Concerning a Definition of “Islamophobia”

[The opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of CAEF, but offer ideas for consideration by our readers. Comments are welcome at andria@caef.ca]


By Doğan D. Akman*


A few days ago, I came across a report that purports to analyse the data generated by a 2020 survey on the subject of antisemitism. In this context, the writers note that an EKOS poll conducted in 2018 found that 57% of Canadians feel that Islamophobia is an increasingly disturbing problem in Canada.


I find this fact troubling in the context of Canadian values, which as an immigrant and member of a minority group, I strongly share and support; namely cherishing multiculturalism and within it, diversity of religions, cultures and inclusion.


The term “Islamophobia” has been and continues to be a controversial one in that to date the definition of the term has yet to be finalised by any authoritative consensus of Canadians, nor for that matter by Canadian Muslim communities.


In its 2018 budget, the Federal government announced its intention to formulate its anti-racism strategy. The Federal approach to this definition is set out in the government’s publication Building a Foundation for Change: Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy 2019-2022 (“strategy”).This document needs to be read together with

  1. the document published contemporaneously by the Government of Canada titled, Anti-Racism Action Program (“ARAP”) , and

  2. the pre-existing document titled Community Support, Multiculturalism and Anti-Racism Initiatives (CSMARI).

The Anti-Racism Action Program is “intended to help address barriers to employment, justice and social participation among Indigenous Peoples, racialized communities, and religious minorities… ARAP will also prioritize projects that target online hate and promote digital literacy…”


According to Pablo Rodriguez, Minister of Heritage, the strategy fulfils the key recommendations of the 2018 report of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage titled, Racism and Religious Discrimination including Islamophobia in response to the Parliamentary motion M-103 which the Prime Minister and his party adopted in the House of Commons after defeating the procedural motion of the Official Opposition which simply sought to have the MP who tabled the motion to provide a precise definition of the term “Islamophobia,” which she refused to do.


According to a statement issued by the Minister’s office, [the strategy which will cost $45 million] “helps advance the Government of Canada’s vision of fostering and promoting a more inclusive and equitable country for all Canadians.


Strategy defines “Islamophobia” as follows: “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 basis”.


This definition is beset with many problems and consequently does not commend itself to be adopted as a national consensual definition.


The first problem, a serious one with the definition, is that it is open-ended. It merely includes certain things, but fails to provide the rest of it.


The second problem with the definition is redundancy: surely if one is a Muslim, his religion is Islam then ipso facto he is a follower of Islam.


The third problem is the proposition that if one is in fear of some other people or person that one would want to commit harm against them.


The fourth problem is the failure of the definition to capture and respect the essence of the term.


In this instance, the definition ignores the central notion of phobia. A phobia is not merely a fear; it is an irrational fear, and since it is irrational it is a self-induced one. (A phobia is a fear, so fearing Islam should not be designated a crime or be associated with a claim of racism (Islam is not a race), a prejudice (fears are not always prejudicial but can be rooted in facts), and fear is not necessarily based on illogicality or stereotypes as in arachnophobia (fear of spiders), acrophobia (fear of heights), or astraphobia (fear of thunder and lightning). The associated word “phobia” does suggest an extreme fear, but there is a continuum so fear of another’s faith might be rooted in an historical reality or personal experience, and cannot be assumed to be illogical, irrational, or excessive.)


The government cannot have it both ways; namely, retaining the term while defining it in a manner that does not correspond to its essence.


Nevertheless, the government having defeated the Opposition’s motion which required the MP who tabled motion M-103 to define the term, still has not provided the full definition for reasons which are unfathomable, but might lead one to reflect on Robert Fulford’s notion (see article from the National Post of September 22, 2017, that this word is weaponized, and a useful tool in any government’s playing identity politics. When any Muslim community or Muslim member of our society has to deal with hate crimes of various kinds, using the “identity politics card” is the wrong remedy for the problem.


Looking at the matter from a different perspective, surely, in light of the fact that the irrational fear of the “Islamophobes” is “directed” towards Muslims or followers of Islam in general, then the ensuing “acts of hostility” or “state of mind” claimed to be captured by “racism, stereotypes and prejudice” , are merely the by- products of the irrational fear. Given the above premises, surely if we can devise an effective strategy to cure or successfully repress such fears, then the problem of Islamophobia will be resolved.


In all events, one cannot be held guilty of a hate crime when he/she is behaving in an irrational manner, as this type of behaviour negates the existence of mens rea, the proof of which is required in order to convict the accused.


Further, I cannot fathom by any stretch of the imagination what racism has got to do with Islamophobia since Muslims belong to different races including the currently much maligned white one. Therefore, Muslims in Canada cannot define or identify themselves as a racialized minority, visible or otherwise.


The definitional problems of the term “Islamophobia” are further compounded by the fact that the term has not been defined in identical terms across national, provincial and even municipal boundaries.


Finally, as yet no one has managed to provide an operational definition of the term that is consistent with a number of fundamental freedoms such as the freedoms of thought, belief, opinion and expression including the freedom of the press enshrined in section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As noted in defining antisemitism, by way of exclusions, IHRA does not define criticism of the Jewish faith as hatred, but “certain perceptions of Jews” as discriminatory. Thus, criticism of, or fear of Islam would not be considered “Islamophobic.”


Having been at the receiving end of antisemitic remarks and abuse, I fully sympathise with the plight of our brethren in the Muslim community who experienced, and may likely continue to experience, abusive treatment from those among our compatriots who, for whatever reason, do not care about religious and cultural freedoms, diversity and inclusion.


I do therefore, consider the formulation and enforcement of a national operational definition of anti-Muslim bigotry to be essential to the well-being of our Muslim fellow citizens. In this regard, and for my part, I verily believe that the core IHRA definition of antisemitism with the substitution of the word Muslim for the word Jewish will serve the Muslim community very well.


The definition then would read:


“(For lack of a better term at the moment), Islamophobia is a certain perception of Muslims, which may be expressed as hatred toward Muslims. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of Islamophobia are directed towards Muslim or non-Muslim individuals and/or their property, or toward Muslim community, institutions and religious facilities.”


As to the illustration of this definition with examples, I fear that whoever sets out to formulate these will have to address and resolve the differences of points of view between the Muslims who are subjected to bigotry or physical attacks and those who wish to uphold the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, without being held for ransom by the extremists on either or both sides.


Being an optimist by nature, I hope that the parties at play will engage in the dialogue in good faith with the aim of finding the right balance. Failure to do so, will regrettably leave the Canadian society and our shared values without a defined operational context that ensures the safety and security of our Muslim compatriots.

Doğan D. Akman is an independent researcher and commentator. He holds a B.Sc. in sociology, an M.A. in sociology/criminology and an LL.B in law. He held academic appointments in sociology, criminology and social policy; served as a Judge of the Provincial Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, and occupied the positions of Crown Counsel in criminal prosecutions and in civil litigation at the Federal Department of Justice. His academic work is published in peer-reviewed professional journals, while his opinion pieces and other writings are to be found in various publications and in blogs.

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