How Canadian Media Normalizes Islamophobia

It's not just The Rebel. Canada's mainstream media has a problem.

Responding earlier this year to the fatal shooting of six Muslims at a Quebec City mosque, the Canadian Council of Imams stated, “Islamophobia has killed innocent Canadians.” The media is not a unified body, but all of its parts are complicit in normalizing the Islamophobia that made this shooting possible.

Journalists sometimes own up to the problem, condemning the most obvious offenders, like Rebel Media. That criticism is warranted, as Rebel appeals to the bottom of the barrel with cheap stunts, and has become immensely successful through doing so, no longer capable of being written off as a fringe outlet.

Still, much of the opposition to The Rebel centres on the idea that they aren’t respectable enough. They’re loud, adversarial, and blatant in their biases. Whereas The Walrus raises money through bougie talks that journalists are comfortable with, Rebel Media passes the plate around at sadistic sermons where reporters aren’t sure if audience members are doing “Christian hand-raising” or a Nazi salute.

It’s unclear how much of the criticism Rebel Media receives from journalists is genuinely concerned with their anti-Muslim sentiment, as Islamophobia in Canadian media stretches in an unbroken chain from at least 9/11 to today. Mainstream media was demonizing Muslims when Ezra Levant was a little-known lawyer in Alberta, and there’s no indication it has gotten better.

Columnists and the “Green Scare”

In a 2016 lecture at the Aga Khan Museum, Haroon Siddiqui, a former columnist and editorial page editor emeritus at the Toronto Star, claimed that “the biggest culprits have been the National Post and the Postmedia group of newspapers across the country.”

“Hardly a week goes by without these publications finding something or other wrong with Muslims and Islam,” he stated. “In the 1950s, there was the Red Scare. Today, Postmedia are giving you the Green Scare.”

Siddiqui’s critique focused on the roster of columnists and guest writers at Postmedia. Tarek Fatah is one of the most oft-cited offenders, routinely smearing prominent and everyday Muslims alike, warning of an Islamist takeover of Canada, and occasionally calling Pakistan a “cancerous tumour on [the] face of humanity” that will “kill us all” if not “surgically removed.”

After the Quebec mosque shooting, Fatah reacted with glee when initial reports incorrectly stated that one of the shooters was Muslim. When the truth came out, he then claimed it was an elaborate cover-up to “avoid any talk of MuslimOnMuslim terror.”

Fatah has remained a national Sun columnist throughout his descent from an ostensible “reformist Muslim” to an enthusiastic signal-booster for conspiracy theories. He is joined by a team of other writers who focus on similar issues, like the Post’s Barbara Kay, who even following the mosque shooting has treated Islamophobia like a joke. These columnists now have an expanded audience as, per Star business columnist David Olive, “Postmedia’s 200-plus media outlets, mostly newspapers, including some of the biggest dailies in the country, represent a far greater concentration of news media ownership than exists in any other major economy.”

While Siddiqui’s ire was mostly directed toward Postmedia, other publications have also been friendly to Islamophobic views. Fatah, for example, has also been published or featured in the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and the CBC, and was the subject of a mostly-flattering 2011 Walrus profile entitled “The Jihadi Hunter.”

Maclean’s, meanwhile, has been accused of offering an unchecked platform to Islamophobes in its pages. In December 2007, the Canadian Islamic Congress launched several human rights complaints against the magazine, arguing it was “promoting Islamophobia and fear of Muslims” and “representing Muslims as violent people who are prone to engage in violence and are incapable of living peacefully in their host societies.”

The complaint focused on Mark Steyn’s October 2006 article “The future belongs to Islam,” an excerpt from his book America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It. The complainants also cited 17 other pieces published between January 2005 and July 2007, with headlines such as “Wake up, Europe. It may already be too late” and “Celebrate tolerance, or you’re dead.”

The five law students behind the complaint initially asked Maclean’s editors to allow them to publish some sort of rebuttal. Instead, the students said editors “informed us that [Maclean’s] would rather go bankrupt than allow us to publish a response to [Steyn’s] flagrantly anti-Muslim article.”

The Ontario Human Rights Commission eventually dismissed the case, noting that it didn’t have jurisdiction to deal with the content of magazine articles. Yet the commission did publish a statement on the matter, declaring that they had “serious concerns about the content of a number of articles concerning Muslims that have been published by Maclean’s magazine and other media outlets.”

“This type of media coverage,” they added, “has been identified as contributing to Islamophobia and promoting societal intolerance towards Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Canadians.”

Flawed News Coverage

But the problem extends well beyond merely offering a platform to particular individuals. Canadian media has also published sensational news coverage of several issues that have led to Muslims being demonized.

From November 2003 to September 2005, Ontario was embroiled in a debate on faith-based arbitration after Muslims began to offer the service, as Jews and Christians had since the early 90s. The media played a role in turning it into a crisis. Sociologist Sherene Razack wrote that the headlines in this period “alerted Canadians that they were on the brink of their own fateful encounter between Islam and the West, a swift descent from the ideals of the British Empire to a barbaric multicultural present” [pdf]. These headlines included “Multiculturalism – From Britannia to Sharia,” “Religious Law undermines loyalty to Canada,” and “Islamic Law a Step Toward Legal Apartheid.”

