Raymond de Souza: Canada’s anti-racism strategy needs to redefine Islamophobia

While I don’t read the anti-racism strategy in the same way as de Souza, all religions face similar challenges with respect to the extremists within their ranks and considering what forms of criticism may cross the line between criticizing particular practices and their impact on people, and more general anti-Christian, anti-Islam, anti-Sikhism or anti-Judaism attitudes:

Some time back I was booking a flight and had an option to fly EgyptAir, with a connection in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The times were convenient and the price right. I declined and found another option.

Why? Because I would not want, even as a mere stopover, to be in Saudi Arabia without prior guarantees from the government that I would not be subject to imprisonment or worse because I am a Christian.

If I were made of sterner stuff, I suppose I might welcome the chance to minister as a fellow prisoner to those Filipino and Indian “guest” workers caught praying and thrown into an extra-judicial jail, perhaps never to be heard of again. But I am not, and so opted to give Jeddah a pass.

I opted to give Jeddah a pass

Now is that Islamophobic? I suppose yes, in that I would be afraid for life and liberty because in Saudi Arabia a certain form of Islam is practiced and given sanction by the state. To put it another way, I would be happy to connect in Johannesburg but not Jeddah, and the reason is related to the latter being in an Islamic country.

Yet, I would also be happy to connect in Jakarta, in the world’s most populous Muslim country, so maybe I am not Islamophobic after all. And I would be happy to visit India, where there are more Muslims than in Saudi Arabia.

Is it Islamophobic for a Catholic priest not to stop over in Saudi Arabia? What if there were mechanical problems and we were required to leave the airport to stay overnight in a hotel? In a country where carrying a bible or a rosary can get you thrown into religious jail? Where Catholic priests have to minister incognito, like the worst days of Elizabethan England? Whoops, did I just reveal a latent Anglicanophobia? I might be a simmering cauldron of bigotry.

Of course it’s not Islamophobic. Christians are quite right to be circumspect of Wahhabi Islam as it is practiced in Saudi Arabia and exported to the world in various murderous guises.

All of which is brought to mind by the federal government’s new “anti-racism” strategy. The program grew out of a controversy some years ago over M-103, an anti-Islamophobia motion in Parliament. So the strategy includes an Islam component, perhaps not pro-Islam but at least anti-anti-Islam. It’s aimed at protecting Canadian Muslims from harassment and discrimination.

It’s tiresome to point out that Islam is not a race, despite the government’s determination to treat it like one. It would be possible to harbour prejudice against Arabs and be fiercely pro-Muslim, as the majority of Muslims live east of the Persian Gulf and in parts of Africa, outside the Arab world. But leave the confusion of race and religion for another day.

Islam is a many-differentiated thing. Saudi Wahhabis and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Toronto are not the same

It’s a mistake to treat Islam itself as if it were a monolithic thing, an undifferentiated block approaching two billion people. Islam is a many-differentiated thing. Saudi Wahhabis and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Toronto are not the same.

That’s the problem with the definition of Islamophobia adopted by the anti-racism strategy. It includes “racism, stereotypes, prejudice, fear or acts of hostility directed towards individual Muslims or followers of Islam in general. In addition to individual acts of intolerance and racial profiling, Islamophobia can lead to viewing and treating Muslims as a greater security threat on an institutional, systemic and societal level.”

Is it anti-Muslim prejudice to say that all Muslims constitute a security threat? Yes. Is it discrimination to direct acts of hostility toward followers of Islam in general? Yes.

The government’s strategy takes a dim view of any critical look at Islam

But the house of Islam has many rooms, and not all of them are filled with sun-dappled butterflies. The same would be true of Christianity. But it is not bigotry to consider that. For example, while Toronto is proud to host the Aga Khan Museum, it would be rather a different matter to build the Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Museum in Canada.

All religions need critical engagement. In this moment of history, that need is pressing in the world of Islam. Muslims, after all, pay the most lethal price for jihadist violence. Yet the government’s strategy takes a dim view of any critical look at Islam, which would actually put a great number of important Muslim voices offside.

I have profited over the years from many fruitful encounters with Muslims, both in Canada and overseas. Given the type of Muslims who are typically willing to engage in Christian-Muslim encounters, it is quite common to hear complaints about Islamist extremism from them, long before any non-Muslim raises the matter.

