Dog-whistle politics and Islamophobia in the Canadian election

With just a week to go in Canada's Federal elections, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been roundly accused of racism and dog-whistle politics in order to draw attention away from the failings of his administration. Next Monday he will know if his tactics have worked.

Call it dog-whistle or wedge politics, it is ugly, racist and alive and kicking in the Canadian election campaign.

During the last weeks Conservative leader Stephen Harper has seen his majority threatened by the Liberals and he’s opted for the dog whistle.

When a politician does this it is to draw attention away from realities including, as in Harper’s case, a sluggish economy with two quarters of negative growth, a scandal plagued Senate (which he added to instead of abolish as promised), an indifference to the refugee crisis out of Syria, a massive drop in prices for oil from the dirty tar sands of Alberta, a continued red light from the US for the Keystone oil pipeline, the dismantling of social programmes that do not fit with his ideologies, and repeated refusal to launch an inquiry into the hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Canadians are being sucked into what Boris Johnson once termed the “dead cat strategy”.

When faced with a losing argument politicians distract. As the London mayor argues throwing a dead cat on a table quickly changes the focus of those sitting at said table.

Harper’s dead cat is the niqab, and by association, Muslims.

That’s right. The niqab.

The government recently tried to ban Muslim women who wear the niqab from doing so while taking the oath of citizenship, but the Federal Court of Appeal ruled against Harper not once, but three times.

The last ruling dismissed the government’s attempts in a ruling which stated Ottawa did not even come close to proving there would be “irreparable harm” if Zunera Ishaq (the woman who challenged the government) wore her niqab while taking her oath.

And to all those who believe a person’s face should be identifiable, it is verified by officials prior to the oath taking, and Ishaq is quite clear on her responsibility to remove her niqab for security reasons or for government ID.

On October 9 Ishaq swore her oath and the sky did not fall in.

But the lead up to her victory has had some nasty consequences with violence - verbal and physical, being directed at those who wear the niqab.

Two women in Montreal and one in Toronto have been attacked in the street, one of them who was pregnant was knocked to the ground.

Were the men involved in trying to rip the niqabs from these women liberating them by assaulting them?

Is this Harper’s so called society of “openness and equality”, as he told the CBC last week?

Harper has added fuel to this debate by saying his Conservative party is now looking at banning face coverings in the public service, and setting up a hotline for Canadians to report “barbaric cultural practices”.

What is obvious is that is a euphemism for the Muslim community and the message is their practices are so dangerous they have to have a separate snitchline designed just for their ‘practices’.

If he is talking so-called honour killings or female genital mutilation there are already perfectly solid laws against them in Canada’s existing criminal code. They are murder and assault and are already dealt with under the one law for all principle of any proper democracy.

Canadians already have a Crime Stoppers line they can call if they suspect a crime is or has been committed.

They do not need a snitchline to report people based on the politics of fear and racism employed by this Prime Minister in order to win a few more votes.     

Harper has deliberately spoken of ‘old stock Canadians‘ - more the white Christian variety than the actually ‘older’ First Nations people; he talks tough about ‘stripping terrorists of their citizenship‘ - thereby creating two levels of citizenship; he hints at selecting refugees based on their religion rather than need, not that many refugees have been accepted anyway.

These are messages designed to appeal to a certain faction of the electorate - the one that is ready to wrap itself in the flag and be convinced by a phantom menace conjured up by an administration that is willing to divide communities if that is the price of winning.

The truth is a Canadian is much more likely to be killed by a moose than a terrorist but facts are dispensable at such a critical stage of fighting to stay in 22 Sussex Drive.

The role of democratically elected governments is to protect citizens, not foster their fears of others for partisan purposes.

Surely there are some votes that are just too costly.

Should religion be used a a code for ‘other’, for ‘not us’, for justifying resentment?

Harper considers the niqab to be “rooted in a culture that is anti-women”, yet the woman who fought him in the courts says she is educated and not oppressed, that she made the choice to wear her niqab when she was 15, much to the astonishment of her parents and siblings in Pakistan.

It is true that women in countries such as Saudi Arabia and parts of Afghanistan are forced by men to wear the niqab or the burka, and if Harper wants to crusade for them, bring it on.

The reality is he is not interested in them. He is using them and disingenuously transposing their ‘oppression’ onto the very few Muslim women in Canada who cover their heads, and sometimes part of their faces.

As a professor of Middle Eastern Studies recently pointed out, Mr Harper seemed to have no problem when the men in the Vatican directed Mrs Harper to cover her head when she met the Pope.


(Canadians vote on October 19 and the latest polls indicate the Conservatives to be trailing Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party with the official opposition NDP in 3rd place. Canada however has a First Past the Post system and Harper’s majority government has just 39% of the vote)