Blog Post

It is the Niqab again: Stephen Harper and the Barbarism of Politics

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II ) 

One of the most pernicious outcomes of fear-mongering politics in today’s electoral world is the splitting of citizens into opposing camps. In the case of Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the damage is already done. A recent example of this harm is Canadian Citizenship, which has acquired a new definition after his government passed an unprecedented citizenship revocation law, mostly targeting Muslims.

In June of 2015, the Canadian government passed Bill C-24 which entitles the federal government to revoke citizenship from dual nationalists convicted of perpetrating acts of terrorism, espionage or treason against Canada, whether this conviction takes places abroad or not. The new law affects nearly one million Canadian citizens, including more than 150,000 Canadian-born citizens who are dual citizens through their parents.

Questioned on the un-constitutionality of C-24 and how its adoption compromises the equality of all citizens before the law and creates a two-tiered system, Harper’s Immigration Minister Chris Alexander stated that the law is necessary to combat “the ever-evolving threat of Jihadi terrorism.” Treating naturalized Canadians and their offspring as less than equal citizens makes one think that the law will equally hurt all hyphenated Canadians, including American-Canadians and British-Canadians. However, it is clear from Alexander’s statement that they will not be targeted by this law. The real victim of this act of de-nationalization is every Muslim-Canadian convicted, or accused, or suspected of terrorism, or perceived as “ a person of interest,” or a potential terrorist, or someone suspected of aiding or being associated with any act of terrorism. The irresponsibility of this profiling law is that it ushers in a new standard in Canada’s judiciary principles, allowing Canada not only to fracture its long-standing definition of citizenship, but also, and more preposterously, to abandon its agency and international responsibility to due process in the global war on terror by giving up on its own citizens, either deporting them or subjecting them to trials and acts of torture in countries that have no respect for the rule of law. The case of Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-born prize-wining journalist, who has just been released from a prison in Egypt, is a stark example of these brutal and unjust citizen abandonment tactics.

Immediately after he took office in 2006 upon forming a minority government, Harper pulled no punches in adopting policies and making governmental choices that have systematically disenfranchised both Muslims-Canadians and Muslims seeking to immigrate to Canada. Harper's Government continiously boycotted mainstream Muslim organizations, preferring to work solely with selective constituents of the Muslim societies in Canada, namely the Aga Khan Ismailis and the Ahmadis. In 2007, Harper tried to ban niqab wearing women from voting, but his efforts failed when the chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand simply reminded him and Canadians that more than 70,000 Canadian voters, many of them inmates, cast their ballots by mail without having to reveal their faces. In 2012, when Harper’s government succeeded in sunsetting the anti-hate provision of the Canadian Human Rights Act, it did so with the full intention to grant its constituents the freedom to lampoon Muslims and Islam uninhibitedly without being accused of a hate crime. But now that the currents are shifting towards critique of Harper's international policies and governmental biases, absurdly enough Harper’s government wants to silence dissent by threatening to charge supporters of the Palenstinian BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) with a hate crime. The same is true with the principle of religious freedom, where the Conservatives have steadily been sensitive to persecution cases and asylum appeals by Coptic Christians in Egypt, Bahais in Iran, and Christians as well as Ahmadis in Pakistan (precisely people fleeing persecution from Muslim nations, and deservedly so), but turning a deaf ear to Muslims seeking asylum for similar reasons, including but not limited to Muslim Uighurs in China, Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, Sunnis in Syria suffering under the iron clutch of the Assad regime. Not to mention the most recent and scandalous treatment of Syrian refugees, delaying their rescue and scanning their admission to Canada based on their faith.

As if this Islamophobia were not enough, Islam has been reduced to the niqab, which is categorized in a set of “barbaric cultural practices” that cannot be tolerated in post-secular Canadian society—especially not when a Muslim woman is taking a citizenship oath. In a desperate attempt to cling to power, Harper, an unpopular and embattled Prime Minister, constantly fed on the fear of the hearts and minds of many Canadians by recklessly blowing the horns of Islamophobia to regain support. Of course, such selfish acts came at the expense of the commonwealth—i.e., the greater good of the citizens—by further polarizing them along the lines of religion, ethnicity, and even race. The Prime Minister’s political move was so pernicious that innocent niqab-wearing Canadian Muslim women have been increasingly attacked in public.

Of the three main political parties in Canada, the Conservatives, led by Harper, stand alone in their demagogic attacks on Muslims. The other two parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Thomas Muclair, and the Liberal Party, led by Justin Trudeau (son of Pierre Trudeau) who won the recent elections have been supportive of women’s rights to wear the niqab and have in their own right been critical of Harper’s fanning of Islamophobia.

To a welcoming, tolerant, and pluralist Canada, one in which the nostalgic dreams of the old stock Canadians—with their commitment to a world free from prejudices—Harper’s vision of Canada as an exclusivist society is felt as a fundamental betrayal of Canada’s liberal values. Consequently, the inevitable lexical slippages have become commonplace in the public sphere. In the post-9/11 era, for instance, “Islam”—the name of a religion of over 1 billion adherents, at least one million of them inhabiting Canada, and more than 7 million Muslims living in the US—has become synonymous for “terrorism.” Watching the Republican Party Candidates debate in the US and Harper’s anti-niqab campaign in Canada, one cannot help but notice the flagrant visibility of this violent rhetoric. It must be experienced as a painful irony for North American Muslim citizens to live in a context in which the new qualifications for the highest political office in the land—of which they are voting members—are based on candidates’ abilities to demonize this community, instead of on the basis of their plans to improve citizens’ work and life conditions, fixing health care systems, or creating new ideas to fight climate change.

