideology, but violence framed in Islamic language is regularly taken at face value as if it were exclusively motivated by religion — at best a tragically incorrect religious interpretation.

The only room for response left by such an approach is the promotion of “correct” religious interpretations (those that look comfortably peaceful and patriotic), and the acceptance of state involvement in policing the internal affairs of Muslim communities. The call for precisely such interventions can be found in reports by Canada’s Integrated Threat Assessment Centre (ITAC), a body created in 2004 to monitor a range of foreign and domestic threats to Canadian security.

In 2010, a declassified ITAC report argued that Canadian Islamists are building “parallel societies,” in which Muslim organizations “do not advocate terrorist violence but promote an ideology at odds with core Western values.” The report stated, “The creation of [these] isolated communities can spawn groups that are exclusivist and potentially open to messages in which violence is advocated… At a minimum, the existence of such mini-societies undermines resilience and the fostering of a cohesive Canadian nation.” Thus the key concern of this report is not Islamists plotting imminent attacks. Rather, we are warned that these domestic Muslims, although not (yet) violent, threaten the nation-building project of Canada itself. Hence the report argues, “Islamist social ideology appears to have gone unstudied”, and calls for greater government attention to be directed at how Muslims think, communicate, and organize their day-to-day lives.

It is important that we question what the accusation of isolation refers to here. Surely it does not mean the withdrawal of Muslims from all social life, since it is near impossible to live in Canada without some connection to a range of public and private institutions, participation in the economy, and interaction with members of an impressively diverse population. Indeed none of the groups described in the report advocate the building of self-sustainable, Muslim-only communes.

On the contrary, many directly invoke laws and regulations of the Canadian state in an attempt to participate more fully within it. This is evident in requests for Muslim legal codes to be permitted for consideration within family courts, and for private Muslim schools to receive government funding comparable to schools of other religious denominations. The perceived threat to the nation is therefore not that Muslims are outside the reach of state power. Rather, it is about ideas that are allegedly incompatible with the dominant ideology of Canada. The threat is the possibility of thinking a certain way, one seen as resulting from particular Islamic teachings.

Left Response

Yet the critical question for leftists is not whether or not the Qur’an in fact advocates violence, or what particular forms of religious practice (for example, arranged marriages or sanctifying martyrdom) will result in threats to Canadian security. Such questions should be entirely irrelevant to our response to Islamophobia. Instead, a critical left should make a two-fold response.

First, we must refuse to allow the dominant powers in society to define violence. Violence is not and will never be the sole prerogative of Islamist groups, whether theocratic states like Iran, political parties like Hamas or loose international networks like Al-Qaeda (each of which, it must be pointed out, have different relationships to violence themselves).

In turn, we must constantly draw attention to the forms of structural violence that give rise to the many conflicts that now fill our world. What historical injustices have led to our current political moment? What is it that allows outrage at the Taliban exploding roadside bombs in Afghanistan but celebrates Canada’s role in the NATO bombardment of Libya as laudatory humanitarianism? How can the prolonged refusal by the Canadian government to bring Omar Khadr, captured at the age of fifteen, home from Guantánamo Bay be considered anything other than an egregious violation of human rights, comparable to actions so often used to stigmatize repressive states of the Muslim world?

This response often meets accusations of simplification: all violence is surely not the same. Certainly it is not enough to respond to the claim, “(Some) Muslims are violent” by arguing, “Others are violent too!” What is important here is not to simplistically equate all forms of violence, but to reject the assumption that “Islamic fundamentalism” is a uniquely violent threat that characterizes our contemporary world.

Although many progressives readily acknowledge other forms of religious fundamentalism to compare alongside Islam, we must also insist on naming the violences committed by those who claim secularism, liberalism, and democracy as their ideologies. And as a settler-colonial state born out of the genocide and land-theft of its indigenous population, a process that continues to this day, it is precisely this foundational violence that makes the Canadian state itself possible.

At the same time, we must pay attention to the specificities of groups broadly characterized as violent. It is because Hamas is not Iran and Al-Qaeda is not the Toronto 18 that categories such as “Islamic fundamentalism” or “Islamist violence” are meaningless explanatory frameworks.

The second part of a critical left response to statements like Harper’s must be a constant awareness of what the state implements in the name of our protection. Inciting popular fear about the threat of radical Islam does more than simply portray Muslims in a certain way, or blur distinctions between diverse movements framed as Islamist. It also elicits a specific response.

As we have seen, the state’s response has meant a dramatic increase in the surveillance and policing of Muslim communities across the US and Canada. A recent Mother Jones report found that since 9/11 the FBI has spent billions of dollars creating a vast network of paid informants tasked with infiltrating the Muslim community in the US. Similarly, in Canada local mosques have for years been recording increased attempts at CSIS recruitment, with undercover informants sent to record sermons or tempt mosque-goers with cash in exchange for insider information.

Harper’s declaration that he intends to bring back parliamentary measures that give police greater powers to arrest and detain in cases of alleged terrorist threats should cause us all great concern. Above all, we must build alliances in ways that reflect a principled opposition to the discriminatory treatment of a few in the name of our collective security.


In many ways, the examination of Islamophobia is a study in contradictions: Muslims are at once subject to acute scrutiny and to willful erasure from public discourse. Perceived as inherently dangerous to a rigidly static conception of “Canadian values,” the Canadian government uses the active presence of Muslims (alongside other stigmatized communities) in the public sphere to justify ever-increasing state intrusion into the private recesses of all our lives.

Simultaneously, state and pop culture obsessions with “unveiling” Muslims for the barbarians that they supposedly are remain grounded in deeply gendered biases. The foil to the frightful Muslim male is the silent Muslim woman, she who awaits liberation at the hands of Canadian armies and legislation. In its very racism, the effect is anti-feminist, because it relentlessly disregards the work Muslim women undertake everyday to defy sexism.

Of course, as with all forms of systemic discrimination, Islamophobia operates to reinforce other forms of oppression. It is worth keeping in mind what the Congress of Progressive Filipino Canadians has recently argued: “Amidst heavy-handed and punitive actions such as the burqa ban, we must seriously begin to scrutinize a state multiculturalism that, on the one hand, acknowledges diversity on paper, yet on the other, is used to justify racist and anti-immigrant practices as perpetuated by government policy. In light of recent developments, we must understand the actions taken by the Conservative government as part of a tactic to divide the Canadian working class, deny citizenship, maintain temporariness and to spark anti-immigrant sentiments while pushing forward austerity measures as part of the neoliberal agenda.”

Thus, we should be committed to principled solidarities, where we work in conjunction with marginalized communities – even in the face of differences that may invite uncertainty. In the end, it is only through collective struggle that we can envision the possibility of a radically new tomorrow.

Fathima Cader is a Toronto- and Vancouver-based writer, photographer, and law student involved in community organising around race and gender equity.

Sumayya Kassamali is currently studying in New York but grateful to have her roots in political organizing around migration, anti-racism, and Palestine solidarity in Canada.