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A motion to quell anti-Muslim hate shouldn’t be up for debate, but here we are

Perhaps while Canadian and American trade negotiators are "tweaking" NAFTA, our government could slap a tariff on some of the worst imports that arrive from the U.S. You know, like Bachelor in Paradise. Diet Mountain Dew. The tactic of using anti-Muslim sentiment to rile up a political base. We'll take all the other great imports from our American neighbours, but those things they can keep.

You might think that condemning Islamophobia would be a fairly easy thing for our political class to get behind, especially less than a month after six Muslim men were slain at their mosque during prayers. Quebec's legislature has already done it. In the wake of the killings, The Globe and Mail reported a spike in anti-Islamic hate crimes reported in the province. Yet the inoffensive motion by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid to study and report on Islamophobia and other discrimination was treated as the first step to the entire country losing its freedom of speech, and its mind.

The entertainingly shrill right-wing outlet The Rebel Media falsely labelled Ms. Khalid's motion "sharia creep," which is much more likely to have readers snapping their jaws than the dry, parliamentary language of the actual motion.

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Related: Liberals, Tories spar over Islamophobia motion in full-day debate

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Yes, it's a motion, not a bill, not a law, not proposed legislation. It has no power to change our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to silence expression, or to have sharia courts convened outside every Tim Hortons. Here is what Ms. Khalid's motion, supported by the Liberals and the NDP, says in part: "the government should: (a) recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear; (b) condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination." It asks the heritage committee to study the issue and "develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia," and report its findings to the House.

Terrifying, isn't it? There are few things as shiver-inducing as collecting data and making recommendations to curtail racial and religious discrimination. Yet, to a certain portion of the population – like the ones who called Ms. Khalid "a terrorist" and "a cancer to Canada" online – even this basic request for decency is considered the first step to a totalitarian state.

Oh, wait, there is something equally alarming, and that's the sight of various Conservative Party leadership candidates fanning the flames of this hysteria. Kellie Leitch, who has already floated values-testing as her shiniest (and emptiest) campaign balloon, has launched a petition and a website called "stop M-103." It features, for those who can't be bothered to read the actual motion, a helpful graphic of a young woman with her mouth taped shut, and this declaration: "No religion should be singled out for special consideration." You could argue, equally, that no religion should be singled out for special abuse, but I'm not sure that would play as well with her supporters in the Conservative Party. (A poll by iPolitics and Mainstreet Research this week indicated that 48 per cent of Conservative Party members would support a Donald Trump-style travel ban from some Muslim-majority countries.)

On Wednesday night, Rebel Media held a "rally for free speech" opposing the motion in Toronto at which four candidates for the Conservative Party leadership spoke. A variety of buzzwords were flown in from America specially for the night. Evidence, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found. Perhaps it was stopped at the border and is currently languishing in a customs official's office. "Chronic political correctness is strangling free speech in Canada, and it has to stop," said Pierre Lemieux. Kellie Leitch proclaimed herself happy to be among "severely normal people" – as opposed to the rest of us maladjusted weirdos, presumably. Chris Alexander said he couldn't support a motion that "doesn't mention the number one threat in the world today, which is Islamic jihadist terrorism." Really? The "number one threat?" Perhaps that idea also arrived on a flight from Washington.

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And the hysteria flows freely both ways, as any good free-trade deal should. U.S. websites in the business of stirring up controversy over any issue involving the words "Muslim" or "Islam" have suggested that the non-binding motion will somehow change Canadian law, and lead to jail terms for offering any criticism of the religion. One website referred to Ms. Khalid, the MP for Mississauga-Erin Mills, as a "radical Muslim immigrant." That's one of the kinder things that's been said about her.

Ms. Khalid's motion was rejected by some Conservative MPs because it failed to define Islamophobia, and offered a counter-motion that condemned racism and discrimination against religious groups, but did not make reference to Islamophobia (neither motion has been voted on yet). There has been disagreement over what, exactly, Islamophobia entails. That is probably a book's worth of debate, but if you take "phobia" to mean an irrational or abnormal fear, the tenor of this evidence-free, alarmist and manufactured controversy suggests it's painfully close to the target.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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