I. What role does Islamophobia play in Canadian politics? Until Harper, the distorted image of Islam from our southern neighbour barely entered mainstream politics. To a significant degree, Jean Chrétien before him endorsed a vein of Islamophobia through his foreign policy actions. With Harper, however, his unprecedented militarism went in tandem with his Islamophobic rhetoric. For a number of reasons, Canadians wanted Harper out at all costs, so Trudeaumania hit the country like an epidemic. Though Trudeau avoids Harper’s virulent strain of Islamophobia, as fellow Liberal Chrétien did before him, Trudeau endorses the mild Islamophobia which allows Canadian foreign policy to fly under the auspices of the American eagle’s wing.
Since Canadian foreign policy has largely been shaped by its close adherence to the United States, to understand the role of Islamophobia in Canada is to assess the origin and character of Islamophobia in the United States. To begin with, in a very useful article, Deepa Kumar observes two currents within mainstream American politics between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives such as Donald Trump will use incendiary rhetoric against Muslims, calling for such an extreme action as a database to register all Muslims; in turn, this gives impetus to the liberal establishment to decry Trump’s Islamophobia without cause for self-reflection of their own––hell, even fellow Republican candidates denounced Trump! However, as Kumar illustrates, the liberal establishment––that is, Democrats and sympathetic institutions––had already formed the bedrock of policy under Clinton on which to realistically follow through Trump’s suggestion. In 1996, Bill Clinton passed a terrorism bill, which was then beefed up in 2002 as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. The system requires adult male immigrants from twenty-five specific countries to be photographed, fingerprinted, interviewed and their finances examined. By fall of 2003, 83,000 immigrants had been registered. Kumar points this out in a recent article in Jacobin magazine and demonstrates that Trump’s xenophobic policies are not as novel as Democrats pretend they are.
Barack Obama articulates “a liberal version of Islamophobia, according to which Islam is culpable for violence committed by Muslims, even if most Muslims are ‘peaceful.’” Some might conclude that though Harper is the Canadian counterpart to Trump, Trudeau has avoided this liberal version of Islamophobia. Following the Paris attacks, Trudeau certainly condemned the nationwide violence committed against Muslims, further avoiding any direct incrimination of Islam; but because Trudeau’s foreign policy is in line with the United States, Trudeau endorses the Islamophobia that rationalizes war in the Middle East.
Islamophobia doesn’t begin wars; it rationalizes them. To rationalize war is not to explain its initiation. Rather, rationalization is a process which occurs in two steps. One, a course of action is taken for some given reason; and two, a seemingly good or logical reason is constructed, as an attempt to justify the act after the fact. For example, after steps are taken to initiate war, there might be a fitting pretext (e.g. Islamophobia) in light of which might make the taken steps appear reasonable.
So, if Islamophobia merely rationalizes war in the Middle East, what then are its causes?
II. The tide of Islamophobia that followed 9/11 was incipient in the West before the collapse of the Soviet Union, thus ending the Cold War. In 1992, Samuel P. Huntington penned an article titled “The Clash of Civilizations?” where he contended against the mood of the time, which thought that the ideological conflict which marked Cold War politics came to an end with it, that “the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” The 1980s furnished the material for Huntington’s article, the decade which saw the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and militant organizations in Lebanon who took up their cause against Israel under the banner of Islam.
So, according to Huntington, the world’s source of conflict is placed within the clash of civilizations in the stead of capitalists and communists vying for spheres of influence. In the wake of 9/11, the notion of the clash of civilizations gained purchase in the West and the Near East, as right-wing extremists had selectively interpreted the Quran and Ahadith as a directive against Europe and North America. In the West, where there had always been a current of right-wing Christian extremism, politicians such as George W. Bush picked up this rhetoric, imbuing the “War on Terror” with a religious quality, for example referring to it as a “crusade.”
