POLITICS
04/13/2017 04:02 pm ET

Calling Islamophobia A Bad Thing Shouldn't Be Hard. Canada Did It, Yet Congress Still Can't.

Our northern neighbors had the big, messy, national debate about anti-Muslim hate that we still need.

Two resolutions condemning Islamophobia died quietly in the U.S. House of Representatives at the beginning of January, neither having made it out of committee. In their year-and-a-half lifespans, they drew only a few headlines, no debates on the House floor, no protests in the streets.

The next month there was no such silence in Canada.

The author of another anti-Islamophobia resolution stood before the House of Commons in Ottawa and read aloud a sampling of the thousands of bigoted messages and death threats she’d received online.

“We will burn down your mosques, draper head Muslim,” said one message read by Iqra Khalid, a member of the Liberal Party who represents an Ontario district. Khalid is a Muslim who was born in Pakistan and immigrated to Canada as a child.

“Kill her and be done with it,” read another message. “I agree, she is here to kill us. She is sick, and needs to be deported.”

“I’m not going to help them shoot you, I’m going to be there to film you on the ground crying,” said another.

The messages didn’t exactly feel like empty threats. Just a month before, a white supremacist had opened fire on a mosque in Quebec, killing six people praying there.  

As she read the messages, Khalid politely replaced curse words by saying “blank.”

“Blank you gently with a chainsaw, you camel-humping terrorist incubator blank.”  

“Shoot this blank.”

The horrifying messages, sent to Khalid after she introduced the M-103 resolution in the House of Commons, seemed to prove its premise: that anti-Muslim hate in Canada was real and scary, and that the government needed to take a stand.

M-103 called on all members of Parliament to condemn Islamophobia, collect information about hate crimes, and create a committee to investigate how best to combat religious discrimination in Canada. It was not a bill and did not create a new law.

People mourn at a February funeral service for three victims of the Quebec mosque shooting.
Mathieu Belanger/AFP/Getty Images
People mourn at a February funeral service for three victims of the Quebec mosque shooting.

Still, its introduction precipitated heated debates, with some Conservative Party lawmakers taking issue with the word “Islamophobia” itself and arguing that the resolution would somehow stifle free speech.

“If I think of myself, I am afraid that if ISIS jihadists came over, they might cut my head off and rape me. Is that Islamophobia?” Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu said. “I do not know.”

Gladu and other Conservatives pushed for a different resolution, one that condemned all forms of bigotry.

Khalid defined Islamophobia clearly for the House as “the irrational hate of Muslims that leads to discrimination.” Liberal MP Mélanie Joly, the minister of Canadian heritage, called the Conservatives’ new resolution “weakened and watered down.”

“The Conservatives have brought this motion forward in a cynical attempt to serve their political purposes and avoid addressing the real issue concerning Islamophobia,” Joly said.

Anti-Muslim websites were apoplectic over M-103, claiming that it would both criminalize criticism of Islam and lead to the implementation of Sharia law in Canada. Such falsehoods fueled tense anti-M-103 protests across the country.

Canadians protest against M-103 in Toronto, part of a wave of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations across the count
Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images
Canadians protest against M-103 in Toronto, part of a wave of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations across the country in March.

Meanwhile, the press churned out over 1,000 news articles about the resolution in the space of just a few months, according to a search on Lexis-Nexis.

Finally, in March, the House of Commons, led by its Liberal majority, passed M-103 by a vote of 201 to 91. Although it was still just a nonbinding resolution, Khalid had accomplished something significant: a big, messy, very public discussion about Islamophobia in Canada.

That’s the discussion that former Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) wanted here in the United States.  

Honda, who lost his bid for re-election in November, was a co-sponsor of House Resolution 569, which denounced “in the strongest terms the increase of hate speech, intimidation, violence, vandalism, arson, and other hate crimes targeted against mosques, Muslims, or those perceived to be Muslim.”

He chose to sponsor the resolution out of personal experience. He and his family were among some 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry incarcerated in so-called internment camps during World War II, where they lived behind barbed wire under the watch of armed guards.

Honda argued last year that what had happened to his family “could happen again” — this time to Muslim Americans, who were increasingly scapegoated and targeted for hateful speech in the wake of the 2015 terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Hate crimes against Muslims rose 67 percent in 2015. While the FBI hasn’t released hate crime statistics for 2016 yet, media reports show Muslims are still being targeted.

Former Rep. Mike Honda warned that what was done to Japanese American families, like his, during World War II could be d
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
Former Rep. Mike Honda warned that what was done to Japanese American families, like his, during World War II could be done again to others.

Honda was especially horrified in November, when Carl Higbie, a retired Navy SEAL and prominent surrogate for then President-elect Donald Trump, cited the World War II prison camps as “precedent” for a Muslim registry ― which was one of Trump’s campaign proposals.

