Letter from the Editor: The Creeping Cost of Radical Rhetoric
It is difficult to overstate the profoundly negative impact that US President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban has had on the world. From a policy standpoint, the ban is an unmitigated failure, and its shortcomings are well-documented: it does not help – and will likely impede – the ongoing struggle to counter ISIS and other terrorist organizations (ironic, considering its stated aim of increased security); it is a remarkable target for litigation due to its poor legal construction and its absence from the usual interagency vetting process; and – most importantly – it cynically targets the vulnerable, innocent populations who are the most likely victims of the exact type of extremist violence Trump’s administration purports to protect against. And yes, it is a Muslim ban. Many conservatives of the “alternative facts” variety [an unpalatable mixture of thinly-veiled authoritarian politicians, conspiracy theory-based websites peddling white supremacy, and hateful online trolls] have taken to saying, “But it’s not a ban on Muslims! It’s simply a ban on immigration from countries with a history of terrorism! Besides, those countries were identified by Obama.” For those folks who doth protest too much, I invite you to read this, and this, and this.
Beyond the political fallout, I want to talk about the emotional toll the Muslim ban has taken on the global psyche and its human cost. It is no secret that Trump is not the first bigoted populist surfing the recent and rising wave of right-wing anti-Muslim, anti-PoC, anti-feminist, anti-academia rhetoric (see India’s Narendra Modi, France’s Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and Canada's own Kellie Leitch, for starters.) Journalists and academics around the world have dutifully and eloquently noted the parallels between bigoted and brutal populist policies and the extremist factions they supposedly want to protect against. Both Islamophobic populist leaders and Muslim theocracies espouse the banning of specific religious groups and nationalities, make fallacious blanket statements about those with opposing views, and have ties to extremist movements. And those extremist groups all use the same conduit to influence vulnerable people into adopting their views: the internet.
Trump-supporting “alt-right” white nationalist and “Men’s Rights Activism” movements, along with Islamic fundamentalist organizations ISIS and al-Qaeda, are sophisticated in their use of internet forums to target (primarily, but not always) insecure and/or dissatisfied angry young men to instil hatred and fear of other religions, ethnicities, classes, and genders. The parallels are too great to ignore: for every Tamerlan Tsarnaev frequenting cyber al-Qaeda publications, there is an Alexandre Bissonnette expressing solidarity online with Trump and Le Pen and trolling feminist and refugee-support social media pages. The human cost of this online radicalization are the sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, teachers, and community members who will never see their loved ones again.
This week was characterized, for me, by anger, hurt, deep sadness, and the need to act. The Quebec City mosque shooting that took the lives of Azzeddine Soufiane, Abdelkrim Hassane, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Ibrahima Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, and Aboubaker Thabti left me both enraged and devastated. As a child of immigrants, it pained me that these men had sought better lives for themselves and their families in Canada only to have their dreams and goals be so cruelly cut short in a building that represented peace and community. The morning after the attack, I went to work being unable to focus, constantly refreshing news websites and social media pages for new information on the attack, the victims, the perpetrator, all the while getting wrapped up in the vitriolic comments that populate that online pit of hell: the comments sections. I was snapped out of this cycle by my colleagues inviting me to join them for our usual mid-morning coffee break. As we stood in line at Tim Hortons, my boss was describing the process of finding a daycare for his one-year-old daughter. Feeling this mundane conversation was at odds with the heaviness I felt, I let myself drift in and out until I caught the words, “…and this daycare bans certain foods for religious reasons. And right away I knew I wasn’t going to put her in there. It’s not even racism! I just want my kid to grow up around other white kids.”
It hit me like a wallop to the stomach. I was so surprised, I literally wasn’t sure if I’d heard right. Did he just say he wanted his kid to grow up with white kids? To a woman of colour? What would he have said if I hadn't been there? I’m not sure which was worse: the callousness with which he dropped his sentiment, that my other colleagues didn’t seem to react in an offended manner, or that I didn’t say anything. Actually, that’s a lie. I do know which was worse, because my silence has haunted me this entire week. So I went home and I cried. I called my Mom and cried. I talked to my roommate and cried. I hugged my roommate’s cat and cried. I hugged my boyfriend and cried. It hurt. For me, my colleagues' casual bigotry, the Islamophobic comments I’d read online, and the mosque attack felt one and the same, part of an overwhelming wall of willful misunderstanding and hatred that I was not doing enough to dismantle.
I did eventually stop crying, and later that evening I attended the vigil held at the Alberta Legislature grounds to honour the six victims that had died in Quebec City. Seeing the giant, diverse crowd around me made up of brown faces, black faces, white faces, men with yarmulkes, women with hijabs, a man in a ‘Metis Nation’ denim jacket, children with dreamcatcher earrings, students with pride flags on their backpacks, made me tear up again but this time in a way that felt healing. It was the perfect reminder that while I have work to do as an individual to arm myself with information to educate against – and respond to – bigotry, I do not need to work in a vacuum; that I am surrounded by people who are supportive of – and working towards – the same ends. We are not alone.