Will Islamophobia and Racism Influence Canadian Election?

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Harsha Walia of No One is Illegal says the effects of “war on terror” and racism against refugees and immigrants and fear mongering has been decisive in previous elections

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

In the leadup to the Canadian elections the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois have been waging a campaign against Muslim women who wear the niqab. The recent Islamophobic and racist attacks perpetrated against two Muslim women in niqab, one in Montreal and the other in Toronto within a period of one week is cited as one of the most negative impacts of such campaigns. Further, Harper’s Conservative government is now promising to create a tip line for Canadians to call in if they observe what they are calling barbaric cultural practices. But what does that mean? And is the politicization of the veil a distraction camouflaging the real issues in the campaign?

Now joining me to discuss all of this is Harsha Walia. Harsha is joining us from Vancouver. She is a social justice activist, journalist, and co-founder of Vancouver chapter of No One Is Illegal. She is also the author of the book Undoing Border Imperialism. Harsha, thank you so much for joining us.

HARSHA WALIA: Thank you for having me.

PERIES: Harsha, raising fear in society has the effect of social contraction as opposed to openness and tolerance. Conservatives across Canada are relying on fearmongering as an election strategy. That is clear, of course, from the various ad campaigns that are on television right now. But is that really working?

WALIA: Well I mean, it’s hard to say. Because I think especially in the post-9/11 climate we have to come to terms with the fact that fear has actually been used in every single election campaign, including by the Liberals right after 9/11 as well as the Conservatives. I mean, I think a decade into the war on terror, I think people are able to see what fear is, right, that it is a tool to have to contract our ability to have politically engaged conversations. But I think fear and its roots in racism has often won elections. Whether or not it wins this one I don’t know. But it has most certainly won elections in the past, both in the United States as well as in Europe.

Fearmongering, whether it’s fear of Muslims and Islamophobia or fear of migrants and refugees has often been the basis of election campaigns. And that’s because you can’t vote in [inaud.] racism, right. It’s a function and a product of the society that we live in. And so certainly the Conservative party in particular has built a base amongst racists and has built a base against populism, a particular kind of racist populism. And this is not uncommon, we’ve also seen this in parts of Europe as well. And so in that sense I don’t think it should surprise anybody, and nor is it unique to the Tories that racism is a tool within which to whip up a frenzy and to get political votes.

PERIES: So Harsha, as you note in your article titled Marked Bodies: Will racism win the election for Harper, the term ‘barbaric cultural practices’ has been used before. It’s been in Canada’s citizenship guide, you say, in 2009 which states: In Canada, men and women are equal under the law. Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, honor killings, female genital mutilation, or other gender-based violence. So this all sounds good. What is your contention with that being in the Canada citizenship guide? After all, it’s a warning to new immigrants that these practices are illegal in Canada.

WALIA: Yeah. I think the ways in which ‘barbaric cultural practices’ has been framed is one that is not actually about violence against women. It’s not about dealing with patriarchy. It’s about racism, and it’s about positioning certain [inaud.] as barbaric and their practices as ones that are outside to Canada. And you know, I think if we want to talk about barbaric cultural practices we should name patriarchy in itself [inaud.] you know, violence against women is a barbaric cultural practice in its universal forms.

But the ways in which barbaric cultural practice is named is very much to suggest that violence against women is an import, as if violence against women does not happen against women in Canada, especially indigenous women living in Canada. But all women in Canada deal with the reality of violence against women. So it takes [violence against women] and frames it as a kind of foreign import, as not Canadian. So it serves both to invisibilize the violence against women happening here in Canada and also to exceptionalize and exaggerate the forms of violence that communities that are cast as non-Canadian, particularly Muslim communities, apparently bring with them.

The barbaric cultural practices act and the discourse of barbaric cultural practices goes alongside a really heightened focus on things like, [inaud.] honor crimes despite the fact that they’re not very common in Canada. And of course even [inaud.] contested. And so I would argue that barbaric cultural practices does claim to actually deal with violence against women [inaud.]. Rather what it does is to make women more vulnerable and subject to racial profiling and racism. And we see that. We see that the barbaric cultural practices act, which is actually legislation. A number of organizations who work with women on the ground say that it makes women much more vulnerable. We have of course the examples of the two Muslim women, as you mentioned, who have been attacked as a result of this discourse. So it’s making Muslim women in particular much more visible and subject to violence against them.

PERIES: And also less likely to call in for assistance or the law if they think their loved ones or their family members are going to be taken away and charged. So is any of the other parties, opposition parties, taking on this kind of campaign?

WALIA: No. I mean, I think the other opposition parties have definitely spoken out against the really disgusting use of barbaric cultural practices as a frame. But I also think this is in the context of elections, right. We have to look longer. Like I said, when barbaric cultural practices was being introduced into the citizenship act, it did not get any attention from other political parties. There’s been a slough of legislation passed, there’s been a lot of focus right now on the barbaric cultural practices tip line. But you know, Canada already had tip lines in place against immigrants, one ostensibly against immigration fraud, once against non-citizens. And these tip lines did not receive vocal opposition by other political parties as well.

So I think it’s important not just to look at what politicians are saying during the election period, but to look at what their record has been over a period of time. And over a period of time, the racist legislation that has been passed down by this current government has been supported by other parties. And also prior to this government the Liberal government passed down a series of horrific policies, right, including anti-terror legislation that was brought in by the Liberals. So I think [they’ll] have to be attuned to that history.

PERIES: Harsha Walia, thank you so much for joining us today.

WALIA: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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