Islamophobia In Canada: The Role Of The Internet

On 6th June 2021, in Ontario, 20-year-old Nathaniel Veltman intentionally drove his vehicle into a family of five. He killed Salman Afzaal and his unnamed grandmother, Madiha Salman, Yumna Salman, and seriously injured nine-year-old Fayez Salman. Al Jazeera states that police have concluded the murder was indeed motivated by the family’s Muslim faith. This tragic event was preceded by the 2017 mosque shooting in Quebec that killed six and wounded eight, along with increased reports of hate crimes and discrimination. Mohamed-Aslim Zafis was stabbed and killed standing outside of a mosque in Toronto in September. Statistics Canada reports that, as of 2019, police have reported 1,946 criminal incidents in Canada that were motivated by hate. Apart from violent crimes, 35% of Muslims in Canada report having experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly in the past five years.

The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service’s recent report found that “the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated xenophobic and anti-authority narratives, many of which may directly or indirectly impact national security considerations.” Al Jazeera reports that far-right groups have long been the greatest national security threat to Canada, but recent events such as the stabbing and the vehicular attack on Muslims illuminate the ways in which this problem has worsened within the past year, despite a lack of statistical data for years beyond 2019.  

The New York Times writes that the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), a civil liberties and advocacy organization, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau that called for a summit to address the deep systemic Islamophobia in the country. Parliament members have agreed to move towards hosting the summit, but the NCCM is also stressing the need for systemic change at all levels of government as well as establishing a special envoy on Islamophobia and removing discriminatory laws such as Bill 21. According to the CBC, many of the incidents are related to the recent surge of violence regarding Quebec’s Laicity Act, (Bill 21) which bans public teachers, police officers, and government workers from wearing religious symbols in public. Advocacy groups such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) have called the act unconstitutional and that it unfairly targets individuals and forces them to choose between their jobs and their faith. Prime Minister Trudeau has encouraged people who were against Bill 21 to take it up with their municipal officials but hasn’t explicitly acknowledged that a national change needs to occur as well. Although Bill 21 isn’t directly related to the incident, it inflames Islamophobic sentiments. 

The surge of far-right extremism and the resulting hate crimes have not gone unnoticed or uninvestigated by the government and its institutions. In February 2021, the Federal Government added 13 groups to the “Listed Terrorist Entities”, including the Proud Boys. Al Jazeera reports that being placed on the list means that Canada can penalize people who are a part of the listed group and deny entry into the country as well as revoke the charitable status of groups. However, groups such as the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) worry that placing these groups under a terrorist designation places minority communities in further danger. Yet, the rationale for classifying these groups as terrorist groups is that there is a strong legal precedent. Although Veltman’s group status is currently unknown, he is now facing terrorism charges in addition to murder charges. This is an example of the positive aspect of the terrorist code. The NPR says Veltman is facing more time than if he was only charged for the murders. This may deter any potential terrorist acts in the future and solidify Canada’s intolerance of hateful individuals. Yet, the BCCLA’s worry signifies how Muslims in Canada have been excluded from a conversation that affects them considerably.

The Canada Security and Intelligence Service found that the COVID-19 pandemic pushed Islamophobic narratives that can largely be attributed to the decentralized online trends of extremists. CBC detailed that Prime Minister Trudeau promised to introduce legislation to control online hate speech in 2019. This is a positive step in ensuring that the discriminatory ideologies that radicalize many are curtailed. However, this legislation has not yet been drafted. Officials recognize the importance of the legislation, but Parliament’s urgency is lacking following statistical proof that the number of hate crimes has increased in 2019. Preventive measures are incredibly important to ensure that hateful messages don’t continue to circulate and radicalize both young and older members of society. Although it’s positive that individuals are beginning to face harsher charges for hate crimes, disrupting the virtual spaces that mobilize individuals to spread hate and take violent action is imperative.

