Barbaric culture talk

As politicians bid for votes in the last few days of a seemingly endless election campaign, it deserves to be asked: Is winning the best measure of leadership?

September feels like a lifetime ago.

Back then, Canadians joined in the international wave of grief at the images of young Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach after he, his mother and his brother drowned trying to escape Syria – one of more than 2000 Syrians to have died while fleeing their homeland. 

The public sense that Canada had faltered in a vital duty intensified with the news that Alan’s aunt, living in British Columbia,had appealed without success to the Immigration Minister to help get the family to Canada, having already depleted her material resources trying in an unsuccessful attempt to get another brother to safety here. 

This episode also highlighted the steady erosion of government support for refugees. The odds of being granted asylum have declined since 2006, when the Conservatives took power. We’ve now learned that the government suspended processing of Syrian claimants already cleared by the relevant United Nations and Canadian agencies so that the Prime Minister’s Office could vet their files. And groups trying to bring Syrian refugees to Canada are increasingly frustrated by unexplained delays.

More generally, claimants (including children) may endure prolonged detention, often in prisons, despite having had no criminal charges laid against them. The government has cut health care for refugees, a move condemned by doctors and ruled unconstitutional by the Federal Court but still being pushed by the government. 

Public discussion following Alan Kurdi’s death also reawakened debate over the Conservatives’ prioritization of “persecuted ethnic and religious minorities” in a region where 90 per cent of refugee claimants are Sunni Muslims. Critics, including Amnesty International, worry that this policy reflects an anti-Muslim bias, and contravenes UN protocols.

Alan Kurdi’s story also prompted the CBC and other media to give coverage to people’s memories of how 60,000 Vietnamese refugees were welcomed into Canada in the 1970s and 80s — and to their puzzlement over the apparent shift from that animating spirit.

In short, for a while, Canada seemed to be seized by a collective humanitarianism that reached far beyond the usual suspects. The tragedy of Alan Kurdi’s death seemed to bring out the best in people — not everyone, but very many people

Which makes it all the more disconcerting that division and fear have surged enough that Ricochet can ask: “Will racism win the election for Harper?”

Dead cats, covered faces and “culture”

By now, the “dead cat” strategy hardly needs explaining. In case you missed it, the idea — refined by Lynton Crosbie, the conservative wizard from Australia currently on retainer to our homegrown Conservatives — is that, caught in a losing battle your best move is to throw a dead cat on the table. People will forget your rogue senators or the spectre of recession and focus on the corpse amongst the dinner plates.

Enter the niqab

First, in another faceoff with federal judges, the Conservatives insisted they would keep fighting to make it illegal for women to swear the oath of citizenship while wearing the niqab. When this hard sartorial line seemed to boost their polls, they chased it with the promise that, if re-elected, they would follow the lead of Quebec and explore a ban on niqabs in the public service. Mind you, “we’re a society of openness and of equality,” Harper was quick to add

The cherry on the top was the Conservative proposal to create a dedicated phone line so that Canadians could inform on their neighbours’ “barbaric cultural practices,” enlisting us as citizen-spies in support of the government’s “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act”.

This kind of stuff begs parody. Some of the funnest examples include: #BarbaricCulturalPractices, the growing collection of protest songs starting with the incomparable “Harperman”, and Jon Keefe and Matthew Howse’s brilliant “Any Mummers ‘Lowed to Vote?

But it’s not all laughs on the hustings. Several Muslim women have been attacked since the niqab became an election issue and Muslim Canadians are reporting a new sense of vulnerability.

Barbaric culture talk

The word barbaric, so obviously negative, is easily taken apart as a political weapon. But why “cultural”?

The anthropological concept of culture is notoriously difficult. On the one hand, it reflects, in Alice Reich’s words, our shared human condition as both creators and creatures of the world. But if anthropologists have typically been interested in lived culture in all its complexity, anthropology is also complicit in culture’s utility as a “tool for making other,” as Lila Abu-Lughod argued in a 1991 essay. 

Likewise, Mahmood Mamdani diagnosed “culture talk” as a central feature in post-9/11 attempts to find links between Islam and terrorism. Cultural explanations tend to erase history he said, adding: “By equating political tendencies with entire communities … such explanations encourage collective discipline and punishment – a practice characteristic of colonial encounters.” They also imply that people’s “identities are shaped entirely by the supposedly unchanging culture into which they are born.” 