Other flashpoints of sensationalism since then have included the “reasonable accommodation” debate, the Toronto 18 trial, the Shafia family murders, and Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values. More recently, the media devoted immense coverage to the Conservative government’s ban on wearing niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. In one week toward the end of the 2015 federal election, the niqab issue was mentioned in at least 133 online articles between the National PostToronto Star, and Globe and Mail, compared to just 102 for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Amira Elghawaby, the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), noted at the time that journalists had trouble distinguishing between actual news and “the deliberate attempts of the Conservative Party to keep the issue alive.”

Throughout this period, the media has also routinely laundered shoddy research. In August 2016, for example, the Canadian Press (CP) published a story on a study that alleged Canadian mosques and schools were breeding grounds for extremism. The study contained several basic errors and did not undergo a peer review. It was published by Thomas Quiggin, who the NCCM told Vice Canada had “a record of promoting discredited, conspiratorial ideas about Canadian Muslims and their institutions.” The evidence gathered for the study’s sensational claims consisted of the authors sneaking into mosques, taking photos of bookshelves, and observing that people there “seemed sullen and sometimes angry,” as though that were rock-solid proof that there was an “increasing angriness of Islamist/extremist views being advanced in some local mosques.” The authors, unsurprisingly, failed to interview any Muslims.

It’s not even entirely clear what the study was called.

CP’s coverage wasn’t much better: almost entirely uncritical of the study, it failed to give readers insight into its authors and lacked any comment from the Muslim organizations targeted. Alarming headlines were quickly abound: in the National Post, “Extremist literature common in many mosques and Islamic school libraries in Canada, study says”; in the Toronto Star, “Islamic schools, mosques in Canada are filled with extremist literature: study.” The media effectively made a national story out of a self-published PDF file that would have otherwise been ignored.

Despite facing a wave of criticism from Muslim organizations, the CP’s editor-in-chief, Stephen Meurice, still claims it was “important” that they wrote about the study. In an email, he defended the study’s methodology, stating, “The fieldwork for the study involved visits to four mosques and three Islamic schools in the Ottawa area. The study (which is 68 pages and includes 193 footnotes) did not claim to be definitive, which is why we included the authors’ caveat that additional research would need to be done to determine the depth and breadth of the identified concerns.”

Kathy English, the public editor of the Toronto Star, eventually apologized for publishing with the article the name and photo of a Vaughan mosque that was not even mentioned in the study — but not for the Star’s decision to publish the article in the first place. Meurice admitted that the CP should have at least waited for comment from the organizations smeared in the study, but this hardly absolves them of their culpability.

Instead, it’s indicative of a broader issue of media outlets not properly vetting self-proclaimed experts on Islam — and research that implicates mosques as dangerous sites of radicalization — and then shrugging their shoulders after the damage is done. Countless mosques have been vandalized or threatened since the report was released. The Vaughan mosque pictured in the Star’s article was among those that increased security in the aftermath of the Quebec shooting, concerned they’d be targeted next.

Serving a Dangerous Agenda

The media has also been complicit in smear campaigns against prominent Muslim individuals, with devastating effects.
In 2005, Hamilton lawyer Hussein Hamdani was appointed as a member of the Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Security (CCR) when it was created by Paul Martin’s Liberal government. He was vetted by several security agencies before joining and was a popular, trusted voice. Yet he came into the crosshairs of Islamophobes, and eventually their attacks put an end to his involvement with the CCR.

Point de Bascule, a Quebec-based blog claiming to uncover the nefarious plots of Islamist organizations in the West, published a report on Hamdani on April 29, 2015, alleging he had donated to a terrorist organization and advocated for the “Islamization” of student politics in his university days. Hamdani strongly denied both claims.

The report gained broad traction after being picked up by TVA, a French-language Quebec network. A day later, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney removed Hamdani from the roundtable and said allegations of his supposed radical ties were being reviewed.

In an interview, Hamdani put the blame for this “devastating” incident on dedicated Islamophobes and the Conservative Party, noting that they never ended up doing the investigation they promised. Yet Hamdani said that the media made the event significantly more damaging by spreading the claims, mentioning The Hamilton Spectator’s reporting in particular.

The consequences were not just limited to Hamdani. Phil Gurski, a former analyst for CSIS, told CBC News the decision was “the biggest blow to the government’s relationship with the Muslim community.” CBC also found that an internal Public Safety Canada email relayed concerns that “no Muslim community member will want to work with the government for fear of being targeted and having their reputation slandered.”

A November 2015 study by 416 Labs offered some quantitative insight into just how bad the media coverage may be. The researchers analyzed over 2.6 million New York Times headlines between 1990 and 2014 by scoring each word as positive or negative based on a list of over 7,000 words and then determining the aggregate score. The results found that Islam has been portrayed negatively in 57 per cent of headlines, compared to 37 and 34 per cent for Christianity and Judaism, respectively. Islam even scored worse than cancer (34 per cent) and cocaine (47 per cent.) This coverage, the study concluded, would lead the average reader to “assign collective responsibility to Islam/Muslims for the violent actions of a few.”

There’s little reason to believe any of Canada’s major papers are better than The New York Times in this regard, but plenty to believe some are worse.

The stakes of combating Islamophobia are only getting more severe, as police-reported hate crimes against Muslims have increased by 253 per cent since 2012, according to the latest Statistics Canada report.

Ontario, meanwhile, faces what the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants and advocacy group Mass Minority call an “epidemic of Islamophobia.”

Media outlets need to do their best to combat the normalization of this hate. So far, they have just been enabling its proponents.

Davide Mastracci is an investigative reporter at The Islamic Monthly. He completed a six-week internship at the National Post in the summer of 2015 as part of his masters in journalism at Ryerson University.

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