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Anti-Palestinian racism needs to be included in Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy

Palestinian
The keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian culture and heritage, was banned in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in March by the Speaker. Photo by Jean-François Gornet / Wikimedia Commons.

By Jasmin Zine, Wilfrid Laurier University

A guidance counselor at a high school in Oakville, Ont. was recently recorded telling a student wearing a keffiyeh that it reminded her of a terrorist. The keffiyeh, also called a ghutra or shemagh, is a frequently worn garment across the Arab world. Yet, racist associations of Arab and Palestinian culture with terrorism are seeing the garment banned.

The keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian culture and heritage, was banned in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in March by House Speaker Ted Arnott who claimed it is a “political statement”. Since then, Muslim MPP Sarah Jama has repeatedly been made to leave the chamber for wearing the scarf in defiance of the ban.

This kind of language is rooted in a long history of colonialist and orientalist imagery that dehumanizes Arabs and Muslims as barbaric, violent and uncivilized.

The persistent discrimination Palestinians face highlights how Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy is failing them. The strategy subsumes anti-Palestinian racism under the broader umbrella of anti-Muslim bigotry. However, Palestinians face unique forms of prejudice and recognizing that is a crucial first step toward addressing them.

Sarah Jama Keffiyeh
Ontario MPP Sarah Jama refused to remove her keffiyeh in response to the Speaker’s directive. Sarah Jama / X.

Anti-Palestinian racism

The Canadian government is currently working on an updated Anti-Racism Strategy set to be unveiled later this year. Canada needs to adopt a clear approach to dealing with anti-Palestinian racism, rather than subsuming it under the broader banner of Islamophobia.

While anti-Palestinian racism does overlap with Islamophobia in some ways, it also features unique forms of discrimination and prejudice that must be recognized and addressed. Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy defines Islamophobia as:

“Racism, stereotypes, prejudice, fear or acts of hostility directed towards individual Muslims or followers of Islam in general. In addition to individual acts of intolerance and racial profiling, Islamophobia can lead to viewing and treating Muslims as a greater security threat on an institutional, systemic and societal level.”

Anti-Palestinian racism intersects with Islamophobia through shared terrorist stereotypes and conspiracy theories among other commonalities, but also has its own unique features that distinguish it from Islamophobia.

Specific forms of anti-Palestinian racism that cannot be subsumed under purview of Islamophobia can include: denying the Nakba and justifying violence against Palestinians; exerting pressure to exclude Palestinian perspectives; and refusing to acknowledge Palestinians as Indigenous people with a collective national identity and connection to their land. In addition, conflating anti-Palestinian racism with Islamophobia ignores the existence of Palestinians who are not Muslim and the discrimination they also face.

In the wake of Israel’s war in Gaza, which the International Court of Justice has deemed plausibly genocide, troubling instances of anti-Palestinian racism have been taking place in several western countries, including Canada.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford referred to protests in support of Palestinians as “hate rallies”, echoing racist tropes about Arabs and Muslims glorifying violence.

Anti-Palestinian racism is also being promoted online. A 2022 report by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East has highlighted more that 500 examples of anti-Palestinian racism online that included derogatory references to Palestinians as antisemitic, terrorist sympathizers and anti-democratic.

Incidents of anti-Palestinian racism have also been reported on Canadian university campuses. Muslim students at Western University have reported being targeted for showing solidarity with Palestinians. One female student wearing keffiyeh was reportedly pushed and physically assaulted. Another student had her car tires slashed because she had a Palestinian flag on her mirror.

These problematic incidents illustrate the specific kinds of discrimination that constitute anti-Palestinian racism, which can impact Palestinians and anyone showing solidarity with them.

Islamophobia researcher
Sir Wilfrid Laurier professor Jasmin Zine researches Islamophobia.

Silencing Palestinian voices

Many have discussed the West’s Palestine exception to free speech. In the wake of the current war, there has been a chilling effect on pro-Palestinian sentiments and an unprecedented silencing of free speech.

Palestinians working in news media have spoken about losing their jobs for expressing their views on the war in Gaza and Israel’s occupation. Former staff with Canada’s public broadcaster, CBC, have detailed how Palestinian voices are routinely silenced in news coverage, and how reports are frequently skewed against Palestinians. CBC Editor in chief Brodie Fenlon has denied the allegations and defended the broadcaster’s journalistic standards.

People exercising their right to free expression by vocally and publicly showing support for Palestinians face doxing, lawsuits, job loss, threats and intimidation that are rooted in anti-Palestinian racism.

A joint report from Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, Independent Jewish Voices Canada and the Canadian Muslim Public Affairs Council has called on the government to include a description of anti-Palestinian racism in the updated strategy.

This recognition would be the starting point. It would provide a groundwork for developing policies and practices so institutions can identify and challenge anti-Palestinian racism through their equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Yet, the government has told advocates there will not be a description of anti-Palestinian racism included in the updated strategy. This exclusion signals to many that the struggles of Palestinian Canadians “don’t matter.”

Palestinian parents at the Toronto District School Board echoed this concern, stating that the board’s lack of recognition of anti-Palestinian racism has made schools unsafe and unwelcoming for their children.

Anti-Palestinian racism is a distinct form of discrimination that warrants its own place in Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy. Excluding it is itself an act of such racism. Doing so ignores the unique experiences of discrimination Palestinians face by attempting to subsume them under a catch-all banner of Islamophobia.The Conversation

Jasmin Zine is a professor of sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.