Canada’s misplaced tolerance? Or your misplaced fear?

by Guest Contributor Krista, originally published at Muslim Lookout

Be prepared for some major eye-rolling in this article from the Calgary Herald. In it, Mahfooz Kanwar praises Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney (see here for why this is a bad idea), and berates Canadians that he perceives as not having “assimilated” enough. A Muslim originally from Pakistan, Kanwar spends the article extolling the perfection of Canada’s values and culture, and blaming all problems on those immigrants who bring foreign baggage with them into this happy utopia.

Kanwar’s definitions of “Canadian” identity and values are disturbingly narrow. It seems to apply only to those values already existing among people living in Canada, who have good values such as “equality.” People who move to Canada, according to Kanwar, need to adopt Canadian values, and lose (or at least hide) anything they brought from their home country. At no point does Kanwar allow for the possibility that there might be Canadian values that aren’t so great, or that our actual track record for “tolerance” and “equality” isn’t exactly as impressive as we’d like to think. He also never acknowledges that there might be some “foreign” values that could actually enrich or improve Canadian society. Immigrants are called to adopt “mainstream” Canadian ideas and behaviours, and the assumption is that these must be necessarily better than the ideas and behaviours that immigrants brought with them.

Kanwar also calls for all immigrants to be unquestioningly patriotic and undividedly loyal to Canada, which is not a standard that most Canadian-born (and white) Canadians are ever called to adhere to. He writes, for example, that “Those who come here of their own volition and stay here must be truly patriotic Canadians or go back.” As a white Canadian whose family has been here for several generations, I have never been told that I should “go back” anywhere, despite a history of acts that I am sure Kanwar would classify as deeply unpatriotic. I am disturbed at Kanwar’s argument that all immigrants should have to adopt an uncritical sense of national pride in order to belong here, and that there does not appear to be any room for immigrants to be at all critical of Canada (or of the overall concepts of patriotism and nationalism, which I would also argue are worth critiquing) if they want to be considered worthy of living here.

Kanwar’s claim that “I am a Canadian Muslim, not a Muslim Canadian” also worries me. He seems to imply that in order to be acceptable Canadians, Muslims must put Canada first, even above their faith. Without wanting to challenge Kanwar’s own right to identify himself in that way, I would argue that for many (most?) Muslims, to do this would be contrary to their very understanding of Islam. After all, the whole “no god but God” thing isn’t meant to apply only in certain circumstances. Moreover, what’s the point of asking people to rank those identities? Can’t we acknowledge that it’s possible to be fully both (if one so chooses) without having to specify the order in which they’re expressed?

And then there are the weird gender dynamics:

Whoever comes to Canada must learn the limits of our system. We do not kill our daughters or other female members of our families who refuse to wear hijab, niqab or burka which are not mandated by the Qur’an anyway. We do not kill our daughters if they date the “wrong” men. A 17-year-old Sikh girl should not have been killed in British Columbia by her father because she was caught dating a Caucasian man.

We do not practise the dowry system in Canada, and do not kill our brides because they did not bring enough dowry. Millions of female fetuses are aborted every year in India, and millions of female infants have been killed by their parents in India and China. Thousands of brides in India are burned to death in their kitchens because they did not bring enough dowry into a marriage. Some 30,000 Sikhs living abroad took the dowries but abandoned their brides in India in 2005. This is not accepted in Canada.

In some countries, thousands of women are murdered every year for family or religious honour. We should not hide behind political correctness and we should expose the cultural and religious background of these heinous crimes, especially if it happens in Canada. We should also expose those who bring their cultural baggage containing the social custom of female circumcision. I was shocked when I learned about two cases of this barbaric custom practised in St. Catharines, Ont. a few years ago.

He’s not only talking here about Muslims, but many of his comments refer directly or indirectly to Muslim communities. What I find interesting is that almost all of the examples in his article of the problems that immigrants apparently bring to Canada are directly linked to gender. More specifically, it is about what “we” do and do not do to “our” women, as in “we” do not kill our daughters, or our brides.

Reading this, I get the sense that this “we” refers not only to the good, assimilated immigrants (and, of course, to the infallible mainstream non-immigrant Canadian population), but that it also refers, implicitly but rather crucially, to men. Women are present only insofar as their bodies can be used to demonstrate their husbands’ or fathers’ worthiness (or unworthiness) as Canadians. There are some moments where we might imagine the “we” to be potentially female as well, but all gender-specific references to the actors are male, and all of the people being acted upon are female. Moreover, they are “our” women – still possessed by this “us,” and at “our” mercy, with little indication that they are able to act for themselves.

It is ironic that Kanwar speaks so strongly against using women’s bodies to convey matters of honour, and yet proceeds to use women as a way to prove some kind of alternate “good Canadian” identity. Even if this is done only on a rhetorical level, it still constructs women as the representations of cultural identity, symbolic of the level of Canadian-ness that the men in their lives have apparently reached. The unharmed bodies of “our” women are used to support “our” claims to civilisation, while the murdered and injured bodies of women from those “barbaric” communities are further used, in contrast, to demonstrate how far “we” have come. In all cases, the women are still silent and passive.

In this way, Kanwar’s strategy differs less than he might hope from the practices of those he criticises. Although he condemns violence against women, he does so without acknowledging any agency that women may have, or the fact that a society that truly values gender equality might be best to devise ways of expressing such values that go beyond simply proclaiming its merit by listing all the forms of violence that it doesn’t commit. Instead, women in his article are only present to further his point, and to add to an alarmist and xenophobic analysis of Canadian society.

Kanwar’s conclusion, that Canadian values and national identity are being eroded by the influx of immigrants who bring conflicts and loyalties from overseas, erroneously and dangerously paints newcomers to Canada as inherently violent and suspect. Instead of acknowledging that Canada is not perfect, or that it has always benefited from immigration (often in very exploitative ways), this article adds fuel to racist anti-immigrant sentiments. Ironically, it is these sentiments that, I would argue, really are a threat to Canada and to Canadians of all backgrounds.