It is quite likely that, like many federal strategies, nothing much will be accomplished by this anti-racism strategy. But if it is effective, it should not prevent a critical engagement, theological and otherwise, with the world of Islam, both lights and shadows.

Source: Raymond de Souza: Canada’s anti-racism strategy needs to redefine Islamophobia

In defence of the Office of Religious Freedom: Solomon, de Souza

Nuanced opinion by Evan Solomon, supporting the concept of an Office for Religious Freedom:

We not only ought to be saving religious groups from persecution—that should be basic foreign policy—we need to have a deeper understanding of the impact religions have on societies if we have any hope of making a difference in these conflicts. It’s hard to forget the accounts from the famous Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, where U.S. soldiers flying in choppers over Mogadishu hung their feet out open doors. No one told them showing the soles of their feet to the local population was a profound insult, further turning the population against them.

The Office of Religious Freedom was flawed, and never quite lived up to its billing, hobbled by its puny budgets and by the Harper government’s propensity to imbue everything with a partisan mission. But it barely got off the ground, and the core idea is sound. If Canada really is back—this government’s mantra—it had better make sure it takes religion seriously. There is no point in tripling the number of trainers in Iraq if we don’t deeply understand the belief system of the very soldiers we are trying to support, as well as the ones we are fighting.

Conflicts of the future will have twin threats: terror, and the danger of giving in to a xenophobic response. Winning both sides will mean being unafraid to talk about religion, and engaging with religious communities. Without an office to do that, how does this become a government priority?

Source: In defence of the Office of Religious Freedom

And less nuanced support by Father Raymond J. de Souza, the Chair of the former advisory committee:

That reading is rendered more plausible given that the foreign affairs department (now called Global Affairs) undertook no consultations with the ORF’s advisory committee, drawn from religious leaders from across the country. The non-partisan, volunteer group includes many who are in direct contact with persecuted communities around the globe. I am the chairman of the advisory committee, and the new minister’s office never consulted the committee, or its leaders. If there was a commitment to religious freedom, but through a different means, such consultation would have been an obvious starting point.

If the Liberals had a credible plan to advance religious freedom in a world of increasing religious persecution, surely it would have been announced. But since the election, the government refused even to announce its intention to close the ORF, even long after staff was told to look for positions elsewhere. Only last week, when the opposition moved a motion in the House of Commons, did the government declare its decision to close the ORF. Doing that on the day before the budget was released, before a two-week recess of the House, suggests a desire to bury this news. It does not appear that the government even thinks the decision a good one, or has an alternative plan. 

It is also short-sighted. Religious persecution and massacres are on the increase. Should the government decide to launch a particular program, likely more costly than the ORF, to promote, for example, legal rights in criminal justice systems abroad, or political rights in new democracies, or to encourage our authoritarian allies to respect minority rights, then it will be open to the charge that it simply chose not to put a priority on religious freedom.

This week, Dion outlined his foreign policy philosophy as one of “responsible conviction.” The idea is that one stands up for Canada’s convictions, but in a responsible manner, meaning that the objections of those who do not share our convictions have to be generously taken into account, whether it be Saudi Arabia or Russia or Iran. If the closing of the ORF is an example of “responsible conviction” in action, the message will be clearly understood in Riyadh, Moscow and Tehran. Of course, Canada stands foursquare behind religious freedom, but will not raise the matter if it proves awkward. 

Dion himself knows that is the case, as he stressed that “responsible” is not to be understood as an adjective that empties the noun of any meaning. Otherwise he would not have insisted that his new approach should not “be confused with moral relativism or the lack of strong convictions.” The need to emphasize that something is not what it appears to be is the customary way politicians confirm that it is precisely that.

Burying the Office of Religious Freedom

I think most critics of the Government’s decision have overly focussed on the question of the Office and the Ambassador per se rather than the sun-setting of the modest program funds for projects to help support religious freedom, where likely more impact will be felt.

Religious freedom office faces uncertain future as Liberals consider wider human-rights proposals

Good in-depth piece, with considerable commentary offering advice on what the Government should consider:

The Liberal government is considering whether to scrap Canada’s controversial Office of Religious Freedom — considered a signature achievement by the previous Conservative government — and instead focus on ways to champion a broader array of human rights abroad.

