Anti-Islamophobia debate might define both Liberals and Conservatives

In the wake of the Quebec City mosque massacre, the Liberals see their anti-Islamophobia motion as a defining matter of leadership. Conservatives, meanwhile, have drawn a line under Islamophobia and want to see the word defined.

Liberals want to talk about leadership, while Conservatives wrestle with defining the problem

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid's Motion 103 calls for the heritage committee to conduct a study of Islamophobia and religious discrimination and provide recommendations for how the government could respond to such prejudice. Critics see it as the first step toward a prohibition against any criticism of Islamic practice or belief. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Appearing before reporters earlier this week to explain that the Liberal government would be putting its authority behind a Liberal MP's motion calling for a parliamentary condemnation and study of Islamophobia, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly said a "question of leadership" was at hand.

She returned to the theme Thursday as she explained why the Liberals would not support a Conservative counter-proposal that drops references to Islamophobia in favour of a general focus on religious discrimination.

"Those of us in leadership positions have a social responsibility to take a strong stance on these matters, to be clear, to be courageous, to lead," she said.

There were echoes here of something Justin Trudeau said two weeks ago when he rose in the House of Commons to address the shooting at a mosque in Quebec City that left six men dead.

"I want to remind each and every one of my 337 colleagues that we are all leaders in our communities," the prime minister said. "It is at times like these that our communities need our leadership the most."

People attend a vigil on Jan. 30 for victims of the deadly mosque shooting in Quebec City. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

So, at a moment of anxiety, the Liberals see a moment to define leadership.

Conservatives, meanwhile, have drawn a line under Islamophobia and want to see the word defined.

But, beyond the semantics of Motion 103, the Conservatives now seem in danger of being defined by the loudest voices of objection in their midst.

The debate on Motion 103

M-103 was tabled in December, following an e-petition on the same topic posted in June.

Less than two months after Liberal MP Iqra Khalid brought the motion forward, a gunman opened fire during prayers at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre. And in the House on Thursday, Joly could cite a list of other hateful acts.

Still, the motion came to the floor of the House for debate this week with loud voices of opposition claiming that an attack on free speech is at hand.

The motion requests that the heritage committee conduct a study of Islamophobia and religious discrimination and provide recommendations for how the government could respond to such prejudice. To critics, this is the first step toward a prohibition against any criticism of Islamic practice or belief.

Some Conservative MPs allowed the House to unanimously adopt a motion condemning Islamophobia in October on a quick voice vote. But now Conservatives are concerned that Islamophobia needs to be defined: a literal reading of the word would suggest that criticism of the religion, not merely its adherents, is at issue.

During debate on Wednesday, Khalid and the Conservative critic, David Anderson, actually offered similar definitions: "the irrational hatred of Muslims that leads to discrimination" and "hatred against Muslims," respectively.

Saskatchewan Conservative MP David Anderson tabled a counter-proposal to Motion 103 that focuses on all religious discrimination, rather than Islamophobia specifically. (CBC)

But Khalid hasn't added that to her motion. And the Conservative proposal, tabled by Anderson on Thursday, suggests merely focusing on all religious discrimination instead.

Joly dismissed that as a "watered down" and "cynical" offer, meant to cover up internal Conservative divisions. She insisted MPs shouldn't be afraid to say the word.

Rising shortly after question period to address the Conservative motion, Khalid read aloud the threats and hate she has been subjected to.

"lslamophobia is real," she said.

Trudeau and multiculturalism

Motion 103 is another opportunity for Trudeau to embrace the latest flashpoint in the long story of Canadian multiculturalism: the immigration, integration and acceptance of those of the Muslim faith.

As a candidate for leadership of the Liberal Party, Trudeau addressed an Islamic conference and used the opportunity to discuss Wilfrid Laurier's efforts to unite cultures and religions.

Two years later, in March 2015, he used a long address on liberty and diversity to condemn the Conservative government's attempt to ban the niqab during the swearing of the citizenship oath.

The election campaign that brought Trudeau's Liberals to government was then defined, in part, by the niqab and Conservative proposals to strip citizenship from dual nationals when convicted of terrorism and to create a hotline for reporting "barbaric cultural practices."

Celebrating his victory on election night, Trudeau recalled his encounter with a Muslim woman in a hijab who told him of her hope that her child wouldn't be a second-class citizen.

Justin Trudeau gives his election victory speech in Montreal on Oct. 19, 2015. (Jim Young/Reuters)

There are philosophical underpinnings to Trudeau's thinking — based on the guarantees of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an argument that diversity creates strength and an acknowledgement that core values must persist alongside multiculturalism — but an outspoken commitment to pluralism has also become a powerful piece of Trudeau's brand.

All the more so now that Donald Trump, Brexit and tensions in Europe seem to cast doubt on the success of multiculturalism.

Conservatives rally, Liberals step up pressure

Conservative leadership contender Michael Chong has voiced support for Motion 103, but four of his rivals have touted their opposition in fundraising appeals. Kellie Leitch created a website, with an image from the October 2014 attack on Parliament Hill visible in the background, where those who oppose the motion can sign a petition.

Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch created a website to organize opposition to Motion 103. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Speaking in the House on Thursday, Joly took aim at those actions and the appearance of four Conservative leadership candidates at a "freedom rally" organized by a conservative activist to defend free speech and "stand against sharia law in this country."

At that rally on Wednesday night, the organizer, Ezra Levant, warned that the prime minister was pursuing "massive unvetted, un-integrateable Muslim migration."

Any Conservative who believes their party's losses in 2015 were linked to the niqab, "barbaric cultural practices" and citizenship revocation might see reason to worry in all that.

And the Liberals are pressing the issue.

On Thursday, several Liberal MPs tweeted a link to Trudeau's speech on the niqab. Video of the remarks was then posted to the prime minister's account.

By late in the afternoon, two Liberals had tweeted a graphic touting that "condemning hate is as Canadian as" maple syrup, the charter and Tim Horton's. 

"Call your MP and say yes to #M103," it reads. "#MakeItAwkward."

The serious matters of justice and dignity are no doubt difficult to separate from the politics of the situation.

In terms of leadership, it is to wonder whether some kind of compromise, perhaps merely adding a definition to the existing text of Motion 103, might result in a more united expression of support


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.