Who belongs and who doesn’t?

At the second U. S. Presidential debate—a town hall-style forum—Gorbah Hamed asked how, with Islamophobia on the rise, the candidates would help people like her deal with the consequences of being labeled a threat to the country. It was a shocking, though sadly not a surprising, question.

Even though many Canadians consider rhetoric in the U. S. to be extreme, we’re not immune to xenophobia. A survey this summer by polling firm MARU/VCR&C measured public perceptions of ethnicity and immigration in Ontario, and found only a third of Ontarians have a positive impression of Islam. Should we be surprised?

I’ve asked Professor Aisha Ahmad, assistant professor of political science here at U of T Scarborough who teaches International Security and International Relations of Ethnic Conflict, to explain.

Over the past year, we have witnessed an alarming increase in hostilities towards migrants and minorities, most especially Muslims. In both Europe and the United States, extremist politicians have strategically used xenophobic rhetoric to incite fear and bolster their own power, assigning blame for their political and economic failures to these targeted populations. Although the majority of people around the world find these tactics abhorrent, a sizeable minority has taken the bait.

Canada has been no different in this regard. Last year during the Canadian election we heard similar anti-Muslim rhetoric, as Conservative politicians stoked fears and hatreds to distract from their dismal economic performance. Even after getting trounced at the polls, some Canadian Conservatives like Kellie Leitch, who was responsible for the infamous “barbaric cultural practices” hotline proposal, have continued to aggressively target immigrants and minorities in the name of “Canadian values,” hoping to shore up support from their base.

The consequences of these cheap political tactics have been extreme. Over the past year, there has been a shocking spike in hate crimes and violence, including physical attacks on men in turbans (by those so ignorant that they mistake Sikhs for Muslims), assaults of women wearing hijabs (perpetrated by both men and women), and calls for outright bans of Muslim migrants, in clear violation of domestic and international law. 

This anti-Muslim platform has also emboldened and empowered a plethora of neo-Nazi and white supremacist militant groups, who have taken advantage of this new political space to justify organized violence. Last week the FBI arrested three members of a domestic terrorist group in Kansas, called The Crusaders, for plotting a wide range of attacks on Muslims, including kidnapping, rape, murder, and bombing a local mosque on the day after the US Presidential election. 

This escalation in hostilities occurred rapidly, and the situation is now spiraling out of control. What explains the dramatic rise in xenophobic backlash against migrants and minorities? How have societies built upon the very idea of religious toleration now become a battleground for these extremists?

As a security specialist, I can confirm that there is a direct link between the toxic political rhetoric and the spike in violence. The existing scholarly research clearly shows that when weak leaders choose to incite racial hatreds and xenophobic sentiments to shore up support, using minorities as a scapegoat for their political failures, society turns violent. We have seen this happen before, in Nazi Germany, in Rwanda, and in the former Yugoslavia. When leaders use this malevolent strategy to rile up hatreds and seize political power, the results are devastating. 

To fully understand this alarming new trend, however, we need to look at political situations inside Europe and the United States that are fuelling these hatreds. To do so, I therefore organized an expert panel at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs on the rise of xenophobia against Muslims, as the first event in our new Islam and Global Affairs initiative. Even though we met on the Friday night before the long weekend, our conference hall was fully packed with concerned citizens. 

Professor Aisha Ahmad offers opening remarks. Left to right: Professor Chris Cochrane and session moderator, the distinguished journalist Brian Stewart.

On stage were four key experts from our University of Toronto network: Randall Hansen, the director of the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, explained how xenophobia led to the Brexit backlash; Chris Cochrane, a political scientist from U of T Scarborough, shared his data on anti-Muslim hostilities in Canada, America, and Europe; Anna Korteweg, a sociologist from U of T Mississauga and Phil Triadafilopoulos, a political scientist from U of T Scarborough, presented insights from their joint project on xenophobic reactions to migration in Europe. Together, the panelists unpacked the very real social drivers that have made it possible for power-hungry political leaders to successfully provoke this new xenophobic backlash.

U of T Scarborough student Yusuf Bulbulia kicks off the Q&A session.

What was most uplifting about the evening was the powerful presence of our U of T Scarborough students, who suited up and came out in force to this high profile event. Our students rose to the occasion and led the charge in the Q&A session, probing the policy implications of these troubling issues. Indeed, these are complex political problems that require the utmost professionalism to tackle. With our campus’ students at the forefront, however, we can rest assured that our future leaders are well equipped to meet these tremendous challenges.