Unless the new government intervenes, current Ambassador for Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett’s three-year term will expire Feb. 18. The office’s mandate and funding, about $5 million a year, will run out on March 31.

Supporters of the office are urging the Liberals to save it. Others are calling for big changes, if not its outright abolition. The government is weighing its options.

“Beyond March, the government has not made a decision with respect to the mandate and associated budget of the office,” said Adam Barratt, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion. “The minister is examining options and how best to build on the work that has been accomplished in the area of religious freedom while promoting human rights as a whole.”

The Office of Religious Freedom was the subject of controversy even before it was formally established on Feb. 19, 2013. It was promised by the Conservatives during the 2011 election, but some worried it would be used to selectively champion Christianity, woo certain ethnic voter groups and pursue pet projects of the government.

Those who supported its creation argued there was is a growing link between religious freedom and democratic rights. They also said religion was becoming an increasingly important factor in international affairs, and having an office dedicated to the issue would benefit Canada abroad.

Bennett subscribes to that belief. Sitting in his office at the Department of Global Affairs, surrounded by religious symbols from different faiths, Bennett warned recently that Canadian diplomats risk a “blind spot” if they don’t have a strong grasp of how religion influences countries’ actions.

“We need to ensure that if we want to be really nuanced and winsome in how we engage countries that are deeply religious, that we can actually employ language that enables us to have a deeper engagement,” he told the Citizen. “If we can’t do that, then we risk developing or having a serious diplomatic blind spot.”

Even those who question the need for an Office for Religious Freedom have been impressed by Bennett, the well-spoken policy analyst at the Privy Council Office who also moonlights as a professor and dean at a small Christian college in Ottawa.

“Anytime I reached out for him, he was open, available and worked within the mandate,” said former NDP MP Paul Dewar, who was his party’s foreign affairs critic for years. “I think he did as good a job as he could to connect with groups from different religions and really try to engage to the extent he could.”

That doesn’t mean his term has escaped controversy. When the Conservative government appealed a court ruling that struck down a ban on face coverings during citizenship ceremonies, Dewar asked for Bennett’s position on the issue. The ambassador replied it was outside his mandate.

Bennett, however, admits that what happens in Canada has an impact on his ability to champion religious rights abroad. For instance, he says Turkish officials were quick to raise Quebec’s controversial Charter of Values two years ago when he was pressing them on the treatment of religious minorities in Turkey.

But even now, Bennett refuses to talk about the niqab debate, or the use of identity politics during the election debate. Mandate restrictions aside, he says Canada is different from Turkey and other places because it has a healthy democracy in which such issues can be debated.

“We need to be conscious as Canada that we have our own challenges that we have to engage,” he said. “But at least we’re able to engage them. In many countries, they can’t even talk about them.”

…Father Raymond de Souza wants the government to keep the office. A Roman Catholic priest and National Post columnist, de Souza is also chair of the Office of Religious Freedom’s external advisory committee. He says the federal government spends more on water treatment plants abroad than on the office each year.

“And if you ask why are there Syrian refugees in the first place, at least part of the answer is religious liberty,” he said. “People are fleeing religious persecution … The foreign policy issues that the government of Canada has at the top of its agenda are sort of shot through with religious liberty questions.”

…Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International Canada, said the human rights group appreciated Bennett’s frequent public interventions on both individual and broader issues of religious persecution abroad. And he suggested the government might consider appointing ambassadors focused on other human rights.

“There is considerable value in devoting dedicated resources to a particular human rights concern, and appointing high level ambassadors or envoys to represent Canada globally with respect to that issue, as has been done with the Office of Religious Freedom,” he said.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement hopes the Liberal government will keep the office and Bennett. He says both have contributed to religious freedom abroad, and transformed Canada into “a voice for research and advocacy and collaboration in order to protect people and their religious freedoms.”

But even some supporters question its impact. One is Imam Abdul Hai Patel, founder of the Canadian Council of Imams, Muslim chaplain for the University of Toronto and York Regional Police, and another member of the office’s external advisory board.

“I welcome the office. But then it has limited or no powers really to do anything,” said Patel. “I think it hasn’t really fulfilled the purpose for which it was intended, because it has no teeth and there was a limited budget.” He would like to see the office have more independence and influence, like its counterpart in the U.S.

