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An undercurrent of fear

Anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise almost everywhere. Canadians need to be on the lookout for signs of it here.

By David Wilson

A couple of months ago, we ran a cover story on the start of a new Muslim studies program at the United Church’s largest theological school, Emmanuel College in Toronto. You may have noticed that the story generated a lot of reader response in our letters to the editor section and on our website.

What you didn’t see were the letters we couldn’t print. There were a couple dozen of them, and most could be filed under “Islamophobia.” They made their points in different ways, but running through almost all of them was an undercurrent of fear: fear of difference, fear of change, fear of lost privilege.

I do not question the right of readers to weigh in on the subject, nor, I suppose, do I question the right of anyone to hold views that I deem offensive. However, respecting the right to hold those views is one thing; disseminating them is a different matter. A couple of the letters we received probably crossed the line into the Criminal Code’s definition of hate-mongering.

From the controversy over the construction of an Islamic centre and mosque near Ground Zero in New York to a surge in racist violence and xenophobic political movements in Europe, anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise. It may not be as pronounced here as elsewhere — the recent election of Naheed Nenshi as mayor of Calgary was a huge win for Canadian multiculturalism — but it exists nevertheless. The other day in a convenience store, I witnessed a couple of young louts berating the man behind the counter with racist slurs about 9-11. His shrug as they left said it all: it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened.

Islamophobia is like a spreading virus, and while a couple of dozen letters don’t make an epidemic, our experience with the Muslim studies story suggests that no corner of society is completely immune. We tend to dwell on the differences between people rather than the things we hold in common. So maybe we could be more attentive to the subtle ways bigotry is allowed to take root in our midst.

Most of us abhor bigotry in all its forms. When it has a religious dimension, like Islamophobia, people of faith who truly follow the commandment to love thy neighbour are called to action. What better time to step up than Christmas? Moderator Mardi Tindal’s Christmas message about the rich and joyful relationship between a United Church minister and an imam in a small city in southwestern Ontario should provide all the inspiration you need. In this season of giving, in this time of mounting intolerance, perhaps the best gifts we can offer are understanding, respect and friendship.

In November, subscribers in Ontario received a Christmas catalogue from World Vision Canada. A few of you raised concerns about it. To be clear, accepting advertising does not imply we endorse it, nor does it imply that The United Church of Canada endorses it (and in this case, it emphatically does not). This catalogue was paid advertising accepted by The Observer, which operates independently of The United Church of Canada.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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