For her part, Abu-Lughod was struck by how authoritative voices used the “plight of Muslim women” to justify making war after 9/11– again at the expense of analysing the historical development of those contexts in which “Islamic extremism” flourished.

All of these elements are at play in “barbaric culture talk”, as partisan politics are played out in promises to rescue “women and girls” from “violent cultural practices” originating “elsewhere in the world” – notably Syria and Iraq. (See here, here and here.) 

Funny thing is, leaving aside women’s judicially-affirmed right to wear the niqab, the “practices” singled out by the Conservatives – “honour killing”, forced marriage and “gender-based family violence” among others – are already illegal in Canada, even if they are usually called by more prosaic names. This doesn’t stop them from accusing anyone who objects to their vocabulary of support for misogyny.

As for the niqab, Zunera Ishaq, the woman who faced off with the Conservatives over their citizenship oath policy, offers a pretty effective challenge to those who see veiling as a straightforward measure of women’s subordination. Indeed, for many Muslim women, far from isolating them, the veil enables participation in public life.

Good immigrant, bad immigrant

For all that these politics rest on a series of linked oppositions — us and them, civilized and barbaric, Canadian and foreign, with us or against us — the Conservatives insist they are not targeting Muslims as such. Rather, they claim to be speaking for “Canadian values”, including those of “the overwhelming majority of Muslims, moderate Muslims.” That is, as Mamdani put it, they are pitting “good Muslims” against “bad Muslims.” The burden is then on individual Muslims to prove that they are on the right side of the dichotomy for life in Canada.

In any event, if comments onMarianne Thuy Nguyen’s reflective column on gaining asylum in Canada in 1975 are anything to go by, the distinction is lost on some people. 

“You embody what it means to be Canadian,” wrote one person, before adding: “refugees from Asia (even communists) are infinitely different from violent illiberal Islamic jihadis. Canada is correct to take a cautious approach with respect to Syrian refugees.” For another: “a Syrian Muslim is not a Vietnamese Christian and the Asian Values do not necessarily reflect Syrian values. Asians prize education, Syrians restrict education by gender. Ask Sweden, Denmark, Finland, etc about their experience with Middle East Refugees as they face exploding Social Costs and massive increase in violent crimes.” Still another predicted: “You assimilated well here, they won’t. All we will bring here is the threat of ISIS … infiltrating in the country and they are an actual threat to our lives.”

Political leadership

I moved to Northern Ireland to start doctoral research during a period of massive unrest, as unionist and loyalist supporters of the Orange Order protested a police ban on a parade through the Catholic area. As Feargal Cochrane observed, while unionist leaders of the day “talked of civil and religious liberty … their supporters prevented people getting to work, highjacked vehicles, intimidated Catholics out of their homes and destroyed property.” 

Then, loyalist paramilitaries murdered Michael McGoldrick, a 31-year-old Catholic. Easy pickings because of his job driving a taxi, McGoldrick was killed for no reason other than his religion. Unionist political leaders rushed to condemn the killing and deny all responsibility for it. McGoldrick’s father saw things differently. Politicians’ “fire and brimstone speeches have featured too much in this situation,” he said. “Their loose talk has cost this innocent young fellow his life.”

I am not saying that Canada is about to be engulfed by widespread sectarian violence and murder. But many Canadian Muslims are feeling apprehensive. At times like this, I think about my late friend Barbara McCabe, who used to say that a true commitment to human rights means defending the rights of those who are not like you, even those you might consider an enemy. 

That is also a pretty good test of political leadership, no more so than when it might be a vote-loser for your party. 

Think about that when you listen to politicians respond to attacks on Muslim women by claiming that, in saying the niqab contravenes “Canadian” values, they are standing up for Muslim women’s rights. Think about it when, instead of facing down public antipathy to Muslim refugees, they invoke “security” and talk about the risk of open “floodgates.

Finally, think about it when you ask why Canada responded so differently to Vietnamese refugees than to Syrians. Then remember that, despite anxieties about potential security risks in 1979, Prime Minister Joe Clark and key cabinet ministers reminded of Canada’s historic refusal of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, determined that we would not be ruled by fear.

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