Canada's wicked storm

Islamophobia has grown louder and bolder across Canada.

by
    People take part in a march through a mostly immigrant neighbourhood following a vigil in support of the Muslim community in Montreal, Quebec on January 30, 2017 [File: Reuters/Dario Ayala]
    People take part in a march through a mostly immigrant neighbourhood following a vigil in support of the Muslim community in Montreal, Quebec on January 30, 2017 [File: Reuters/Dario Ayala]

    However and wherever it manifests itself, to defeat hatred, you must confront it: head-on, with determination, uncowed by the apologists, who prefer, like so many politicians these days, to coddle, excuse or ingratiate themselves to the powerful hate-mongers in our midst.

    Happily, Mohamed Fakih is not a politician. He is a successful restaurateur who chose not to appease or cower before bigotry, but to confront it, head-on, in a Toronto courtroom.

    Fakih is also a Muslim. Predictably, his faith made him a target of Kevin Johnston, who, like so many other hate merchants these days, traffics in Islamophobia online for notoriety and profit.

    Decidedly less polished than the celebrity Islamophobes who camouflage their venom behind academic credentials and agreeable, media-savvy dispositions, Johnston's brand of hate is more direct and profane.

    Still, despite his ugly resume, Canada's corporate media are loath to call Johnston by his true name, opting instead to describe him as a "controversial" "provocateur" or "self-styled journalist".

    Well, Johnston recently got his long-overdue comeuppance, courtesy of Fakih, a Lebanese Canadian who has used his hard-won wealth to hire 150 Syrian refugees, to feed and shelter the homeless and to cover the funeral costs for the victims of the 2016 Quebec mosque massacre.

    Turns out, Johnston chose the wrong man to bully and defame as a "terrorist" whose clients were no more than complicit "jihadists" bent on doing "something nefarious".

    Fakih would not let that smear stand. So, he sued Johnston for libel and won. His just reward: 2.5 million Canadian dollars (US$1.8m) in damages and the satisfaction of prevailing over hate and the pathetic "provocateur" who peddled it.

    Indeed, the presiding judge found that Johnston's illiterate assault on Fakih's name and character was "a loathsome example of hate speech at its worst, targeting people solely because of their religion".

    Clearly, Fakih grasps the import of his persuasive legal victory.

    "Hate has always been with us. But lately, the people who hate have grown louder and bolder. They have emerged from the dark corners of the internet. They feel safe to announce, even to celebrate, their intolerance," Fakih wrote. "There will always be people who hate from their bones. But together we can make them smaller in number, smaller in influence, smaller and smaller until they all but disappear."

    It is a noble goal, to be sure. But buried in the stories about Fakih's juridical win is the sad, instructive fact that Canadians who "hate from their bones" have not only "grown louder and bolder," but greater in number, emboldened to exact their retributive hate on Muslims and others.

    As Fakih implicitly concedes, Islamophobia is not an aberration in Canada as the prevailing caricature - promoted by starry-eyed writers - routinely suggests, but a stubborn, metastasising reality.

    The proof? Johnston has, it appears, thousands of like-minded disciples. In late 2018, he ran to become mayor of Mississauga, Canada's sixth-largest city and a bedroom community of neighbouring Toronto.

    Johnston came in second place, winning slightly more than 16,000 votes, which translated into 13.5 percent of the total votes cast for mayor. This, despite Johnston facing a criminal charge of "willfully promoting hatred" against the local Muslim community, which carries a two-year prison sentence upon conviction.

    Those figures represent an alarming and exponential increase over his results during the 2014 mayoralty contest. At that time, Johnston won just 741 votes or 0.5 percent of the vote for mayor.

    It has been suggested that Johnston's surge in popularity was the by-product of the absence of an established, high-profile challenger to the "unpopular" incumbent. As such, his mushrooming support amounted to a "protest" vote, rather than an overt expression of solidarity with his fetid past and present.

    This exculpatory reasoning strikes me as dangerously pollyannaish since it rejects or, at least, diminishes the worldwide resurgence of far-right inspired racism, which seeks chiefly to demonise and ostracise immigrants, and, more particularly, Muslims, like Fakih.

    Canada, like Hungary, Austria and the United States, is not immune to the appeal of demagogues who, treated too gently for too long by large, irresponsible swaths of the mainstream media, have exploited the opportunity to paint most Muslims as rabid, violent perpetrators and villains intent on destroying Western "values" and "way of life". 

    Admittedly, Johnston is an obscure, municipal facsimile of much more well-known, national Islamophobes who gin up fear and hatred for their parochial aims.  

    He is, of course, not alone on this foul score. Johnston was joined on the hustings in 2018 by perhaps Canada's most notorious racist, Faith Goldy.

    The Islamophobic, white supremacist ran for mayor of Toronto, Canada's largest and arguably most diverse city. Goldy came in a disconcerting third, with 25,600 votes or 3.4 percent of the ballots cast.

    The unabashed neo-Nazi's support is chillingly impressive given the fact that Goldy was barred from participating in all-candidates debates, and advertising on platforms owned by the telecom giant, Bell Media.

    Taken together, Johnston and Goldy captured close to 41,600 votes in the epicentre of modern, "cosmopolitan" Canada which prides itself on its "openness" and "welcoming arms".

    This is a sobering number and its significance cannot be avoided or minimised. It has to be understood as a symptom of the same hateful malignancy that a Muslim businessman vanquished in court earlier this month.

    Now, when that figure is extrapolated - even conservatively across Canada - it swells and reveals the scope of the scourge that first must be acknowledged, then challenged without reservation or qualification. 

    The failure to do so would mean allowing another telling and menacing number to climb precipitately, as well. 

    In 2017, Statistics Canada reported that hate crimes in Canada shot up by an astounding 47 percent. Muslims, Jews and black people were the principal victims of the 2,073 reported acts of hate, the most since these abhorrent statistics were first kept in 2009. 

    Canada's two largest provinces, Ontario and Quebec, saw the biggest increases, with Ontario reporting a whopping 207 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims, alone. 

    Understood in this broader and appalling context, the corresponding boom at the ballot box by racist fanatics like Johnston and Goldy is unsurprising. 

    A wicked storm is gathering strength across Canada. Rather than take easy comfort in the myth of Canada as an oasis of harmony, Canadians should join Mohamed Fakih in "shout[ing] down" intolerance "each and every time it raises its voice".

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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