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Blog August 9, 2021

The “Consultation” Racket: A Report on the National Islamophobia Summit

In the aftermath of the latest mass killing of Muslims in Canada, Muslim communities were subjected to yet another specious “anti-Islamophobia” consultation by the federal government; this one conducted under the name of the “National Action Summit on Islamophobia,” held on July 22.

It came four years after Parliament’s M103 study on Islamophobia and systemic racism, convened in the wake of the Quebec mosque massacre – at the time, the country’s most fatal act of public political violence since 1989, taking three times as many lives in a single night as Muslim “terrorism” ever has in Canada. And yet, that “study” resulted in only one specific measure to address Islamophobia: the declaration of the massacre’s anniversary, January 29, as a “Day of Remembrance and Action Against Islamophobia.” Even this minimal, symbolic gesture took three years to implement, requiring sustained community advocacy against official resistance.

In 2017, I helped organize a submission from legal and anti-racism experts to M103. Our report focused on state-sponsored Islamophobia: laws and policies premised on and perpetuating racist stereotypes of the Muslim threat, the wellspring from which anti-Muslim animus flows. The submission went completely unheeded, and four years later, we sent in virtually the same submission to the National Islamophobia Summit – except that this time, there were several additional examples of state Islamophobia to include (such as Quebec’s Bill 21, and the recently-documented evidence of the Canada Revenue Agency’s discriminatory targeting of Muslim charities).

In this recurrent nightmare loop, we are perpetually told that we need more consultations and investigations for the government to “start” addressing Islamophobia. Meanwhile, the lists of the dead, injured, and bereaved continue to grow, and state Islamophobia is not only entrenched but expanded

The government’s formula for these performative consultations is reenacted over and over again. Step one: Select the desired community participants. Step two: Limit the scope of permissible discussion, to minimize or altogether preclude challenges to state power. Step three: Present the curated results of this tightly-controlled process as the articulation of “the community’s” will. Step four: Repeat. And repeat. And repeat … 

At the Islamophobia Summit, for instance, the one session supposedly devoted to “systemic Islamophobia” failedto feature even a single lawyer or legal expert. Moreover, many of the lawyers, scholars, and organizations doing the most critical work on Canadian state Islamophobia were not only excluded from speaking, but barred from participating at all.

The predictable result was that the vast architecture of Islamophobia embedded in state laws, policies and practices – for example, no-fly listsdisparate “terrorism” prosecutionsentrapment operationstorture complicitysecurity certificatesmass surveillancesecurity agent visitationsborder harassmentpeace bondscounter-radicalization programs“terrorist entities” listings, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, and other exercises of state power disproportionately and exceptionally applied against Muslims – went almost entirely unacknowledged.  

In fact, the state targeting of Muslims persisted unabated in the lead-up to the Islamophobia Summit, and has continued in its aftermath – with, for example, academic Hassan Diab facing re-extradition to torturous imprisonment in France, refugee Mohamed Harkat under invasive security certificate surveillance without charge, Canadian youth Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy imprisoned under conditions of intensive solitary confinement in the US despite serious mental illness (a violation of the UN Torture Convention), Abousfian Abdelrazick denied compensation for Canada’s role in his torture abroad, and Human Concern International (one of the oldest Muslim Canadian humanitarian charities) having its receipting privileges suspended by the CRA.

How shameful and revealing: that in an entire “national summit” on Islamophobia, the names Hassan Diab, Mohamed Harkat, and Abousfian Abdelrazik – Muslims facing the sharpest edges of state Islamophobia in Canada – were not mentioned. 

Shameful and revealing, too – although not surprising – that for all the official talk of centering women and those with “lived experience” of Islamophobic violence, women such as Sophie Harkat, the wife of Mohamed Harkat, and Khadiga Metwally, the mother of Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy, were not on the speakers’ list. These women have been forced to become lived experts on state Islamophobia, by experiencing some of its most brutal and devastating forms. They have also maintained some of the bravest resistance to it, for the sake of basic human rights, dignity, and justice. 

Out of this whole panoply of abuses, the only federal practice that attracted any significant attention at the Islamophobia Summit was the CRA’s prejudiced auditing of Muslim charities for “terrorism financing” – fixating on one glaringly toxic fruit of the “war on terror,” while ignoring the rest of the poisonous tree from which it stems. 

Even with respect to the Summit’s extremely restricted area of concern, Muslims were told not to expect too much, too soon. In his closing remarks, Prime Minister Trudeau advised those watching to be patient because – as he reminds his children and young staffers – change is complicated and takes time. On top of the insult of informing community elders and leaders they were being spoken to like children, there is the injury of justice perpetually deferred. 

In reality, we know that change can happen quickly, because it took the federal government a mere three months after 9/11 to pass Canada’s first, sweepingly transformative piece of anti-terrorism legislation, erecting a complex new edifice of preventive policing and punishment. Almost twenty years later, many of the serious problems with Canada’s counter-terrorism framework repeatedly identified by anti-racism, human rights, and civil liberties organizations and scholars persist largely unaddressed. 

On the contrary, draconian powers have been normalized and further extended, while basic accountability measures – such as disclosure of race-disaggregated data, called for by the Canadian Human Rights Commission ten years ago – remain out of reach. While Muslim communities have been rendered ever-more transparent to the surveillant gaze of the national security state, the abusive practices of the state itself are protected behind opaque walls of secrecy. 

Even the most blatant injustices – for example, the mistaken flagging of Muslim children on the no-fly list, or the refusal of victims’ compensation to the Quebec mosque shooting widows – have only been rectified after years of advocacy by the victims. As Malcolm X said: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that is not progress.”

Often, what Muslims are expected to be grateful for is not even the marginal removal of the knife, but the “opportunity” to prove, over and over again, that the knife exists at all. Exercises like the National Islamophobia Summit are premised on a fundamental fallacy. The problem is not a lack of information and recommendations about anti-Muslim racism, but the government’s enduring refusal to admit the reality or do anything about its underlying cause. 

It is hardly any wonder that the outcomes of such a skewed and deficient process tend to be correspondingly flawed: tokenistic at best, regressive at worst. Due to the prevailing erasure of state racism, the instruments of state violence – counter-terrorism, policing – are perversely represented as the solution to racism rather than a source. 

For instance, the federal government’s proposed “online harms legislation” – aimed at eradicating “hateful,” “terrorist,” and other “harmful” categories of expression – threatens to exacerbate the existingdocumented surveillance and removal of IndigenousBlack, and Palestinian speech online. Indeed, a good portion of the National Antisemitism Summit (held the day before the Islamophobia one) was dedicated to discrediting and demonizing criticisms of Israel and its apartheid system as antisemitic “hate.” Conversely, at the Islamophobia Summit, the protection of Palestinian rights and solidarity was yet another verboten topic scrubbed from the agenda. 

According to prominent law and technology scholar Michael Geist, the government’s current consultations on the online harms legislation are more like “non-consultation,” with scant space for “questions, options, or apparent interest in hearing what Canadians think of the plans.” And so, the pattern of using performative consultations to push through problematic measures is being repeated yet again. 

The Islamophobia Summit illuminates and exemplifies how government “consultations” are a racket, in both senses of the word – 1) generating a great deal of noise and attention; and 2) often amounting to little more than a scam.

Perhaps one of the most pernicious effects of these consultations is that they risk redirecting communities’ energies and priorities towards having a seat at the government’s table, instead of building strong relationships and solidarities with other communities being crushed under it. Far from being the “summit” – the apotheosis, the ultimate destination – of anti-racism activism, government consultations are all too often a dangerous detour or a dead end.