The Myth of the Muslim Tide – A Review

Our world is changing, and we are afraid.

That in itself is not a bad thing: fear is an important part of living, good judgment, and rational planning – so long as the things that we are afraid of are real and properly understood.

For the last twenty years, it seems that most of the world’s conflicts have been centred in the Middle East, and branched out to the West from there in the form of interventionist wars and terrorist attacks. The people of the Middle East are predominantly Muslim, and the terrorist groups and militias seemingly all claim agendas of Islamization. It would seem that, for most Western nations, our enemies are all Muslims – or perhaps Islam itself.

For the past few decades there has been large-scale emigration from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, bringing large numbers of Muslims to the West. Right now we are in the midst of a massive migration of refugees from Syria to the West, with 10,700 refugees arriving in Canada over the past few months and another 15,000 to arrive in the next six weeks. Such large numbers have many of us concerned about security, and given our recent context and understanding of Muslims from that part of the world, this is understandable. But it’s not necessary.

In his bestseller The Myth of the Muslim Tide Doug Saunders peels back the rhetoric that feeds our fears and exposes the realities of Islam and immigration.  Saunders is the European Bureau Chief for the Globe and Mail, and a non-religious journalist with no stake in supporting Islam (indeed, he is explicitly pro-secular), and his major sources on the beliefs and attitudes of Muslims come primarily from Gallup and Pew Research polls and interviews. His claims are excellently documented and well-referenced, and his analysis of the numbers come from the survey authors, and often in direct quotes from Muslims themselves.

The impeccability of his references is critically important, because our beliefs and concerns on this issue are based primarily on what we don’t know rather than what we do. Concerns about the cultural integration of others usually betray a lack of understanding about those cultures, and misinformation runs rampant – not just about the other cultures or religions, but also about our own response to them. Yesterday I saw a meme on Facebook claiming that refugees receive more government support than pensioners, and this erroneous claim was shared more than 37,000 times; such misinformation fuels political backlash, such as the action of MP Kelly Block to reduce refugee access to healthcare in 2012. If we want to respond appropriately to our fears, we need to ensure that we are acting on good information, lest we invade Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction that don’t exist.

Working hard for you – unless you’re new here.

This is the point of the first section of Saunders’ book: showing how the popular fiction about immigrants leads to undeserved and irrational backlash, in this case with reference to the 2011 terrorist acts of Anders Breivik in Norway. Breivik, who was heavily influenced by many popular writers who claim that Muslim immigrants are turning Europe into “Eurabia”, gunned down children and teenagers at a Norwegian liberal political camp. He claimed that they were the next generation of politicians who championed multiculturalism, and were therefore traitors who deserved execution. While Breivik is obviously an extreme case, the point is that his own 1500-page manifesto regularly referenced popular works that set the foundation of his rage and xenophobia. While I’m not familiar with most of the works referenced, the phrases quoted sound like they’d fit right in on Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media, a popular Canadian source of misinformation and fury.

Saunders goes on in part two to counter the claims of the “Eurabia” writers. We fear a demographic takeover, but while Muslim immigrants may have a higher birth rate initially, their  birth rates tend to drop to the local level within a generation, and Muslims still make up less than 5% of Europe and only about 1% in North America, while immigration rates are expected to decline; contrast that to popular claims that there will be a Muslim majority, or a large enough minority to dominate policy and culture. We fear that immigrant groups will not integrate culturally, but research polls show that most European Muslims identify more closely with their nationality than with their religion. We fear that they want to impose Sharia law, but most Muslims – in the West and even in their countries of origin, though less so – do not want to live in a state dominated by Sharia, or at least not with a literalist interpretation of Sharia. We fear that Muslims are inherently violent, but research indicates that while many terrorist groups are inherently religious, their aims and motivations are all political. This goes along with a Freakonomics podcast from last year (that I highly recommend) that notes that the number one cause of suicide bombings is not religion but occupation – i.e., they’re blowing themselves up to try to get our troops out of their country. This should be obvious to us: after all, the Parliament Hill shooter recorded a message before his rampage, stating that he was doing it because Canada was bombing people in the Middle East.

Saunders then enlightens us about our own past: that the current “Muslim Tide” arguments are almost exactly the same as the arguments used against Catholic and Jewish immigrants a century ago. Yet today we find that Catholic and Jewish citizens are well-integrated and largely liberal, though when they first arrived they were religiously conservative and seen as violent fundamentalists who refused to integrate and wanted to impose their own religious vision on the people around them. He doesn’t downplay the differences between Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, or in the current political situation, but the sociological factors involved are nearly identical and the anti-immigrant voices of today are eerie echoes from the past.

