Names Like Mohamed
Ever since the Bush administration decided to blow the hell out of Afghanistan in order to destroy a terrorist network that might not exist, the Canadian press has developed something of a paranoid streak regarding the "war on terror." Though routinely critical of American foreign policy, Canadian newspapers have also run their share of "it could happen here, too, you know" editorials. Could Canada be a target of terror? What would that mean? In my more cynical moments, I wondered whether the pundits wanted a terrorist plot against Canadians in order to somehow demonstrate that Canada mattered on the world stage.
This week, they appear to have gotten their wish.
In conjunction with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (yes, that's the Mounties) arrested a group of seventeen men who were alleged to have planned attacks on major Canadian symbols such as the Peace Tower in Ottawa and the CN Tower in Toronto. All arrestees were Muslim and the tip off came when the Canadian Fertilizer Institute (yes, really) spotted an unusually large order.
In many ways, the arrests are unremarkable in this day and age. But the response in Canada is remarkable - at least to me. Though Canada actively cultivates an international reputation as a liberal, forward thinking country ("tolerance" and "multicultural" are big buzzwords here), it has a rather spotted history when it comes to matters of race. Partly, this is because the Francophone-Anglophone divide dominates political discourse the way that the black-white binary operates in American politics. Each operates as an important political cleavage, but one that obscures others. Partly, this is because of the mistaken belief that Canada is a largely "white" country. Either way, I have slowly become aware in many public fora, there is an impoverished language of race in this country.
Or I could simply call it what it is: racism.
On June 4th, a west-end Toronto mosque had its windows broken. That evening, the Islamic Centre held a news conference to denounce the violence against Muslims in this country. The following morning, a front page article in The Globe and Mail by their star writer Christy Blatchford mocked the news conference. Here are some quotes from the piece:
As Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, who came to the building to offer his assurances that Muslims and Muslim institutions will be protected, said at one point: "Hatred in any form and certainly in its expression in violence and damage to property will not be tolerated."
Thank God: Windows everywhere in Canada's largest city are safe, especially windows in mosques. The war on windows will be won, whatever the cost.
As if broken windows are ever simply broken windows. Ask any student of Jewish history about the meaning of broken glass at a place of worship. As any student of the history of lynching about the meaning of broken glass. It is a very direct form of symbolic violence. Broken windows are a warning that bones will be next. But not to Christie Blatchford. To her, it's a trifle. We've lost perspective she says, since there was a plot against Canada by a network of terrorists. Never mind that nobody has been convicted of anything yet, and never mind that vigilante violence against innocent people is a totally unacceptable response to terrorism. No, the thing to do is to mock Muslims' concern for their own safety because white people feel threatened:
Even before I knew for sure that they're all Muslims, I suspected as much from what I saw on the tube, perhaps because I am a trained observer, or you know, because I have eyes. The accused men are mostly young and mostly bearded in the Taliban fashion. They have first names like Mohamed, middle names like Mohamed and last names like Mohamed. Some of their female relatives at the Brampton courthouse who were there in their support wore black head-to-toe burkas (now there's a sight to gladden the Canadian female heart: homegrown burka-wearers darting about just as they do in Afghanistan), which is not a getup I have ever seen on anyone but Muslim women.
After this screed, Blatchford steps far enough back to admit that "tolerance" is important and that additional police patrols in Muslim neighborhoods are a good thing. But such comments are disingenuous after mocking the proceedings and even the police chief, who had bothered to turn up.
Even given Canada's impoverished language of race, I was shocked to see this on the front page of Canada's national newspaper. Stumped. When four Mounties were shot out west at a marijuana grow-op two years ago, there was no talk of how the shooters whiteness or Christianity might have caused the shooting. No, it was just a crazy drug-dealer who had ties to organized crime. But somehow decent Muslims' efforts to distance themselves from the acts of extremists earn Blatchford's scorn. For her, the playing field is not even - different groups play by different rules. Indeed, the tone of her article suggests that she believes threats to some people matter more than threats to others. It is worth noting that the Globe and Mail ran no such mocking front-page commentary piece when it reported on the massacre in Haditha. Indeed, nobody is linking the cold-blooded killings to the ethnic or religious background of the American soldiers. Though the names of the Marines involved are not easily available - yet - I will predict that there will be no snarky comments about how they had first names like Michael, middle names like Michael and last names like Michael.
Yesterday’s letters to the editor column contained outraged responses to Blatchford’s commentary piece, but none that were printed noted the real embarrassment. It’s one thing for a single individual to write racist and hateful prose; it’s another for a paper that considers itself the “national newspaper” to print a racist article on its front page. Other papers like the Toronto Star and Le Devoir have had more critical coverage of the RCMP’s arrests. At best the Globe and Mail is a centrist paper, and even that is in question after they have forced out one of their three left-of-center columnists and pandered to the new conservative government. Like the New York Times or Washington Post, The Globe and Mail is a “paper of record.” With that designation comes a higher responsibility. And they know it. The Globe and Mail is a paper obsessed with the question of what it means to Canadian. Perhaps their choice to print Blatchford’s article on the front page offers us a glimpse into the uglier side of Canadian self-satisfaction. Ugly and hateful.
On September 12th, 2001, I stepped into a classroom of 150 bewildered undergraduates at the University of Pittsburgh who were trying to make sense of what had happened the day before. Students were in no mood to discuss the political economy of communication (the topic scheduled for that day). They wanted an occasion to process their reactions and feelings, so I did my best to offer them one. Midway through that hour – the longest hour of my teaching career – I heard a tearful "why do they hate us?" question in the front row from a young woman who had no reason to know. At that moment, I was stumped as to what to say. It seemed exactly the wrong time for a lecture on the ways in which American foreign policy had ravaged parts of the world this student had never been, and yet I also recognized that her ignorance was not innocent; it was symptomatic. In the end, I said nothing and called on another student. But if a Canadian student were ever to pose the same question to me, I would answer them with a quote form Christie Blatchford.
Jonathan Sterne lives in Montreal, teaches at McGill University, and is a member of the Bad Subject Production Team