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I See A Chance To Fight Bigotry. Liberals See A Political Play

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To effectively combat bigotry, people from all political parties and traditions should work together. Unfortunately, despite discussion in Parliament about what has been called an increasing "climate of hate and fear," we are not seeing the kind of multiparty cooperation or the kind of serious response to the anxieties that give rise to bigotry that would actually counter the problem.

I have been reflecting a lot on this issue in light of duelling anti-bigotry motions proposed by Conservative and Liberal MPs in the Canadian House of Commons. The Conservative motion called on the House to condemn all forms of bigotry against faith communities. It led off with a specific recognition of the challenges facing the Muslim community and, while listing five faith communities by name, mentioned the Muslim community first.


The Liberal motion did not mention other specific faith communities, although it did refer generally to systemic racism and religious discrimination. It also condemns "Islamophobia," without defining or explaining that term.

There are some substantive points that separate these two motions. Islamophobia can refer to both discrimination against Muslims AND criticism of Islamic doctrine. We ought not to conflate the two -- religious people deserve protection, but religions do not. People should not discriminate against individuals, but should feel quite free to criticize the doctrine, history or practice of any religion.

This distinction between discrimination against religious people and criticism of religion is not a trivial point. It is this point that separates societies like Canada which seek to protect people from bigotry and societies which impose violent sentences on people who blaspheme or apostatize in the name of protecting religion itself. Neither motion has any actual legal force; however, we should not pass even a symbolic motion if the symbolic end is unclear, and potentially contrary to what we believe.

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Sask. Conservative MP David Anderson tabled his party's anti-bigotry motion in counter to M-103. It removes references to 'Islamophobia' and condemns all forms of bigotry toward religious communities. (Photo:
Facebook)

If we are going to fight bigotry together, then we must be clear about what bigotry is and what it is not. Disagreeing with a religion, believing that a religion's tenets are basically bad, believing that a particular religion is responsible for certain social problems, etc. - none of these things constitute bigotry. Whether or not Christianity is a religion of peace, for example, is something which people should be able to discuss without being called bigots. A bigot is someone who discriminates unjustly or prejudicially against individuals, not someone who holds a negative view of the doctrine or practice of a particular religion.

In any event, though, Liberals have defined Islamophobia verbally to mean discrimination against Muslims, not criticism of doctrine; so, it would seem that our parties are not actually that far apart in terms of what we are trying to say. But I feel that it is proper to vote on a motion based on what it actually says, as opposed to what it is trying to say; the definitions given by Liberals in their speeches would seem to suggest that we are not that far apart in our thinking. So, why the failure, thus far at least, to achieve some kind of consensus language? The reality of bigotry, very evident to all MPs in the tenor of online commentary, should force us to see the urgency in confronting this challenge together.

[Political Liberals] are more interested in trying to use this issue to their own electoral advantage.

Unfortunately, in the midst of the "climate of hate and fear" noted by the motions, there is a political reality which puts the objectives of small-p progressives AND many small-c conservatives at odds with big-L Liberals. Small-p progressive and real conservatives want to see less bigotry, and therefore, want to see the uniting of disparate political voices to oppose it. Political Liberals, on the other hand, may want the continuing opportunity to paint their political opponents as bigoted. They want to use the fear of bigotry to polarize the electorate, attacking Conservatives as bigoted while dismissing the NDP as irrelevant.

While real progressives have every reason to want parties to come together to fight bigotry, many partisan-minded Liberals seem to seek continued polarization, having an eye to possible electoral advantage. It allows them to avoid fighting the next election on their ability to manage the economy, or on their record at delivering so-called "Real Change." Both of these will be, I suspect, quite a hard sell.

Once one recognizes these underlying political dynamics, the actions of the Liberal government become increasingly understandable. If the government wanted to fight bigotry, they would collaborate on consensus language condemning it. However, given that they are more interested in trying to use this issue to their own electoral advantage, they insist on using ambiguous language. They wanted this fight for purely political reasons.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Feb. 14, 2017. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

A Parliament more genuinely seized with the issue of bigotry would give greater considerations to the factors contributing to its potential increase. People are struggling economically because of low commodity prices and tax increases. People increasingly feel, I believe correctly, that elite decision makers are disconnected from the realities of life for ordinary people -- precisely because elite debates turn more and more on symbol and political recognition when many people would prefer a focus on bread-and-butter issues. There is legitimate fear about radicalization by those who identify themselves as representatives of Islam.

All of these anxieties about opportunity, elitism and radicalization create a climate in which inter-community tension can grow and flourish; and this climate could be countered in any number of very concrete ways which do not involve the passage of non-binding motions.

Progressives need to demand that Liberals work with Conservatives to address bigotry, by condemning it in clear and unambiguous terms while also addressing the anxieties that can give rise to it. If Liberals do not stop playing their dangerous game, there is a real danger, in any country, that what starts as a Machiavellian political strategy to delegitimize your political opponents may lead to a real increase in that which they are supposedly trying to combat. It may also lead to those whose anxieties are ignored and delegitimized actually rising up and winning elections. It has happened before.

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