Untangling the “Systemic” Nature of Islamophobia

August 22, 2021

Last March, 2021, the Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS) was pleased to host the online platform for Under Layered Suspicion: A Review of CRA Audits of Muslim-led Charities. The report was the fruit of a collaborative research and engagement process led by Anver Emon, Director of the IIS, and Nadia Z. Hasan, Chief Operations Officer of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

Mapping the Inflow of Systemic Islamophobia

The report outlined and illustrated with pinpointed analysis a concerning pattern of what seems quite rightly to be called systemic Islamophobia in Canada’s federal auditing agency. Systemic Islamophobia intersects with a range of concerns among stakeholders across Canada about systemic racism and discrimination. For instance, at Universities across Canada, administrators are taking aim at systemic biases in faculty hiring, curriculum design, and so on. This endeavor intersects with critical concerns about systemic Islamophobia. The most recent issue of Islam in the City, for example, contains student essays on the affective experience of Islamophobia among Muslim medical professionals in a context of pandemic. In professional and institutional contexts, it’s apparent to many involved that the real challenge lies in unpacking how such biases operate at the everyday level, in those moments of discretionary decision-making by what Judith Butler might call “petty sovereigns”. Whether in the medical profession, at the University, or in the Federal Government, the task of mapping how systemic racism and bias is given oxygen, and takes shape in the ordinary course of business as usual, is the stuff of the humanities and social sciences, and so rightfully is a task that we were all too glad to undertake with respect to the systemic Islamophobia that many felt (but could not prove) took shape in ordinary tax audits. Through an examination of three organizations and their tax audits, we were able to identify how that systemic Islamophobia operates to inform how evidence is collected, selected, and privileged; how secondary literature is read; and how the discourse of “transparency” hid a more pernicious operation of standards, guidelines, and policies that on their face disproportionally targeted Muslims.

That kind of systemic Islamophobia and its everyday operations get a lot harder to map, however, when we consider the violence that rocked London, Ontario on June 6, 2021.  On that day, a white male drove his truck into a Muslim Pakistani family out on a walk. Initial reports suggested the attack was deliberate, and the perpetrator has since been charged with committing a terrorism offense, among others. We will need to wait for the trial to better understand how this young White male turned to such a violent and deadly form of extremist radicalization.  Whatever that prosecution may reveal, the violence left many devastated. The IIS’s Reading Muslims project responded with a series of essays reflecting on the violence.

National Summit of Islamophobia

With Under Layered Suspicion released, we were pleased to see it referenced across Canada in different and varied community consultations, especially as prelude to the Federal Government’s Summit on Islamophobia, held in July 2021 in response to the London attack.  Muslim-led civil society organizations advocated fiercely that day for greater transparency and accountability in CRA audits of their charitable organizations; moreover, they were able to use the study on audits as an example of the larger context of government enabled Islamophobia.  These organizations and their representatives make considerable contributions to Canada’s democratic landscape. They are a backbone to the varied and diverse Muslim communities that pepper Canada, often supporting communities that live on the margins and have little support except from these organizations. As these organizations operate under an interminable cloud of suspicion based on highly suspect policies, their capacity to support communities at risk is necessarily diminished. So too is the quality of our Canadian democracy.

The Minister of National Revenue later pledged to respond to concerns about CRA audits of Muslim-led charities by tasking the Taxpayers’ Ombudsperson with the duty to investigate.  The major federal parties have also included CRA reform on their platforms as they now campaign in an impending election.  These are positive developments. But they are just a start.

More to the Map of Systemic Islamophobia

Missing at the Summit was Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland, whose ministry has carriage of the anti-terrorism financing policy that was identified in Under Layered Suspicion as facially and expressly suspect.  Missing at the Summit was a robust discussion of how the three levels of government themselves enable systemic Islamophobia; rather, the governments were presented as if neutral arbiters between citizens at odds with one another.  Missing at the Summit and subsequent discussions is how FINTRAC and our financial services industry in Canada perpetuate Islamophobia by surveilling the movement of Muslim money.  This is especially alarming today given the turmoil in Afghanistan and the international community’s freezing of any and all Afghan assets held in domestic banks—a recipe for a humanitarian crisis in the offing. 

There remains much work to do. Over the coming year, as the IIS continues to foster advanced research across a wide range of disciplines, it will continue the work of leveraging academic research to recalibrate public conversations currently taking shape across all three levels of government and different sectors of our society.