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MPs calling out hate while disparaging Israel criticism 'duplicitous': Muslim groups

OTTAWA — Muslim groups called on political parties to work harder to stamp out Islamophobia in Canada on Thursday, and to not paint criticism of Israel as antisemitic.
Stephen Brown, CEO, National Council of Canadian Muslims, speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Muslim groups called on political parties to work harder to stamp out Islamophobia in Canada on Thursday, and to not paint criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

The concerns centred on condemnations of pro-Palestinian rallies and advocacy since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

"The response that the Muslim community in Canada, for months, has been receiving from our elected leaders has been duplicitous," National Council of Canadian Muslims head Stephen Brown said Thursday.

He told the House justice committee that it is contradictory for politicians to call out discrimination while vilifying people for attending peaceful pro-Palestinian protests.

"One that says they care about our concerns, and the other that immediately turns around and further spreads misinformation and makes deliberate attempt to villainize an entire community as hateful and intolerant people," he testified.

His testimony was part of a parliamentary study into Islamophobia in Canada, which followed a similar study of antisemitism. Police have reported an increase in crimes targeting Jews and Muslims across Canada since the Israel-Hamas war started last October.

Brown's group called on MPs to pass a motion to denounce anti-Palestinian racism and urge that civil liberties be protected, "including the ability to critique foreign governments."

The Council of Agencies Serving South Asians also said politicians have maligned people who oppose Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip, which followed a brutal attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 last year.

"We have seen Muslim communities being targeted with Islamophobia because they support the Palestinian people and Palestinian human rights," said Samya Hasan, head of the Toronto-based group.

"We can’t hide from this fact any longer, and this government needed to address this yesterday."

She also decried "shocking silence" by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a press conference last week with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who suggested immigrants were behind shots being fired at a Jewish girls' elementary school in Toronto.

"If we’re going to combat Islamophobia, in all its ugly forms, it’s imperative for this government to walk the talk first," Hasan said.

Pro-Palestinian protests demonstrating against Israel's military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip have attracted controversy across the country.

MPs from several parties have raised concerns about particular rallies, including one in which a supporter referred to a Toronto neighbourhood with a large Jewish population as a "Zionist-infested area."

At a separate rally in April, someone was heard chanting "long live Oct. 7, long live the resistance" on Parliament Hill.

Jewish groups have denounced chants calling for Palestinians to be free "from the river to the sea," which they say calls for the erasure of Israel entirely.

But activists say the chant is meant instead to call for peace and equal rights in the region.

Imran Ahmed, the Washington-based founder of the Center for Countering Digital Hate advocacy group argued that social-media companies need to be financially punished for algorithms that amplify racist ideas.

Ahmed said this would counteract an incentive for social-media firms to promote emotive, divisive content, which draws more engagement.

"Users are the cattle on social media; we’re the eyeballs for the real customers, which are the advertisers," he testified. "They feel no pressure and it’s time to ratchet up the pressure."

Ahmed said hateful posts normalize attitudes that can encourage people with already violent tendencies, and make minorities feel more vulnerable because the content they see "makes the world seem more hateful" than it actually is.

He called it "the illusory truth effect," where people repeatedly exposed to an idea are more likely to believe it is true.

"When we are being bombarded with hate content, we end up concluding there can be no smoke without fire, and we start to normalize hateful attitudes and conspiracy theories and lies," he said.

Throughout Thursday's testimony, witnesses referred to the 2017 attack on a Quebec City mosque that killed six people.

Thursday also marked the anniversary of the 2021 truck attack that killed four relatives of a Muslim family in London, Ont.

"Muslims in Canada are not safe from violent Islamophobia," Brown said. "Islamophobia is real, it has killed and will continue to kill, if this study is not taken seriously."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2024.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press