Seeds of division between Islam and the Christian West had been sown with the Moorish invasion of the Iberian peninsula, the crusades, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, and through the political thought of Jamal al-Afghani, Sayyid Qutb, among others; but aside from Qutb there is no sense of continuity to be spoken of with political Islam today. To set these events which took place over the course of more than a thousand years within the horizon of political Islam, as such elements as the Islamic State are wont to, is to perform an extraordinary feat of rationalization.
The truth of the matter is that war has less to do with the struggle of the papacy asserting authority over Constantinople than with Washington asserting control over oil in the Middle East. If history doesn’t repeat itself, it at least knows irony: Islam as cover for the ambitions of war.
III. In the United States, the partnership of oil and military might had shown its extraordinary role in combat and the economy during the World Wars. At that time, the United States had an abundance of oil reserves to propel the United States ahead of France and England to dominate world affairs. Since oil has proven its immense strategic value, the United States shifted gears on the consumption of domestic production of oil. After the World Wars, the United States became a net importer of oil and created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve which now enjoys the largest emergency supply in the world with 695.1 million barrels.
If oil did not possess the immense strategic value that it has, if it did not concentrate in vast amounts within the Middle East, Islamophobia would likely be negligible enough as to not warrant political commentary; Edward Said’s Orientalism might have been nothing more than a footnote for the interested specialist. But the Middle East has had the misfortune of becoming rich; as one writer put it, “Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others––the empires and their native overseers.”
Eduardo Galeano wrote those lines in his Open Veins of Latin America, but the words ring true for the rest of the Global South. The discovery of “black gold” in the Middle East earmarked the region for Western consumption; first, France and England, then the United States. A variety of justifications were used by the U.S. to shoulder their way into the Middle East to the detriment of France and England: from quelling uprisings in Greece and Turkey, the coup d’état in Iran, condemning France and England’s actions during the Suez Canal crisis, to the protection of Israel’s interests from their Soviet-backed enemies.
The iron fist with which the United States dealt blows to communists, socialists, and secular movements was bound to have adverse effects. Closing these outlets of frustration with the current state of affairs would allow only one place of safety: mosques; the mosques which, coincidentally, owing to its repository of culture and history, are a symbol of struggle against the consistently unilateral interventions by the West.
In the cases of the Cold War and Islamophobia, the destructive consequences of capitalism are exonerated each time. Huntington is correct insofar as he indicated that the collapse of the Soviet Union did not represent the end of ideological conflict, yet erred on placing his finger on the clash of civilizations. For Huntington neglects to mention that the pursuit of American interests in the Middle East and elsewhere impinges on the livelihoods of the peoples there. The pursuit of these interests is intimately tied to the United States’ stake in oil reserves and building pipelines. In addition to US imperialism’s oil addiction, the region is also key in maintaining US-NATO hegemony with the rise of the BRICS countries, especially China and Russia, trying to isolate these countries politically, economically and militarily.
In confrontation with an alien power asserting control over a resource on their own land, the response to assert sovereignty over the resource by the indigenous peoples is entirely natural. This has been the case with anti-colonial wars before the formal renunciations of colonies. However, the end of colonies was not at the same time the end of imperialism; rather, it was the transition from administrative to financial colonies––in short, the triumph of finance.
When Edward Said writes, “one ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away,” he was writing about the discourse centred around the Orient of which Islamophobia is part. The obstinacy of Islamophobia, after all, must cut across civil and political society, and economic interests to explain its persistence.
Islamophobia is thus not merely a collection of bigots who share in the attitude against Muslims, but permeates through institutions shaped by the economic interests vested in Muslim-majority countries where an overwhelming amount of power must be exerted to protect these economic interests.
IV. The role of Islamophobia in Canadian politics is performed through political and civil institutions, such as the government, the military, schools, and mass media. Canadians’ access to American channels also disseminates the distortions of Islam into the public consciousness. Hence, with the exception of Harper, the political establishment has not had to resort to Islamophobic rhetoric.
