Islamophobia allows civil-rights abuses

Vancouver's Abdul Rahim Parwani says he can relate to the experience of Naim Hashimi, a fellow Afghan émigré.

While employed by a security company, Hashimi was called slurs like “Osama” and “the terrorist” and was also physically assaulted and taunted with offensive sexual comments. In a February 7 ruling, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal awarded him $10,000 in damages “for injury to his dignity, feelings and self-respect”.

Parwani, who fled Afghanistan before the Taliban seized power in 1996, told the Georgia Straight that being associated with America's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, is quite a common experience for Afghan immigrants like him.

“About one or two years ago when people ask me where I'm from and I say Afghanistan, they begin to be interested,” Parwani said. “They'd ask me, ”˜Where is Osama?' and I would start to explain.”

Parwani, who produces and directs the weekly Ariana television program for the Afghan-Canadian community, attributed this situation to a lack of information. He noted that news about Afghanistan has been dominated by the American-led invasion that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. “Maybe some people think that Osama is from Afghanistan,” Parwani said. “Maybe some people don't know he's from Saudi Arabia.”

Itrath Syed, an SFU women's studies sessional instructor, told the Straight that there is a deeper explanation that ties these particular experiences by Hashimi and Parwani to those of other Muslim Canadians in general. Syed, an antiwar and women's-rights activist, said it's the phenomenon of Islamophobia, which “affects people who are considered or seem to be Muslims even if they're not”.

“Islamophobia is the way in which the Muslim community is constructed as an enemy, a civilizational other,” she said. “[It's] the idea that Muslims as a whole are completely homogenous unto themselves, there is no differentiation between Muslims. As a whole, Muslims occupy the opposite of everything that is good in the West.”

Syed said that this framework portrays Muslims though they're “out of the march of history [and] stuck in medieval times”.

“It underpins the war on terror; it underpins the rhetoric of the war on terror,” she said. “It also underpins the way support is mobilized. But beyond that, it is also at the basis of the kinds of egregious human-rights abuses that we've seen in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and here in Canada as well.”

Syed cited as an example the issuance of so-called security certificates against mostly men of Middle Eastern or Arabic backgrounds. Some of these detainees, held indefinitely on the basis of secret evidence, are incarcerated at the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre in Ontario, which is dubbed by civil-rights activists “Canada's Guantánamo North”.

“The fact that Canadians are allowing these civil-rights violations to continue to take place in Canada is part of Islamophobia,” Syed said. “We are a country of civil rights but we allow for these exceptions.”

Syed also cited the controversial code of conduct for immigrants adopted last January in Hérouxville, a rural Quebec town. The code provides for, among other things, allowing women to show their faces in public. By tradition, Muslim women wear head scarves. The CBC reported that on February 12, the town council amended the code, removing references to “no stoning of women in public” and “no female circumcision”.

“Inherent in the way in which that declaration was framed is basically Islamophobia,” Syed said. “It creates an idea where everything in the West is completely egalitarian, completely democratic; everything is completely perfect, and on the other side, everything is completely barbaric, completely oppressive.”

On December 7, 2004, Kofi Annan, then the United Nations' secretary-general, addressed a UN seminar called “Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding”. He noted that the term seems to have emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“When a new word enters the language, it is often the result of a scientific advance or a diverting fad,” Annan said in his speech. “But when the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry, that is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with Islamophobia.”