In Focus Headlines
|Written by Matthew Behrens|
|Friday, 06 April 2012 17:13|
Last September, in the heated “clash of civilizations” media climate that marked the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the United States, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared “Islamicism” the most significant national security threat facing Canada. Upon realizing that this might offend, his spokesman told CBC that what Mr. Harper really meant was “Islamic terrorism — the Islamists."
To which one might reply, in the lingo of a teenager, “whatever.” Indeed, Mr. Harper’s “clarification” only re-enforced his problematic first statement. No other religion is so defiled in modern times by equating it with terrorism as Islam. One never sees headlines about Christian terrorists, even when said individuals carry out terrorist attacks. Indeed, the white supremacist Christians who perpetrated the Oklahoma City bombing or the massacre in Norway are at worst described as extremists or madmen, while the media originally suspected “Islamist” individuals in both cases.
Mr. Harper’s statement, though, was consistent with the media barrage of Islamophobic propaganda that has been a constant in this country for decades and, if one goes further back, centuries (Crusades, anyone?). The only thing that prevented Islam from being further entrenched as the “greatest threat” was its replacement as enemy du-jour during the 20th century by communism.
A year before Mr. Harper unashamedly spouted his religious bigotry, a poll asked certain Canadians whether they “strongly” or “somewhat” agree or disagree with the statement, “Muslims share our values.” Unsurprisingly, the poll revealed 55 per cent of those who took the online survey disagreed. Similarly, in March, a new poll, commissioned by the same groups, concluded that 52 per cent of Canadians “mistrust” Muslims.
While the results are unsurprising, the polls themselves raise troubling questions that go beyond their surface conclusions. Perhaps most important is the context for these questions, and the failure to define who, exactly, is the “Canadian” who is mistrustful of Muslims (hundreds of thousands of whom, last time I checked, are also Canadian!). What “values” are at stake in the question, and do respondents realize that Muslims are not a monolithic group? In addition, does asking whether Muslims can be trusted set one up for an answer that is predetermined in a culture that is so inherently racist? Will potential respondents not simply assume there must be an issue with Muslims challenging “Canadian” values, else the question would not have been asked in the first place?
Further, these were multiple choice answers that did not allow for further explanation or questioning. Would we have learned more if the question “Why” were affixed as a follow-up to the multiple-choice answer? Do we wish to determine the roots of such views, if they are indeed held? Does the option “I don’t know/prefer not to answer” get ticked off the least because no one wants to appear uninformed, as if they flunked the test?
Ultimately, the issue of what constitutes public opinion – if such a quantifiable idea actually exists – comes into play here. As French critic Pierre Bourdieu points out, the opinion poll’s “most important function is to impose the illusion that there is something called public opinion in the sense of the purely arithmetic total of individual opinions; to impose the illusion that it is meaningful to speak of the average of opinions or the average opinion. The ‘public opinion’ that is manifested on the front pages of newspapers is a pure and simple artifact whose function is to disguise the fact that the state of opinion at a given time is a system of forces, tensions, and that nothing more inadequately expresses the state of opinion than a percentage.”
I have struggled with recent polls for these very reasons: can we numerically calculate the extent and form of racism using such limited, context-less questions, and then base our counter-racism strategies upon them? And what do these polls reveal about the systems of forces and tensions that dominate daily lives illustrated by shades of grey and very human frailties? Do they over-simplify the issue by telling us that 52 per cent of Canadians are racist, and the rest are not, creating a dichotomy of good versus bad when, in fact, the varied strains and subtleties of racist practice are revealed in the manner pretty much all of us live our lives?
I called Ayman Al Yassini, executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, and I appreciate that we were able to speak at length about my concerns. Mr. Al Yassini is a thoughtful, honest gentleman who spoke about the need to collect such data, but did not agree that they could have the negative impacts I had suggested.
But I remain troubled. What, ultimately, is the value of polls that seek to reveal the extent of racism in a racist society? And do the headlines that accompany these polls serve, in a perverse fashion, to establish the potential for the “group reassurance” that allows someone who holds such vile views to be comforted that 52 per cent of his fellow citizens feel the same way? And what of the liberal do-gooders who say “tsk tsk” when they see discrimination yet would not be comfortable with a Muslim moving next door? Will they honestly respond here, or will they say Islamophobia is the purview of southern U.S. preachers who try and burn copies of the Quran?
One also wonders about the extent to which these findings feed into a blame-the-victim mentality. Indeed, the March poll asks whether people agree with the statement, “If there is discrimination against Muslims, it is mainly their fault.” Again, is it any surprise that 42 per cent of respondents agreed, especially given the construction of the question, which assumes, by using the supposition “if,” that it is possible that such discrimination may not in fact exist, and that those who say it does are perpetuating a “culture of complaint” that is trumpeted by the critics of human rights commissions and their media mouthpieces? And do we not give people an excuse to say that such discrimination is not the fault of the perpetrator by asking this victim blaming question? How convenient to re-enforce one of the oldest facets of racist relationships (a concept as recent as the headlines about the targeted killings of a hoodie-wearing African American youth in Florida and an Iraqi-American woman in San Diego).
Mr. Al Yassini was reported by the National Post to say that Canada’s Muslim community should reach out more to other Canadians. “They have to communicate the true nature of Islam and build bridges,” he said.
Would we expect the same kind of “reaching out” by potentially misunderstood women of Alberta when we learn in a recent poll that 10 per cent of the men in that largely Christian province believe it is all right to assault their female partners if they are angry?
By sharing these concerns, I in no way seek to condemn the work of those who have sponsored these studies. I simply hope that, in our discussions of the cancer of racism, we can frame future studies or polls in a manner that gives us a more complete picture of the problem we seek to end, one that provides us some potentially new paths to follow on the difficult road ahead.
Matthew Behrens, is the Coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada. ■