According to CBC, members of Parliament have unanimously agreed to hold a summit in August in order to address the growing issue. Agreeing to hold a summit is a productive step towards establishing a conversation and ensuring that Muslims are included. However, there are some members, primarily from the Conservative Party, that blocked a recent motion from Ontario Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter condemning Islamophobia. CBC writes their reasoning was that they were blindsided by the motion, as it is standard procedure to reject a motion that hasn’t yet been reviewed. Although the rationale may be understandable, actions like this may be perceived negatively. Some may feel as if the blocked motion downplays or invalidates Islamophobia, whereas others may feel it empowers them to continue spreading hate. However, this does signal that there is a lack of cohesion between parties when addressing Islamophobia. In order for the problem to be addressed nationally, there needs to be national unity in doing so, regardless of the political party. 

According to the CSIS, one of the primary influences on the recent increase in hate crimes in Canada within the past year has been virtual activity. When considering the misinformation and conspiracy theories that have become more prominent within the past year, people who have grown up in the virtual age are more likely to be exposed. This is because young people are more likely to be comfortable navigating internet forums. Furthermore, researchers like Jessie Daniels have found that social media sites specifically act as spaces where racism plays out in disturbing ways. As teenagers and children explore the internet, they may find themselves engaging in racist conversations and adopting these ideologies. Although most young people have been taught that not everything on the internet is true, the virtual web space has become more influential by the growing popularity of social media sites. Groups (not only children) may find themselves radicalized. To combat the effects of the spread of racist ideologies online, Canada’s Public School System should implement both anti-racism and media literacy education into the school curriculum. 

Most Canadians would agree that much of Canada’s identity is based on their multicultural attitudes. However, multicultural education is not the same as anti-racist education. Anti-racism education specifically seeks to address the historical roots of prejudice and racism that actively influence contemporary issues today, as well as educate about the consequences of racism. It’s also important to note that although educating about Islamophobia does include educating about Islamic practices, this does not qualify as religious education. Therefore, Canada’s secular nature would not be compromised. According to the New York Times, secularism is what provided the rationale for Bill 21, so ensuring that people don’t feel as if they are receiving a specific religious education is imperative to calming any unease about the implementation of such curricula. Administering this education from a young age serves as a preventative measure. If children are growing up in an environment in which racism is addressed in an educational manner, it’s more likely that children may possess an aversion to racist attitudes. Schools should also look at including the Muslim community in this education. 

The Reboot Foundation states that media literacy largely focuses on learning how to judge the credibility of sources and employing critical thinking. The Hechinger Report documents a 2016 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education that found many middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students could not judge the credibility of online information. Although more and more courses (generally taught at the college level) are dedicated to media literacy as the need grows, media literacy in public school systems is not properly addressed. The nature of the internet has changed with the introduction of social media sites and most school systems have failed to alter their education to respond to this change. If people in Canada lack the means to accurately judge information in a time where millions of posts exist on websites such as Reddit or 4Chan, then the possibility of young people buying into misinformation or information that spreads hate is high. As a result, the Canadian Public School System needs to adjust its curriculum to ensure that students are being taught media literacy. 

Although the Canadian government has acknowledged that safeguards need to be instilled to curb the spread of hate online, it’s nearly impossible to control all sources. Duly, the Canadian government needs to ensure that people are aware of misinformation and racism, and one of the most dependable methods for doing so is introducing anti-racism and media literacy education in schools. The CSIS formally acknowledged that the internet is largely responsible for the spread of alt-right ideologies, so not instilling educational processes that counter racist messages is counterintuitive. Solely banning hateful messages online won’t account for all corners of the internet, nor does it address the need for education. 95% of Canadians choose to put their children in public school. If these practices are implemented and 95% of young Canadians receive this education, young people like Veltman might be less likely to be radicalized. Canada spends more money on education than any other country in the G8, meaning the budgetary capacity and inclination to spend more on implementing such practices is realistic, especially at such a critical point. 

Ultimately, the Canadian government needs to make clear that racism and intolerance will not be permitted, beyond offering condolences to those harmed. Instilling educational processes, although helpful, is just the tip of the iceberg. Systemic changes need to be made. Muslims in Canada, and all throughout the world, need to be included in the conversation.

Rachel Simpson

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