LAST week’s incident in Ontario, Canada, in which four members of a Muslim family were crushed to death in a premeditated attack has once again raised concerns over the rising incidence of ‘Islamophobia’. It was perhaps the most gruesome murder of innocent people motivated by anti-Muslim hatred in Canada.
There has been a significant rise in such crimes with the ascendancy of ultra-right forces in many Western societies. The incidence of attacks on Muslims and their places of worship has become more frequent. It may not be the first time Muslims have been targeted in Canada but it was certainly the most heinous attack.
It was an act of terrorism driven by Islamophobia, declared Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister. The 20-year-old suspect who mowed down the Afzal family had reportedly been motivated by the anti-Muslim campaign run by racist and white supremacist groups which have become increasingly active over the past few years. The tragedy has shaken Canada, which is one of the most culturally and racially inclusive countries in the world. The cabinet includes Muslim ministers.
What is described as ‘Islamophobia’ has, in fact, existed for a very long time in many Western countries. But anti-Muslim movements have seen a marked rise after 9/11 and have been further strengthened over the past few years with the surge of right-wing racist ideology. The anti-immigrant campaign has intensified anti-Muslim sentiments. The rise of Trumpism in the US and the emergence of populist nationalist regimes have also given impetus to hate-based politics.
Individual terrorist actions must not be allowed to strengthen extremist ideology on the other side.
‘Islamophobia’ is generally defined as “an outlook or worldview involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination”. But it has taken a more violent turn in recent years with terrorist attacks targeting the Muslim community and mosques. There are political as well as economic reasons for the rise of the anti-immigrant movement particularly in Europe that often takes an anti-Muslim turn.
Some violent actions by Muslim individuals influenced by extremist ideology too have been used by racist and ultra-right groups to whip up anti-Muslim sentiments as seen in France. Terms, like ‘Islamic terrorism’ are used in right-wing propaganda literature. Surely in some cases the state’s policy of cultural discrimination has also contributed to anti-Muslim sentiments.
It’s not just in the West; anti-Muslim politics have also gained momentum in other parts. For instance, India is one of the few countries where the government itself is directly involved in an anti-Muslim campaign. It is not just discriminatory policies but also the violence perpetrated by the ruling party that seeks to marginalise the Muslim population.
The rise of violent anti-Muslim movements and the hate campaign run by racist groups on social media have certainly been a serious challenge for democracy around the world. But such hate campaigns and actions by extremist groups must not be equated with religious and civilisational wars. Individual terrorist actions must not be allowed to strengthen extremist ideology on the other side.
It should also be recognised that the strongest resistance to this violent ideology based on anti-Muslim prejudice has come from within Western democracies themselves. The strong public and government reaction against the 2019 Christchurch mosque killings carried out by a supporter of a white supremacist group is a case in point. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the horrific shootings won her widespread appreciation by the Muslim community. It was a terrorist attack and didn’t involve any religiously motivated group.
Similarly, the Ontario killing has united in grief the widest section of Canadian society across religious and racial divides. Justin Trudeau’s passionate speech condemning the incident as an act of terrorism and his government’s pledge to take the toughest action against the hate campaign has certainly reassured the vast Muslim community in the country.
Of course, there is a need for a coordinated and concerted effort to counter the anti-Muslim campaign, but it should also be linked to the struggle against all other violent religious ideologies. Sadly, killing in the name of faith is far more prevalent in our country.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has called for an international effort to counter growing ‘Islamophobia’ and has also raised the issue at various international forums including at the UN General Assembly. In a recent interview to a Canadian TV channel, he lamented the lack of response to the move for an internationally coordinated effort to combat ‘Islamophobia’.
Of course, one cannot agree more with the prime minister that hate literature and anti-Muslim websites should be banned but his call would receive a greater response if he too made some efforts to curb the continuing rise of extremist faith-based ideology in the country. A policy of appeasement has given greater space to the groups openly preaching violence in the name of faith.
While the prime ministers of Canada and New Zealand stood with the Muslim community in their time of grief and took decisive actions against the perpetrators of the crime, our leaders are found missing when such tragedies occur in the country. How can we forget the time when the prime minister refused to meet the mourners of the victims of a Hazara massacre in Quetta declaring he would not be ‘blackmailed’?
He finally went there to meet some members of the victims’ family after the funeral had taken place. Such a callous attitude in the face of tragedy could hardly give him the kind of moral high ground needed to lead an international campaign against ‘Islamophobia’. Hundreds of Hazaras have been killed over the last few years in this country in the name of faith.
The international community constantly censures Pakistan for victimisation of religious minorities. The growing misuse of blasphemy laws targeting both Muslims and non-Muslims are also cited as a manifestation of the extremist ideology gaining ground in the country. The PTI government’s overdose of religiosity has imparted a sense of impunity to extremist religious groups. Will the international community heed the prime minister’s appeal given this situation at home?
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.
Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2021