In the wake of the March 15 mosque shootings in New Zealand, many of us in the Muslim community are asking ourselves, “Why do hate crimes against Muslims increase?” Recent data do indicate an all-time high number of anti-Muslim attacks in Canada and other Western countries.
In Toronto recently, as people gathered during a vigil for the victims of the New Zealand attack and called on others to speak out against all forms of racism and discrimination, a group of far-right supporters interrupted the event. Their presence indicated that an ideology that rejects mainstream conservatism in favour of another form of conservatism that embraces explicit racism or white supremacy — also known as alt-right — does exist in Canada.
Compared to the U.K. and the United States, Canada has a lesser number of hate crimes directed toward Muslims, with the January attack in Quebec City two years ago marked as the deadliest event.
But if the numbers of hate crimes recorded by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) could be of use here, we could say that Canadian Muslims faced microaggressions more often than other minority groups. The fact that there are a few individual Muslims, including new converts to Islam, who have recently engaged in violent extremism against the West reinforces the familiar narrative that their “religiosity” threatens the existence and accomplishment of secular Euro-Atlantic society.
It would be easy to call prejudices and hate crimes against Muslims Islamophobic and to say that all kinds of racism and discrimination are unwelcome in Canada. It would be far more important and rewarding for us to ask how could — in a liberal democratic state like Canada, whose Charter of Rights and Freedoms is supposed to promote civil and political equality, irrespective of one’s religious affiliation — religious difference and hate crimes against minority Muslims intensify?
One possible answer to that question is that the prerogative role of the secular liberal state — to define the nation’s norms and identity — and its claim to be a neutral solution to manage diversity, distributive justice and equality to all citizens has in fact exacerbated religious difference and the condition of inequality. The charter requires religion to be confined to the private sphere, but the same Constitution also allows religion to play even greater roles for sustaining collective identity of the minority as well as that of the majority population.
In other words, the marginalization and depoliticizing of religion in the public sphere has transformed religion to play fundamental roles to maintain differences, increase anxieties about others, and even tensions in public sphere.
It is precisely in this context that the presence of Muslims and non-white in Canada are seen as outsiders. They are seen as posing an existential threat, unwilling to integrate and maintaining values and practices that are contradictory to the achievements of secular society, such as freedom, democracy, and a tolerant way of life. To alt-right or white-nationalist groups, they are invaders who wish to replace ethnic-European populations.
In contemporary Canadian context, politicians somehow played their roles as well in highlighting religious differences in our society. The proposed “secularism law” in Quebec epitomizes how politicians can instigate further stigmatization of minority Muslims, hate speech, or even actual assault against Muslims as did happen in Quebec City.
We who lived in the radical age are challenged to develop a form of multiculturalism that is tied to an ethic of social membership, that is, a form of multiculturalism that enables indigenous community, minority groups, and recent immigrants to express their culture and identity as a form of participation or contribution to the national society.
Amos Oz, the renowned Israeli author who recently passed away, gave us an optimism dealing with the difficult challenge ahead of us. He said “Tragedies are resolved in one of two ways: The Shakespearean way or the Anton Chekhov way. In a tragedy by Shakespeare, the stage at the end is littered with dead bodies. In a tragedy by Chekhov, everyone is unhappy, bitter, disillusioned and melancholy, but they are alive. My colleagues in the peace movement and I are working for a Chekhovian, not a Shakespearean.” So do I.