The important lesson of his family’s story, Honda told The Huffington Post, is that “what they did to us was unconstitutional and they made it legal.” HR 569, he said, could have sparked “a debate about Islamophobia in the bright sunlight” ― like M-103 did in Canada ― and might have been a step toward defending Muslim Americans from future persecution.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) also had an anti-Islamophobia resolution ― HR 413 ― die in the House at the end of the last Congress. HR 413 sought to recognize and honor “the victims of hate crimes of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.” It specifically cited nine murders of Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim in the five weeks after 9/11.

In a statement to HuffPost this week, Johnson said she wrote HR 413 as a rebuke to years of Islamophobic speech and government policy since the U.S. launched its “War on Terror.”

“A general climate of fear and anger toward Muslims and those who appear to be Muslim was fomented,” Johnson said. “Politicians kept using [such] terms as ‘Islamic jihadism’ in their speeches. This climate of fear has manifested itself for the past 16 years in institutional policies that view American Muslims as a threat. This climate of fear is unjust.”

She also said her Muslim constituents are worried.

“There is a vibrant, active Muslim community in my congressional district and not a day passes that I don’t hear from Muslim American constituents in North Texas about their concerns, fears or well-being for themselves or their families,” Johnson said.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson said that "not a day passes" that she doesn't hear from worried Muslim American constituents.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson said that "not a day passes" that she doesn't hear from worried Muslim American constituents.

Half of all resolutions introduced in the House of Representatives are never passed, many falling between the cracks during a busy legislative schedule. And the two anti-Islamophobia resolutions in the 114th Congress faced an especially uphill battle: They were introduced and sponsored by Democrats in a Republican-controlled chamber.

Still, resolutions condemning hate and violence against millions of Americans would seem like an easy “yes” vote for any member of Congress.

Robert McCaw, national government affairs director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, would put the blame in part on the rise of Trump.

“The fear among Republicans,” McCaw told HuffPost last year, “is that if they stand up to Islamophobia, they are going to be challenged by the 70 percent of the GOP that wants to ban Muslims entering the U.S.” ― another one of Trump’s campaign proposals. “There’s a lack of moral backbone in the Republican Party to stand up to Islamophobia and that’s what needs to be addressed,” he said.

The failure of the two resolutions to even get out of committee suggests how deeply anti-Muslim sentiment is entrenched in the House, with or without Trump. Among the committee members responsible for denying the resolutions a vote were three of the most Islamophobic congressmen: Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Steve King (R-Iowa) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).

Reps. Steve King, Trent Franks and Louie Gohmert (left to right) are known for their baldly anti-Muslim comments.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
Reps. Steve King, Trent Franks and Louie Gohmert (left to right) are known for their baldly anti-Muslim comments.

Franks once endorsed a virulently anti-Muslim film titled “The Third Jihad: Radical Islam’s Vision for America” and spoke at a conference called “The Enemy of Freedom: Islam.”

Gohmert once claimed that Muslim terrorists were sending pregnant women to the U.S. to give birth to “future terrorists” who would “help destroy our way of life.”

And King ― who recently made headlines for tweeting a white nationalist message ― has said that the government should spy on mosques and that Muslims should have to renounce Sharia before entering the U.S.

“I don’t know if we as a nation are at the point yet where we’ll have a [Congress] condemning Islamophobia,” McCaw said this week. “America right now is facing its highest uptick of hate crimes in years, and we have a presidency unwilling to address its own anti-Muslim bias or the hate crimes happening on the streets,” he added.

While Canada transitioned from a Conservative government under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper to a Liberal one under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in its last federal election, America did essentially the opposite.

An Iranian refugee in Oregon returned to his home last month to find it covered in anti-Muslim graffiti.
Zane Sparling/Portland Tribune
An Iranian refugee in Oregon returned to his home last month to find it covered in anti-Muslim graffiti.

“The resolution in Canada addresses the systemic anti-Muslim bias that was seen to culminate in the Harper government,” McCaw said, “and under Trudeau’s leadership, the Canadian people are acknowledging the harmful effects of Islamophobia in their society.”

McCaw sees one bright spot in Congress with the April 5 passage of Senate Resolution 518, which condemns all hate crimes targeting “religious, racial, and ethnic minorities,” including Muslims. It also calls on federal law enforcement to expedite hate crime investigations.

“So while we haven’t seen individual resolutions singling out Islamophobia passing Congress, we have seen resolutions against all forms of hate,” he said.

If a measure like that can find bipartisan support and get adopted, McCaw said, maybe “there is hope” for other legislation to combat Islamophobia.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who co-sponsored HR 569 last year with Honda, told HuffPost recently that he plans to reintroduce that resolution sometime this year. Last month in his district, a Muslim family returned home to find a Quran destroyed and “FUCK MUSLIMS” written on the wall. 

Rep. Johnson said she also plans to reintroduce HR 413 this year. Last month at the University of Texas in Dallas, a few miles from Johnson’s district, someone dumped Qurans in a campus toilet. 

America does not do a good job of tracking incidents of hate and bias. We need your help to create a database of such incidents across the country, so we all know what’s going on. Tell us your story.

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