Running a campaign whose principal goal is to stop what he refers to as “barbaric cultural practices” from taking place in Canada, Harper has entered a new and dangerous level of divisiveness. The question arises as to when politicians should draw the line between fulfilling their personal ambitions and protecting the rights of all their citizens as they are sworn to do. In this case, Harper’s war against a traditional Muslim face-cover contradicts the very tenants of a civil society where the freedom of its citizens to practice their religion is indeed protected by Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As politically irresponsible as it is, Harper’s rhetoric is made more appealing by his desperate and hackneyed return to oppositional thinking where Islam becomes, once again, the target of political campaigns, the sole carrier of the “anti-” prefix to everything “modern,” “secular,” “cosmopolitan,” “enlightening,” “progressive,” “democratic,” “global,” you name it.

It is clear that Harper’s invocation of the phrase “barbaric practices” is meant to dehumanize Muslim Canadians. Barbarism though is precisely the failure to comprehend the enormity of one’s contentious rhetoric; it is failure to understand that as Prime Minister one has a responsibility towards protecting the rights of every niqab wearing Canadian woman (and every Canadian citizen who chooses to wear whatever she/he pleases) even if one disagrees with them. Barbarism is the confusion of personal biases with administrative authority and the treading on the rights of minority for the sake of poll numbers. History has taught us that great leaders defend minorities first and last, and they put the interest of the country before the interest of the party or their own selfish pursuits. But Islam is not a political party. It is a religion with various persuasions and different sub-belief systems, bringing together men, women, and children who interact with their communities on a daily basis, who work, study, teach, travel, shop, worship, serve in the army, and give their time and blood for their fellow citizens.   

Harper has chosen to fight the niqab and so one might reasonably ask: of what reality is this fighting truly representative? This question takes us to the heart of a major problem in contemporary North American politics: a deep-seated distrust of academics and intellectuals, as if learning is the new enemy of the nation. As the Marxist materialist William Raymond reminds us, “[Conservative] Tories distrust intellectuals and academics as disturbing and empirical people who succeed only in upsetting perfectly satisfactory arrangements by insisting on analysis, historical comparison, projections and warnings.” Set against this “disturbance” is the political interest in preserving the status quo at any price or, as Williams maintains, in pretending “that things are still basically as they have been even when they have visibly changed.” 

Thus when Harper warns Canadian academics and intellectuals not to “commit sociology” in response to 1200 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, one does not need to be a sociologist to see through the naiveté of this statement. It is not surprising that politicians would seek to defend their own interests, sometimes at all costs, and especially after growing attached to power. It is not unusual for a politician to dismiss protests and demands for inquiry and investigation. It helps Harper immeasurably that the Canadian Left remains divided; otherwise it would be quite unlikely for his political rhetoric to survive much less succeed. In the current context of a politically divided Canadian Left, Harper was given free range to express prejudices and rationalizations, to capitalize on the lack of knowledge and understanding, and to swing the votes of trusting Canadians who tremble at the thought of a jeopardized national security. 

The real jeopardy is not a woman wearing the niqab and driving her children to school or going to work, but the ruthless and Manichean exploitation of citizens, the creation of second-class citizenships, and the vulgarity of divisive politics which is practiced everyday against citizens under the garb of protecting Canadians from themselves. All this is happening while serious political discussions are absent from public discourse: the incredible volatility of the Canadian dollar which went down from $US1.10 to $US0.75 in only a few years; the current ratio of unemployment and the rising levels of poverty; the degrading condition of the Canadian economy and its vulnerability to what happens outside of Canada; the lack of alternative and creative solutions; and the deafening silence on ecological challenges and climate change. It is now clear that Harper’s cancerous politics did not help him retain the Prime Minister’s seat. The question remains as to whether Canada under Trudeau is ready to transcend xenophobia and divisiveness, conquer the barbarism festering inside its political offices, and embrace a more pluralistic and inclusive political future that protects the rights and celebrates the diversity of all citizens.

Associate Professor of Arabic, San Francisco State University

I received my PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. I was born in Alexandria, Egypt where I spent my childhood and adolescent years. After High School, I moved to Cairo to study at ‘Ayn Shams University, where I srudied classical and modern Arabic and received my BA and MA in Literature and Translation. I am a recipient of two Fulbright Scholar Awards. My interests include modern and classical Arabic literature, Quranic Studies, Comparative Cultural Studies in the colonial and post-colonial Arab world, as well as French and Egyptian cinemas. I have published in scholarly venues that include der Islam, SCTIW Review, JAL, ASJ, ALIF, and AHR. My book Islam, Orientalism, and Intellectual History (I.B. Tauris) and the co-edited volume, German Colonialism (Columbia UP) both appeared in 2011. My forthcoming books, The Qur'an and Modern Arabic Literary Criticism: From Taha to Nasr (Bloomsbury: Suspensions, Contemporary Middle Eastern and Islamicate Thought) and Islam and the Culture of Modern Egypt (Cambridge UP) will both appear in 2018.