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Islamophobia breeds fear – but it also has an economic cost

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Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, of which OPSEU is an affiliate, wrote the following op-ed for the Globe and Mail, which was published on March 21, 2019.

The tragic news out of New Zealand has shocked most of us. But it shouldn’t have.

Many of us have seen the anti-Muslim memes, heard the Islamophobic jokes, read the biased opinion pieces and know that there are multitudes of people who hold racist views when it comes to those who identify as Muslim.

In fact, an Abacus poll published late last year found that a quarter of people living in Canada don’t believe Muslims should live here. It’s just one poll of many from the past few years that illustrate how Muslims – and their beliefs – continue to face considerable negativity. That this hatred can erupt in the most tragic of ways reflects the chilling consequence of the continuing demonization of people based on their religious beliefs.

Such attitudes don’t just harm Muslim communities – they harm everyone. The rise of anti-immigrant, xenophobic and Islamophobic currents are in part fuelled by growing economic insecurity, coupled with anxiety about identity in an increasingly diverse society. The growing attraction of far-right movements in Canada – as seen elsewhere in the Western world – means that there is a whole new audience for vile views that should have long ago been discredited and abandoned.

Instead, online platforms have facilitated the perpetuation of hate and anger towards marginalized communities, and Muslims are bearing a lot of it. Close to half of all hate speech seen online by Canadians targeted Muslims, according to a recent survey by Léger Marketing for the Association for Canadian Studies, more than any other community. Hate crimes targeting Muslims, as well as other racialized people, continue to rise at distressing rates in this country.

But the climate is doing more than inspiring fear around personal safety – it’s also creating barriers for Muslims to find or hold on to meaningful work, housing and community acceptance. Islamophobia is holding people back economically, and it’s time to talk about it.

On average, newcomers to Canada identifying as Muslims face a higher risk of living on low incomes, according to Statistics Canada’s 2016 General Survey. Forty-six per cent of immigrants who identified as Muslim were much more likely to have an annual income below $20,000 as compared with 29 per cent of immigrants of other faiths. Muslim immigrants were also less likely to be in higher income brackets, despite the fact that immigrants are often more highly educated than the Canadian-born population.

Muslim women will often experience discrimination for their choice of clothing. A 2002 study by researchers Judy Vashti Persad and Salome Lukas found that a high proportion of women applying for jobs within manufacturing, sales and services sectors experienced discrimination as a result of wearing the hijab. And Muslims of colour, particularly black Muslims, are additionally vulnerable to acts of racism.

Employers, unions and government must come together to confront Islamophobia, from its most dangerous forms to its most casual expressions. Nearly 80 per cent of Canadians recognize Muslims as the community that’s most likely to face discrimination. Enough is enough.

As part of a just-released, groundbreaking report examining the corrosive effects of Islamophobia in our workplaces, the Canadian Labour Congress has made several dozen recommendations. Among them: reinforcing the need for employers to educate management and staff about legal obligations around human rights and religious accommodations, and encouraging governments to do more to support anti-racism awareness campaigns and to develop strategies to address online hate. We also note the important role trade unions must play in championing fairness, equity and social justice for Muslims in Canada.

The labour movement has come to recognize that Islamophobia is a threat on many levels, including to our very democracy. Left unaddressed, mistrust and demonization of Muslims will continue to drive a divisive wedge into our society and, at the same time, aggravate people’s resentment toward government, media, academia and other institutions. Addressing this scourge is an urgent and necessary task – particularly in the lead-up to an election in which immigration and multiculturalism will doubtlessly once again be used by some as a wedge issue. That will most certainly further divide people and potentially put people at risk.

That is, unless we are better equipped to stand up for each other.