Two weeks ahead of the Canadian federal elections, Islamic lobby groups are multiplying their efforts to consolidate the “Muslim vote.” Building on the results of the latest national census published in 2003, which ranks Islam as the third largest religion (after Catholicism and Protestantism and ahead of Judaism) for the first time in Canada’s history, Islamic groups are struggling on many fronts to make Canada’s 600,000 Muslims aware of their potential electoral weight.
Last April, almost two months prior to the declaration of general elections, the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) published a report named “Election 2004. Towards Informed and Committed Voting.” Based on an analysis of public statements, electoral objectives and legislative voting records of each of Canada’s 301 elected parliamentarians, the CIC evaluates each one’s record on 20 issues that would promote the development of closer economical ties to Muslim countries and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The average scores were based on the following marks:
A : in agreement with the CIC;
F : in complete disagreement with the CIC
B : partially in agreement with the CIC
The overwhelming majority of the outgoing Liberal (center-left) government’s deputies scored an average of A or B, which silently implies the CIC wishes the so-called "Muslim vote" would reelect the Liberal Party. Widely perceived as the champion of multiculturalism, Canada’s national doctrine, immigration and a foreign policy based more on the U.N. than on Canadian national interests, the Liberal Party has traditionally garnered the vote of “Neo-Canadians."
However, 68 out of 71 deputies of the official opposition, the Conservative Party (center-right), a party known for having supported the American intervention in Iraq, a more strict immigration policy and Israel’s right to defend its citizens from Palestinian terrorism, scored a F average. This result is hardly surprising given that CIC President Mohammed Elmasry has publicly stated he fears the Conservative Party will mutate into a “neocon Party.” “Neocon” is used in the United States and Canada both as a code word for the Bush administration’s so-called “Jewish Cabal” that allegedly rules over the White House and the Pentagon.
At the other end of the political spectrum, deputies of the New Democratic Party (far left), a party strongly opposed to American foreign policy and overly critical of Israel, all score A’s. New Democrat candidates include Omar Aktouf, the anti-globalization crusader, and Monia Mazigh, the hijab-wearing wife of Syrian-born Maher Arar, who just returned from Syria after having been deported by American authorities in 2001 for alleged Al-Qaeda links. No doubt they have the potential of drawing Muslim votes, but the New Democrats have dismal chances of even forming the official opposition.
Moreover, the CIC report identifies 101 electoral ridings where Canadian Muslims hold a 1.8% to 13.5% swing vote. 55 of these ridings are located in Ontario and Quebec, Canada’s most populous provinces.
In addition to the CIC report, the Canadian chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN) initiated an election watch and published an election guide on its website. On June 7, its executive director, Riad Saloojee, published an op-ed in the capital’s main daily, the Ottawa Citizen, entitled “A tyranny of choice for Canada's Muslims.” Saloojee laments the lack of cohesion of the “Muslim vote,” because according to him, Muslim interests are spread across the political board. Ultimately, Canadian Muslims are as divided as the rest of Canadian voters between the pluralism of the Liberal Party, the championing of traditional values by the Conservative Party and the third-world and pro-Palestinian militancy of the New Democrats.
On the very same day, CIC President Mohammed Elmasry published an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, Toronto’s highly influential daily, which recently hired CAIR-CAN Chair Sheema Khan as a regular columnist, entitled “Why Muslims should vote.” In it Elmasry warns against political apathy among young immigrants and more importantly against a minority of Muslims “who are advocating not voting to protest what they call ‘the illusion of democratic values.’” Elmasry goes on to call on Muslims to vote “for the love of Canada and the love of Islam.”
The CIC dropped all pretensions of simply encouraging Muslims to cast their ballot when, in a June 11 press release, Elmasry attacked the Conservative Party, claiming it is “anti-social justice” and would “enforce an aggressive militant foreign policy.” The CIC appealed to the “Muslim community, and to all Canadians of conscience, to seriously study the implication of that party's political agenda.”
Conservative Prime Minister hopeful Stephen Harper brushed off the attack by casting doubt on whether the CIC truly represents Canada’s Muslims. Moderate Muslim community leader Bashir Hussain, Quebec head of Canada’s oldest and largest Muslim organization, the Council of Muslim Communities of Canada, recently confirmed that contention to me. The CMCC traditionally keeps out of politics.
Yet, a Progressive Canadian Party (left) candidate in Toronto, Asif Hossain, echoed Elmasry’s sentiments in a letter to the CIC, claiming that Conservative leader Stephen Harper “is the biggest threat to minorities in Canada, particularly to Muslims.” He even went so far as to demonize outgoing Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin for being “quick to condemn the turning over of a few gravestones in a Jewish cemetery [referring to a spate of cemetery desecrations and the firebombing of a Jewish school in Montreal, D.O.] but remained mute on the Maher Arar situation and [sic] not to mention the plight of other Canadian Muslims and their treatment by U.S. authorities on a regular basis”.
CAIR-CAN and the CIC both identify the revision of Canada’s C-36 anti-terror law as the main Muslim electoral issue. Passed by parliament in the wake of the September 11th attacks, the law is denounced by Islamic lobbies as inspired by the US and thus contrary to Canadian values. They claim the laws endanger civil liberties and discriminate against Muslims. The law will be subjected to a judiciary revision by year’s end. The Canadian Arab Federation (CFA) and CAIR-CAN, authors of a booklet advising Muslims on how to avoid collaborating with Canadian counter-terrorism investigations, met last April with Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Anne McLellan to present her their recommendations for the revision of the anti-terror law. In a joint press release published shortly after the meeting, CAIR-CAN and the CFA welcomed cautiously the Minister’s plans to write a new law on national security.
Unlike its American neighbor, where the ethnicization of politics is common, Canadian electoral patterns are regionalized: the Conservative West, the Liberal Centre and the New Democrat East. It is therefore all the more surprising and worrying that neither politicians nor the media are alarmed by the apparition of the “Muslim vote” in Canada’s political vocabulary. Except for Quebec nationalist parties that have struggled for decade with the so-called “ethnic vote,” notions such as the “Black vote” or the “Jewish vote” are unheard of in Canadian politics. It is all the more alarming that the notion of a “Muslim vote” is being peddled by such radical Islamic groups as CAIR. Even more disquieting is the fact that the media is cheerleading this new phenomenon by granting Islamic lobbies unwarranted attention, oblivious to the fact these are not grass-roots lobbies. CAIR-CAN and the CIC do not even have spokespeople in Montreal, Canada’s second largest city.
For the time being the “Muslim vote” appears to be less of an empirical reality than a new pressure tool for CAIR-CAN and the CIC. For example, it would be fair to assume that a French-speaking Algerian in Montreal is unlikely to cast his vote in the same way an English-speaking Pakistani in Vancouver would. However, to repeat something over and over again is often all that is needed to breathe life into it. Will CAIR-CAN and the CIC succeed in consolidating a “Muslim vote?” Will this open the door to the ethnicization of politics in this multiethnic country? The question is of fundamental importance both to Canada and the United States.