Discussions about what Muslims do, say, and wear have been dominating the ongoing federal election campaign in Canada — in ways that are not always flattering.
A Muslim woman's battle against the Conservative government's ban on wearing face-covering veils during citizenship ceremonies is perhaps the hottest wedge issue on the campaign trail lately, with politicians using it as a chance to warn about the threat of jihad.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said the niqab is rooted in a culture that's 'anti-women' and repeatedly vowed to, if re-elected, bring in new legislation that would forbid new Canadians from wearing the face veil while taking their citizenship oath. The whole thing has also prompted an anti-niqab attack ad from Quebec's separatist party.
Many Canadian Muslims point to other controversial laws as examples of the ways the government has unfairly targeted them and stoked Islamophobia. These include a new act that can revoke the Canadian citizenship of dual citizens convicted of terrorism, legislation that broadens the definition of what counts as a terrorism threat, and a new prohibition on forced marriage and polygamy. All of this, one Muslim lawyer wrote in the Huffington Post, fuels Canada's "anti-Islam industry."
It's this tense political climate that is a driving force behind new efforts to get as many Muslim Canadians, who number more than one million, to the voting booth next month, while tackling Islamophobia in the process.
"At times in this federal election, it feels like a referendum on Muslims belonging in Canada, but that's actually been a driving force for people," Mohammed Hashim an organizer with Muslim community engagement group Dawanet, told VICE News.
But he says this election signals an unprecedented chapter for Muslim involvement in Canadian politics.
That was on display last week in Toronto, at the first-ever federal candidates debate for Muslim youth in Canada. It was an event that attracted more than 350 people to hear candidates from the four main political parties, Conservative, NDP, Green, and Liberal, debate topics chosen by them: from citizenship and immigration to underemployment among Muslim youth.
"In a post 9/11 world, where Muslim youth are feeling demonized by the system, there's these discussions of us as potential terrorists, but nobody seems to be willing to actually speak with us," Sanaa Ali-Mohammed, another member of Dawanet, which organized the debate, told VICE News. She pointed to rising Islamophobia in Canada and how language around certain new laws seems to link her faith with threats to society.
Bloc Quebecois anti-niqab ad.
In June, a Muslim advocacy group launched a website tracking hate crimes against Muslims in Canada that showed an increase in such attacks from 2012 to 2013. And Statistics Canada recently released figures that revealed Muslims and other religious minorities are more likely to be subjected to violence.
Other research has documented an increase in the number of violent attacks against Muslims and according to an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll from 2013, attitudes and mistrust toward Muslims in Canada have been getting worse — while attitudes toward other major religions have stayed the same.
Even though Ali-Mohammed doesn't wear a niqab, she says that she, and many of her Muslim peers, feel solidarity with the women who do. "Because of government actions like the ones against the niqab, it affects people who identify with the same religion we do," she said. "And it can make Muslims think twice, or question, their Muslim identities and whether they belong in Canada. And it will likely also impact the way they will vote."
But as many Muslim activists highlighted, the diversity of Muslim communities across the country means that not all Muslims perceive the same level of Islamophobia in politics or have the same troubles with pieces of legislation brought about by the Conservatives.
Karim Jivraj, a Muslim candidate running for the Conservative party in Ontario, told the audience at the Muslim youth debate, that the notion that the Conservatives were anti-Muslim was misguided. "Canada is doing just fine…Canada is alive and well," said Jivraj. The audience booed and hissed when he argued that the current government has brought in the highest number of immigrants to date and that the anti-terror Bill C-51 will keep Muslims safe. "There is no party monopoly on the Muslim vote," he urged.
Ali-Mohammed stressed that her group's efforts to mobilize the Muslim vote are neither partisan nor are they meant to bring down one particular party. "It's about education…and we just want our voices heard," she said. "The alienation comes when we feel like our voices aren't being heard and we're not asked to the table. And now, we're hopeful politicians will start talking to us."
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