Some Canadian diplomats have also quietly grumbled that the creation of the office politicized the issue of religious freedom, and hurt Canada’s ability to advance it abroad by putting it into a silo.

History might be against Bennett and the office surviving under the current Liberal government. Unlike the U.S. and some other countries, Canada has not traditionally appointed ambassadors for specific themes. And, fairly or not, the ambassador and office are inextricably linked to the previous Conservative government.

Bennett argues the office is needed more now than ever. In particular, he would like to offer more training to Canadian diplomats, to protect against that potential “blind spot” as religion and belief become more and more important in international politics.

And he says there’s an appetite for what the office has to offer. He says he has always acted as a non-partisan public servant. “My goal for the office is to just do the work. I just want to help people. I want to take that Canadian experience and try to assist as best we can people who are being persecution.”

Source: Religious freedom office faces uncertain future as Liberals consider wider human-rights proposals

Father Raymond J. de Souza: ‘Islamophobia’ is not the problem

While his argument that criticizing Islamic extremism and violence is not Islamophobic is of course correct, de Souza appears to dismiss the possibility of Islamphobia (or anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination) as well as being silent on the language used (e.g., Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer are prime examples of the use of intemperate and overly broad condemnation of all Muslims as potential or actual extremists):

On the weekend Pope Francis was in Turkey to visit the leader of world Orthodoxy, Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople. Like John Paul and Benedict before him, Francis went to show his esteem for the Orthodox Church and to foster the bonds of unity. But since Constantinople long ago fell to the Turks, this Christian meeting took place in a country that is 98% Muslim — and more to the point, in a country now led by an ambitious man, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is not above using Islamism to advance his desire to be the leader of global Islam, recapturing the influence of his Ottoman predecessors.

Erdoğan took advantage of the Holy Father’s visit to argue that Western leaders who seek his aid in combatting jihadism need to clean up their own house first. Erdoğan urged the Pope in his welcome address to combat the “the very serious and rapid trend of growth in racism, discrimination, and hatred of others, especially Islamophobia in the West.”

The point was further amplified by Mehmet Görmez, the minister of religious affairs. “We feel anxiety and concern for the future, that the Islamophobic paranoia that has already been spread among Western public opinion is being used as a pretext for massive pressures, intimidation, discrimination, alienation, and actual attacks against our Muslim brothers and sisters living in the West,” he said.

It is hardly phobic or paranoid for Christians on Turkey’s borders in Syria and Iraq to fear the jihadism that is slaughtering their communities

Like most countries that have government departments for religious affairs, Turkey does not permit full religious liberty. The Orthodox Patriarchate, present in Constantinople since before Islam existed, is being strangled by the state, with heavy restrictions placed on its institutions and freedom of governance. So it is a bit much to hear from Turkey about “Islamophobia” inflaming public opinion abroad when “Christophobia” is practiced by law at home. Moreover, it is hardly phobic or paranoid for Christians on Turkey’s borders in Syria and Iraq to fear the jihadism that is slaughtering their communities.

Erdoğan and his ministers were offering a sort of pact: We will combat jihadism in our backyard if you condemn “Islamophobia” in yours. It is an offer that merits firm rejection.

Drawing moral equivalence between lethal jihadism and people who say nasty things about the co-religionists of such jihadis is meant to be disabling, as was the case in the days of the anti-anti-communists. It sows confusion by suggesting that any challenge even to Muslim pathologies is ill-motivated and illegitimate.

The obligation of Turkey and other Muslim states to combat extremist violence in the name of Islam binds independent of what is being done elsewhere. Indeed, one might argue that reducing jihadist attacks would do more to reduce “Islamophobia” than any number of pieties about Islam being a religion of peace.

More outrageously, to juxtapose “Islamophobia” and Islamist violence ignores that the vast majority of victims of jihadism are Muslims themselves. For every Muslim in the West anxious about “Islamophobia,” there are far, far more within the house of Islam who fear for their lives.

Jihadism is a clear, present and lethal danger, for Muslims first, and it is waxing rather than waning. It is not “phobic” to condemn it.

Father Raymond J. de Souza: ‘Islamophobia’ is not the problem