Canada: This election is not about Muslims

This election is not about Muslims

Stephen Harper wants us to think the choice we make on Oct. 19 is about the threat posed by Muslims. But it’s really about the character of a nation.

I live in a neighbourhood of mostly “old stock” Canadians. My husband is old stock, perhaps as old as they get in the prime minister’s eyes — French, English and German, his family here since the mid-1600s.

Me? Lately, I’ve been wondering if I’m even considered Canadian by Stephen Harper, never mind my vintage. The Indian part of me may be deemed acceptable but somewhere along the way, certain Arab traders landed in southern India.

So now, a thousand years later, I wear a hijab on my head. My daughter does too. A couple of her friends, second-generation Canadians, wear the niqab. It may be a phase, it may be conviction, but here’s what it definitely isn’t: a barbaric cultural practice. These girls want to do it. One’s dad told me he was surprised — his wife doesn’t cover her face.

I don’t like the niqab because I like to see who I’m talking to. But who cares what I like? What’s important is I do believe in the freedom to choose. It’s enshrined in the Qur’an and in the Canadian Charter, though extremists of varying sorts conveniently ignore both.

Besides dividing Canadians by some sort of a genealogical/historical tier that makes sense to him, Harper has also made an election issue out of the way a few Muslim women dress. It’s good fodder. Something about seeing a niqabbed woman doesn’t sit well with a lot of Canadians, if we’re to believe the polls.

My husband and I had a disagreement on this the other day. But it didn’t go the way one would expect a discussion between us two types of Canadians to go; ashamedly, I was the one saying maybe Zunera Ishaq, the woman who challenged the policy on niqab, should have just shown her face, stopped inadvertently tarnishing all Muslims. In this current climate of increasing Islamophobia, I wanted this resolved the easy way.

My husband brought up the tired adage when-they-came-for-the-Jews-I-didn’t-say-anything-because-I-wasn’t-a-Jew but instead of making this about identity, he used “hijab.” “What if the next thing they attack is your hijab?” he asked as I wrapped a cloth around my head before going to work.

I remained unmoved. Laureen Harper had donned the hijab during plenty of photo opportunities to win votes.

Look at how surges in Stephen Harper’s popularity parallel his niqab pronouncements, I pointed out, putting the kettle on for tea. Look at my mother and sister.

They were recently called “terrorist” on separate occasions, in public. For my mother, it was jarring because the initial prejudice she’d faced had faded and, now, as a senior, she’s grown accustomed to the peace of a truly multicultural society. She gives back through interfaith and hospital volunteering, with a hijab and a smile.

Now, she doesn’t feel so good. The name-calling occurred in my neighbourhood, when she’d stopped by. Not surprising — my street is peppered with blue signs, the predominant colour here.

It’s obvious some of my neighbours have bought into Harper’s messaging about Muslims. Taking a walk in a hijab is fraught now.

Alienation starts in our own neighbourhoods.

I mean, Harper’s own office intervened to ensure Muslim Syrian refugees didn’t make it here.

He is anti-Muslim, I said to my husband.

“But this isn’t about Muslims,” my husband responded, handing me my travel mug. “It’s about us not giving in to the latest fear-mongering distraction. There’s a backbone to this country and we’re forgetting it.”

I stopped on my way out to the car. On my way out into my Canadian neighbourhood, with my fellow Canadian neighbours.

I realized within a few months I had let Stephen Harper dictate how I saw my community. And others had too — like the man who called my gentle mother a terrorist.

The minute I started thinking some of my neighbours didn’t like me and my kind, I had given in to Harper’s vision of Canada.

I had given in to his coded use of “old stock” (while according no respect to Aboriginal Peoples), his fixating on the “oppression” of women’s clothing (while being no friend of women’s rights), his insistence that his disturbing pronouncements reflected “the vast majority” (when public opinion has no effect on law). I had let all this muddle the most important issue here.

This is not about me, or about Muslims. This is about the character of Canada. And by saying yes to a divided Canada, that pits us against us, we’re letting go of our character. And then, there goes the neighbourhood.

Sajidah Kutty is a teacher and writer in Toronto.

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