Iraq conflict may trigger more hatred toward Muslims

It’s a small world, and getting smaller. The rapid spread of the SARS virus is a telling sign that events occurring on the other side of the globe can affect the rest of us in a very short time.

And technology available to us today adds an instantaneous, almost surrealistic, dimension to news and information. As the U.S. embarks on post-conflict “rebuilding” in Iraq, the sentiments of Canadians who are for or against the American-led campaign become ever stronger.

As passions grow, so does the potential for excess. The proverbial line needs to be drawn, however, at the point where racial profiling dominates and people begin confusing politics with religion. This is exactly what happened following the events of September 11, 2001. For weeks afterwards, Muslim organizations throughout North America were reporting a dramatic increase in anti-Islamic violence.

Even more worrisome, has been a broad and organized movement among influential right wing groups to attribute the vicious actions of 9/11 to the faith of Islam itself. And every international hate-incident that occurs simply adds fuel to the fire. Individuals with demonstrably questionable motives are now emboldened to make ridiculous suggestions that Islam is an inherently violent religion which encourages the killing of innocent civilians. Evangelist extremists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have publicly criticized Islam — in some cases even going as far as to call the respected Prophet Muhammad a “terrorist.” Reverend Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, recently called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.”

The effect of these actions is to feed the appetites of those bent on venting racist hatred toward Muslims. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, has urged Canadian Muslims “to report any hate crimes, including e-mails and offensive websites to their local police.” Elmasry also stressed that “we have good reason to believe that the number of hate crimes reported to police across Canada is only a small fraction of what is reported to the Canadian Islamic Congress or other Islamic organizations.”

A growing concern for Muslim Canadians is that anti-Islamists will exploit the Iraq conflict as yet another opportunity to take “free shots” at Muslims. You see, these days it is taboo to make a racial slur, even indirectly, toward Jews or Blacks; but you can tell Muslims that they are evil, that their faith is evil, and that their revered Prophet is a terrorist, all under the guise of promoting public security. One can regularly read articles in a well known right wing national Canadian newspaper which — were the religion changed and the content retained — would draw huge outcries of “racism” from a variety of special-interest and human rights groups. But the young Muslim population (Statistics Canada reports that Canadian Muslims have the youngest average age, 28, of any major religion in Canada) is not well entrenched in the national power structure, and therefore its members are an easy target.

In Winnipeg, most religious and cultural groups have been nothing but supportive of their Muslim colleagues, but others are bent on creating an atmosphere of increasing hysteria and fear. A recent series of anti-Islamic lectures organized by a high-profile “community centre,” brought in some of the best known anti-Islamists on the continent — including the infamous Steven Emerson and Daniel Pipes — to spew out, yet again, their adamant hatred for Muslims. Their theme is always the same: Why are Muslim men consistently involved in violent incidents? Poorly-translated Quranic verses are quoted out of context as a supposed motivation for “terrorist” actions, irrespective of clear commands in the Qur’an to be just, fair and forgiving to all of humankind. Never is there a suggestion of serious psychosocial research undertaken to elucidate the mechanism by which violent human tendencies, as horrible as they are, can arise in any person, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or faith. The message is always an oversimplified one: It must be “a Muslim thing,” so one need ask no further questions.

It was disturbing — but, unfortunately, not entirely surprising — to hear of an incident several weeks ago where a Muslim physician arrived at his downtown Winnipeg office to find the receptionist pale and afraid. She had retrieved a hate-filled and threatening message from the office answering machine. A raspy-voiced male caller referred to the events of 9/11 and called the doctor “evil” and “cursed” for being a Muslim. Then there followed more specific threats, such as “we know who you are and you better close your shop…” Police were notified and are investigating the incident.

The doctor who was targeted has never even been to the Middle East. He was born in England and has lived in Winnipeg since the age of two. Police have been unable to identify how or why he was singled out for abuse, aside from his religion.

Racism and hate are blinding emotions that do not allow for any differentiation of character among individuals; they prejudicially label and profile all people of the same faith, in the same way. It’s high time we spent more energy on building bridges of understanding and tolerance among Canada’s rich mosaic of faith and cultural groups, and collectively denounced the fear-mongering perpetuated by such pathetic anti-Islamic opportunists. Hate, however it is packaged or disguised under other names, is still hate.

Dr. Asim Ashique is a national director of the Canadian Islamic Congress.