The apparent anomaly of Harper is comprehensible within the purview of past neoliberal policy decisions and Harper’s own escalation in the militarization of foreign policy. Harper’s austere economic policies were built atop the groundwork laid by the preceding Liberal Prime Ministers. In Jerome Klassen’s “Joining Empire: Canadian Foreign Policy under Harper,” the author outlines the Liberal government’s pursuit of neoliberal policies on the continent as a step toward the globalization of Canadian production and investment. “By 1996,” Klassen writes, “Canada had become a net exporter of direct investment capital, and Canadian corporations became leaders in several global sectors, including energy, mining, finance, aerospace, and information-and-computer-technologies.”
From these economic ambitions, foreign policy decisions had to follow suit. The Liberal government published several strategy documents in the years immediately preceding Harper’s administration, and although the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair commended the Liberal Party for having “wisely avoided” the Iraq War (2003) the government still provided “multiple forms of military assistance, including surveillance aircraft, naval ships, military personnel on exchange programs, and a military deployment to Afghanistan to relieve US troops for the Gulf.”
In 2008, Harper’s administration began to publish their own strategy documents, one of which is the Canada First Defence Strategy. One of the Canadian Forces’ three roles, according to the document, is to contribute to international peace and security, for “as a trading nation in a highly globalized world, Canada’s prosperity and security rely on stability abroad.” According to Building Resilience Against Terrorism (2012), “violent Islamic extremism is the leading threat to Canada’s national security.” Funny, within the last 30 years Islamic terrorist attacks––without any connection to terrorist networks––have been responsible for two deaths; mass shootings by non-Muslim gunmen have been responsible for many more.
It appears that imperialist politicians, the state’s security forces, and the corporate media prefer to focus on Islamist terrorism, instead of forms of terrorism that are more prevalent and more dangerous in North America. In 2015 Washington’s New America released a study showing that nearly twice as many people were killed by right-wing white extremists compared to Muslim extremists since 2001. In Canada, similar research by the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society shows that 59% of lone wolf terrorist attacks in the last 15 years were ideologically motivated by white supremacist movements.
Despite the sense of relief many Canadians feel with Trudeau’s administration replacing Harper’s, the fact is that Trudeau’s policies have not departed far from Harper’s. Trudeau still supports Trans-Pacific Partnership; the Saudi arms sales; the Syrian opposition; votes against UN resolutions against Israel; and votes against UN resolutions condemning the glorification of Nazism.
One significant difference between Harper and Trudeau was their policies on Syrian refugees. Trudeau’s refugee policy was seen by Canadians as a welcomed return to the peacekeeping myth––call it what it is––of Canada. Trudeau ran on a platform to welcome 25,000 refugees by the end of December 2015, now readjusted to March 1st.
But there is something disingenuous in perpetuating the Syrian refugee crisis by continuing to provide military support for the opposition and fly sorties over Iraq and Syria, while simultaneously welcoming refugees. As of January 17th, CF-18 jets had flown 2,017 sorties (some of which were responsible for civilian deaths), while Canada’s Polaris aerial refueller has delivered 20,522,000 pounds of fuel to coalition aircraft. Trudeau’s recent announcement that he will be pulling back the bombers is in fact part of a plan to escalate Canada’s military role in the war in Iraq and Syria. They will withdraw Canada’s six bombers, but with 12 other countries still bombing the air war will continue unabated. They will be adding hundreds of more troops on “training” missions in Iraq, and increasing funding for the war to $1.6 billion over three years.
To conclude, by the very fact that Trudeau’s foreign policy follows the United States, for the many reasons highlighted, Trudeau endorses a liberal version of Islamophobia. Trudeau’s visit to the Peterborough mosque, which was burnt by xenophobic arsonists, his public condemnations of violence against Muslims do not stonewall the claim. For it’s fine to befriend Muslims here, but to bomb Muslims over there––raison d’être of Syrian refugees.
Islamophobia rationalizes war and imperialism; imperialism reproduces Islamophobia. Through this cycle, bombs fall over the heads of Syrians and Iraqis without distinction, the bombs recruit more extremists. More extremists, more bombs. More Islamophobia.
This article is printed in Issue 20 of Rebel Youth which is now available! The issue deals has a focus on racism and anti-racist struggles. Find out more and subscribe today!