During the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, back when invading that country was a more popular idea among Canadians than many care to remember, I recall observing an encounter at the bus stop near my house between a group of middle-aged white folks, perhaps three or four of them, and a hijab-wearing Muslim woman. I didn’t see how it began, but everyone was arguing about the war, with the Muslim woman against and everyone else for. No one was making particularly good points, but it was nevertheless obvious, through the white folks’ sneering, dismissive tone, that they regarded the logic of the Muslim woman with far more suspicion than was warranted simply because of who she was. There were no “go-back-to-where-you-came-froms” or anything like that, but it was a visibly tense conversation made all the tenser by one obvious variable.
Was what I witnessed Islamophobia? It was certainly an unpleasant swirl of politics and culture in which many divisive sources of social discord — violence, patriotism, religion, race and immigration — were present, either explicitly or just below the surface. Without being too presumptuous, when Muslim Canadians experience episodes of social anxiety, I imagine the triggers often resemble what I witnessed: awkward encounters with representatives of the majority that leave the Muslim feeling devalued or marginalized and hyper-aware of their “otherness.”
The world being what it is, however, most of us would prefer Islamophobia to manifest in a more sensationalistic, even cartoonish way. The Canadian Parliament certainly resorted to fairly cartoonish language of its own when it passed a motion last March describing the scourge of Canadian Islamophobia as an “increasing public climate of hate and fear,” which only heroic government action at the highest levels could redress.
When, last week, an 11-year-old Muslim girl from Ontario claimed she was attacked out of the blue by a bigoted monster who literally tried to cut the hijab off her head with scissors, this desire for cartoonish Islamophobia was satiated. Politicians from the prime minister on down tumbled over each other to tweet messages of sadness and remorse — on behalf of the whole country, naturally — that such wickedness had been allowed to transpire (though a barely hidden subtext was that they all pretty much expected it).
After a couple days as the cause celebre of Canadian woke-Twitter, the hijab-chopping story was declared false by the Toronto police. It “did not happen,” the news release bluntly stated. It thus joined the ranks of such other scandalous nonevents as the grocery store Islamophobe in London, Ontario (who wound up being a Farsi-speaker in treatment for mental illness) or the Muslim man who got beat up by a slur-yelling assailant in a Whitby park bathroom (only to be later deemed unreliable by police and prosecutors).
There is something unmistakably perverse about the bizarre appetite many Canadians, particularly those on the left or in elite positions, seem to have for tales of outlandish Islamophobia, an appetite that causes otherwise sensible people to turn off their faculties for caution and skepticism and adopt the credulity of a supermarket tabloid reader. At best, they gobble up such anecdotes as a variant of so-called “decay porn,” in which weird cravings for tales of a hellish world can be satisfied only by increasingly outlandish stories cooked up by fabulists. At worst, these are mini-Gulf of Tonkins of the mind, emotional pretexts that rationalize backing politicians or legislation that erode free speech, due process or national security in the name of fighting some unprecedented enemy.
As the Toronto Sun’s Anthony Furey observed, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a long track record of erring on the side of radical Islam, a pattern seemingly born from a larger tendency to frame Muslims as creatures without agency and deserving reverence for all claims of persecution, no matter how dubious or ambiguous. This, in turn, animates many of the man’s marquee political promises, from a generous intake of Syrian refugees to eliminating judgmental language from the Canadian citizenship guide to ending bombing raids against the Islamic State, all of which have, at their core, an implied need to redeem the Islam-skeptical character of Canadian society.
Phony or exaggerated charges of Islamophobia, in other words, are not merely victimless non-crimes. They inflate the resolve of a certain flavor of progressive whose political agenda aims to sacrifice much of traditional liberalism in the name of a bigotry course correction, as well as the denialist ignorance of the reactionary right, like those who peddled conspiracy theories about last year’s mosque shooting in Quebec City. The end result is a society whose politics have been agitated to polarize around the Muslim issue in a deeply inaccurate, unserious way.
It was particularly unfortunate to see Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who will face an uphill battle to unseat Trudeau next year, among those scrambling to denounce the scissor attack long before any hard facts were known. History had offered plenty of cause for suspicion. As the left seems poised to learn absolutely nothing from this episode, there is surely ample political ground to be seized by any politician brave enough to argue that the worst stories of bigotry are not automatically the truest, and the peaceful integration of Muslims into Canadian society, whatever the obvious challenges, must begin with a greater presumption of their host’s goodwill.