Parliamentary hearings on Islamophobia and systemic racism in Canada kicked off this week, with two days of meetings presenting wildly different interpretations on the issue of anti-Muslim discrimination in Canada.
The committee wasted little time before hearing from one witness who is convinced that Islamophobia is not a problem, contrary to statements from security officials.
That viewpoint came by way of Toronto Sun columnist Tarek Fatah who sat before the heritage committee on Wednesday afternoon to explain his opposition to the government’s effort to tackle Islamophobia.
The committee was struck as a result of Motion 103, or M-103, passed in March after a heated nationwide debate over its singling out of Islam and its use of the word ‘Islamophobia’.
Liberal MP Iqra Khalid tabled the motion following the murder of six Muslims at a mosque in Quebec in January. It called on the government to condemn Islamophobia, study ways to reduce racism, and to improve the collection of data on hate crimes.
“There remain individuals in the country who do not share our values of inclusion and diversity and hold views that are rooted in bigotry and prejudice,” said Gilles Michaud, deputy commissioner for the RCMP, emphasizing the need for security officials to build relationships with diverse communities.
Michel Juneau-Katsuya, president of The North Gate Group, a security and intelligence firm, was the second witness on Wednesday and focused on the rise of the far right in Canada — an ideology he described as a greater threat than Islamic radicalism.
Far-right violence “already has many victims,” said the former official with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), calling on politicians to better tackle the problem.
Fatah’s testimony took a different tone entirely.
“The issue of Islamist presence in Canada, in the corridors of power, is quite evident.”
“It’s impossible [to arrive at a concrete definition of Islamophobia] because the moment you will start to speak the truth, you will be called a racist,” Fatah, himself a Muslim, told the committee “It’s a dead end.”
Fatah is listed as the founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, a small reformist Islamic organization, which now appears defunct.
While Fatah has advocated for more progressive values within Islam, he has frequently courted controversy for spreading allegations that others have called Islamophobic. He group has advocated for a ban on the burqa and niqab, he has called CBC sitcom ‘Little Mosque on the Prairie’ a Muslim Brotherhood-funded propaganda effort and, more recently, been a repeated guest on the far-right media website ‘The Rebel’.
Tuesday’s testimony was no less conspiratorial, as he argued that hatred towards other religious groups was pervasive in Canadian mosques, and that Islamist scholars had infiltrated various Canadian institutions.
“The issue of Islamist presence in Canada, in the corridors of power, is quite evident,” Fatah said.
The sharply opposing views of Fatah and Juneau-Katsuya came to a head during a question and answer session.
Toronto MP Arif Virani (who is, himself, Muslim) read a tweet aloud to Fatah’s fellow witness: “Alexandre [Bissonnette, accused of shooting six worshippers at the Quebec mosque] was not alone and had a Muslim accomplice. His Muslim accomplice has been made a state witness to avoid any talk of Muslim on Muslim terror.” Bissonette is currently on trial, and police believe he acted alone to murder the worshippers.
Asked if he thought such a tweet should be corrected for spreading misinformation, former intelligence official Juneau-Katsuya agreed. At that point, the MP revealed it was Fatah who wrote the tweet, and turned to him for comment.
Fatah defended himself, saying he would not correct the tweet because he was responding to what had been reported by journalists at the time.
“What happened after that, I’m not privy to,” Fatah said, before being cut off.
While Fatah opposes the use of the word ‘Islamophobia,’ he told the committee he supports government efforts to fight acts of bigotry against Muslims. He acknowledged that anti-Muslim activity is a real problem in Canada.
That position is similar to the Conservative Party’s view. During the hearings, Conservative MPs quizzed Khalid about why she refused to omit the word ‘Islamophobia’ from her motion and broaden it to discrimination against all religions.
Khalid, however, refused to engage, deferring to experts who will soon appear before the committee as part of its analysis.
Virani, who admitted to disagreeing with “virtually everything” Fatah said during the hearing, challenged his argument that the motion would silence critics of Islam.
“Isn’t your presence here today proof in and of itself that we are embarking upon a study that is promoting a discussion about all forms of racism, including Islamophobia, as opposed to stifling?” he asked.
Fatah didn’t see it that way.
“Your diatribe against me proves that had it not been for the Conservatives, I wouldn’t be here.”