09/09/2015 08:23 EDT | Updated 09/09/2016 05:12 EDT

How Harper Sows Fear of Muslims in Pursuit of Votes

The past year has been a very active one for the anti-Islam industry in Canada. Leading the charge is none other than Prime Minister Stephen Harper who -- in gearing up to the elections in October 2015 -- has been stoking Islamophobia by pandering to public unease about Muslims.

Bernard Weil via Getty Images
RICHMOND HILL, ON - JANUARY 30 - Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced new anti terrorism measures at Bayview Hill Community Centre, Richmond Hill. Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Steven Blaney, public safety and emergency preparedness, also spoke. (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The past year has been a very active one for the anti-Islam industry in Canada. Leading the charge is none other than Prime Minister Stephen Harper who -- in gearing up to the elections in October 2015 -- has been stoking Islamophobia by pandering to public unease about Muslims. In addition to going after Muslim charities organizations (allegedly defaming NCCM, for instance) and even religious symbols, his jihad against "radical Islam" and search for terrorists under every Muslim bed has profoundly altered the Canadian legal landscape.

Indeed, the bastion of multiculturalism and tolerance witnessed a slew of legislative and policy directives -- overtly or covertly -- targeting Muslims. Due to space limitations, this article cannot address all of them, but here are a few.

1) On May 29, 2015, a controversial provision of the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act (which had become law back in June 2014) came into effect. The provision allows the government to revoke Canadian citizenship from anyone who was born outside the country, was born in Canada and holds another nationality, or is eligible to obtain another nationality. All of this can be done unilaterally without any involvement by a judge or other independent arbiter.

As the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association notes:

"Currently, citizenship can be taken away mainly on the basis of crimes that are considered threats to Canada's national security, like terrorism or espionage, or demonstrations of disloyalty to Canada, like treason. But legal experts warn that the list of offences that could lead to the removal of citizenship might be expanded in the future. Additionally, Bill C-24 punishes criminal activity with exile -- a practice abandoned hundreds of years ago that has no place in today's democracy."

Muslims will undoubtedly face the brunt of this new law.

2) The Anti-terrorism Act, 2015 (known as Bill C-51) was enacted on June 18, 2015, amidst major controversy. The legislation raises a plethora of issues and significantly alters the security landscape: it gives the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) powers beyond intelligence gathering (to actively target threats and derail plots); creates new offences (criminalizing "terrorist propaganda" and the "promotion of terror"); lowers the legal threshold to trigger detention to those who may carry out an offence from the existing standard of will carry out to may carry out; extends preventive detention for "suspected" terrorists from three days to seven days (inconsistent with the constitutional presumption of innocence); legally entrenches a no-fly list; and grants government agencies explicit authority to share private information with domestic and foreign entities. All of this it does without any independent oversight.

As the Globe and Mail editorialized, the bill enables CSIS and law enforcement to target anything its political masters label behind closed doors as a threat. Indeed, Greenpeace even pointed to a leaked RCMP report that called anti-pipeline activists "anti-Canadian petroleum movements." Moreover, CSIS' own documents reveal that they now deem "sympathisers" as threats as well.

The radical restructuring of CSIS into a "kinetic" service while its oversight has been dissolved or starved of resources is troubling. A core maxim of national security is "trust, but verify." Given the powerful and secretive nature of the entities involved, this is an almost impossible task as it is. As retired former CSIS chief of counterintelligence Geoffrey O'Brian noted, "fundamental changes are occurring at a time when Parliament has come under criticism for lax scrutiny of spying." This is simply irresponsible.

3) On June 18, 2015, Parliament also passed the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. The law on close reading appears to mirror the "anti-Sharia" bills introduced (and passed in some states) in the U.S. On its face, the law appears neutral by raising the age of marriage, criminalizing forced marriages and banning "honour" killings. As the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University notes, far from being innocuous:

"...a closer look at the text of the law, and the rhetoric surrounding its creation and passage, leads us to question its intent and consequences... Like the anti-Sharia laws, the 'barbaric practices' act offers solutions to problems that don't exist, and focuses unwarranted attention on Muslims while ignoring concerns posed by other groups."

Indeed, as Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom opines, its provisions on "honour" killings, polygamy and the focus on immigrant "Muslim" practices clearly point to political pandering. It is all the more absurd given that forced marriages, "honour" killings and polygamy are already illegal under existing laws.

4) On June 19, 2015, the Conservatives also tabled another bill known as the Oath of Citizenship Act which mandates that citizenship applicants must show their face during the Oath of Citizenship ceremony. The legislation came a few days after the province of Quebec introduced Bill 62, known as the Religious Neutrality Bill, which seeks to ban face-covering religious garments for public servants and citizens who wish to use government services. Though the real impetus for the federal legislation was the Federal Court of Canada decision ruling that it was "unlawful" for Ottawa to order new citizens to remove their face covering veil or niqab when taking the oath of citizenship.

The Federal Court decision came in the case filed by Mississauga resident Zunera Ishaq, who came to Canada from Pakistan in 2008 and successfully passed the citizenship test in 2013. She brought the Constitutional challenge upon learning that she had to unveil (under a new policy directive introduced in 2011) during the actual ceremony. She was prepared to unveil in private for identification purposes, but this was not enough for the government.

The bill has not passed yet, but a government spokesperson told the Toronto Star: "It is one of a series of bills being introduced now, which will together form a substantial legislative agenda after the election."

The incomplete picture makes it abundantly clear that the legal landscape with respect to issues affecting Muslims and human rights in the Great White North leaves much to be desired. Many of the new initiatives will initially affect Muslims disproportionately (as noted by leading former jurists), but they will eventually impact all Canadians.

Rushed and poorly conceived responses to terrorism and radicalization -- real or imagined -- can be counter-productive and may alter the fabric of Canadian society. Indeed, sometimes such initiatives play into the hands of Islamophobes and extremists alike by fueling resentment and marginalization, as well as by perpetuating the conditions that bring about the self-fulfilling prophecy.

This government must understand that the majority of Muslims, who are neither secular nor ultra-orthodox, hold the key to any serious and productive bridge-building. Prime Minister Harper may win an election by fueling fears, but if government agencies believe they can win the "war on terror" by undermining front-line soldiers, they had better think again.

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