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Stephen Harper's Islamophobia Is a Product of Canadian Muslim Apathy

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Four months after Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party was granted a majority government, I vividly remember watching him on national TV boldly stating that Islamicism is Canada's biggest threat in the post 9/11 world. He did not use the term "terrorism" or even "Jihadism" for that matter. Given the rigorous vetting process government messaging must go through before even a single word is uttered suggests the use of "Islamicism" was, for all intents and purposes, intentional. The implication was simple: only Islam has a monopoly on terror. For the first time as a Canadian Muslim, I felt like an outsider, like an intruder who didn't belong. I knew then that my country had changed, and the next four years were going to be different. What I didn't realize at the time was that we as Canadian Muslims were partly responsible for this turn of events.

That interview with the CBC was a harbinger of things to come. Since that time we have seen how "Islamicism" has become a convenient tool for the government to employ a more aggressive foreign policy. We have seen how it can be used to deny funding and revoke licenses of Islamic charities that aid Palestinians in the occupied territories. We have seen how it can justify the passing of bills that can restrict freedoms and create tiered forms of citizenship. We have also seen how it can keep a child soldier in a torture cell for an entire decade. Harper's politics of fear continued to chip away at the foundations of what this country stood for while we as Canadians sat back and watched it happen.

Although it's easy for Canadian Muslims to lay blame on the Conservatives and Stephen Harper for such discriminatory and exploitative tactics (and doing so would be justifiable), it would also be disingenuous. The current situation is simply a culmination of years of political apathy from the Muslim community whose voter turnout is consistently below the national average. It is also a manifestation of how a disengaged electorate can be used as fear bait to for a political party to mobilize its base and consolidate power. Although Muslims have political representation and activists that champion civil rights, it is nowhere near the level it should be considering Islam is Canada's second-largest and fastest-growing religion. Years of Muslim political apathy and unwillingness to engage in the political process had finally caught up to us.

This predicament is not unlike the discrimination faced by other Canadian minorities. In what was described as the "Yellow Peril," Canada's Asian population was at the forefront of systematic government racism. In 1903, the government had increased the Chinese head tax from $50 to $500, and in 1924 effectively barred all Chinese immigration into the country. In 1931, Chinese-Canadians were banned from obtaining Canadian citizenship. The same government also put nearly 22,000 Japanese-Canadians in internment camps at the height of WWII and all their property and belongings were sold without their consent. Anti-Semitism was also not uncommon during this time. In a direct parallel to the current Syrian refugee crisis, Jewish immigration to Canada in the 1920s and 1930s was paltry compared to other nations. A mid-1943 Gallup poll which asked Canadians to list the most undesirable potential immigrants to this country found that Jews were put in third place, after only Japanese and Germans. By playing on the emotion of conflicts and economic depression at the time, successive governments were able to capitalize and further their respective agendas at the expense of citizens who could not defend themselves. Although redress and reparations were ultimately paid, the damage was already done. Injustices had been committed, fellow Canadians had been dehumanized and spirits had been broken.

The Islamophobic marginalization and "otherization" that has ensued during Harper's reign is only the beginning unless Canadian Muslims learn from the past. It is up to us to prevent the current situation from getting to a point of future redress.

The first step is to vote, but it goes beyond backing only Muslim candidates or one political party. It means engaging with all political parties and the community at large on relevant issues to elect the right candidate. It means finding opportunities to voice concerns on a mainstream platform. It means standing up for ourselves by standing up for other Canadian minorities afflicted with the same problems. Most importantly, it means that we look deep within ourselves and ask what we can do to make our community a better place to live.

Maybe then and only then, "Harpericism" might become a thing of the past.

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