He ends his book with a number of good points about the difficulties that immigrants face when they arrive in a new country, the reasons for a Muslim identity replacing the former emphasis on national identities, and the failure of multiculturalism. “We ought to abandon the word multiculturalism, as well as the word assimilation: both terms imply the existence of a monolithic, predefined culture that one either embodies or rejects. In real life, as we experience it in our homes, streets, workplaces and schools, there is no fixed or immutable thing known as culture, but rather a varied and shifting set of practices built around a roughly agreed on common set of values and a collection of respected institutions” (162).

If we are really concerned about ensuring that immigrants integrate into our society, we can begin by removing the many stigmas and roadblocks they face by virtue of being seen as outsiders among us. By welcoming outsiders, we can break down the division between East and West that feeds the ongoing conflict with groups like ISIS. In order to remove any legitimate fears, we must first overcome the illegitimate fears.

Though this book was released in 2012, and therefore does not comment specifically on the Syrian refugee crisis, it remains timely and highly recommended. A+

Abortion, Refugees, and Making Room for Moral Action

My last post on marijuana and why legalizing it is not an endorsement of it has generated a lot of interest, and I’ve received a number of emails from people asking me about my stance on abortion in light of this discussion of the limits of law in relation to morality. I really appreciate that this conversation is happening, because abortion is a very important issue to me, and one that Canadians have been increasingly polarized on for so long that we’re not going to see any change from the status quo unless a third path can be found. I believe that it can.

First, a bit of history. I grew up being an anti-abortion advocate, even choosing to debate the topic in my high school English class in order to get more people talking about it. But in all of my research into how abortions are performed and how many occur, I had never heard (until quite recently!) about why the abortion laws in Canada and the US were struck down in the first place. In large part it was because there were unintended consequences to the outright prohibition of abortion: women continued to seek abortions, but they were either performing self-abortions or were receiving unsafe abortions from back-alley black market providers, and they were dying or being seriously injured in large numbers. It was so bad that there were actually groups of Christian clergy who were helping women get safe, but illegal, abortions. They felt that what they were doing was reducing harm, rather than killing children; if a woman was desperate enough to attempt a self-abortion, it was clear that they weren’t going to be able to save the child, so they did what they could to save the woman. In all of my years of anti-abortion activism, I had never heard of this, or understood why pro-choice people framed the issue as a women’s health issue.

I bring this up because I believe in harm reduction. The interesting thing about harm reduction is that it is often portrayed as a refusal to take a moral stance on an issue; I believe it is quite the opposite, and that’s because of what I believe about the way law and morality interact.

The Morality of Law

Law is not, and cannot be, moral. Actions can be moral or immoral, and restraint can be moral or immoral, but laws are just words. It takes a person, acting or refusing to act, to be moral. A law is just or unjust based on what it requires of people: does a law require us to do something that is moral, or something that is immoral? Does a law prevent someone from doing something that is moral or immoral? Does a law result in people doing something that is moral or immoral?  Note that these three questions are all different. Let’s walk through it in relation to abortion.

We have an intention for a law, and that intention is usually based on a moral stance. In this case, we want to stop abortions because we believe that killing a human being, no matter their stage of development, is wrong. So we write a law that requires people to act in a certain way, in this case to not get or provide abortions. If it actually does prevent people from doing something immoral (killing a human fetus), and there are no other consequences, then it would be a just law. But if it doesn’t stop people from doing so, it is a flawed law – it is not enforceable. Unenforceable laws are inevitably unjust because they undermine the validity of the law in general. Visit a nation that doesn’t enforce its laws, and you’ll find that morality is actually quite relative when it comes to obeying the law, even if people otherwise have a strong sense of morality; a government that does not enforce its laws gives up its own authority, including its moral authority.

But what if the law isn’t just ineffective – what if it also has unintended consequences? In this case, prohibition of abortion was not only not preventing abortions from happening, but it was resulting in thousands of women dying or maimed by unsafe abortions. I believe that we are just as responsible for the unintended consequences of our laws as we are for the intended consequences, and that makes a law that results in maimed and dead women unjust. But questions of responsibility aside, we have to deal with the outcome either way.

So a law itself is not moral or immoral, but it does relate to actions that are moral and immoral, and it does lead to results that similarly have moral status. A situation in which millions of human fetuses are dying is profoundly immoral; but a situation in which millions of human fetuses and grown women are dying is also profoundly immoral. We cannot legislate intentions or morality, but we can write laws that create space for moral behaviour, and this is where harm reduction comes in.

Harm Reduction

You’ve probably heard the term “harm reduction” in relation to safe injection sites or sex education and free condoms, and it’s always controversial. Opponents to harm reduction say that giving someone a clean needle with which to inject their heroin is the same thing as endorsing heroin use; or that giving kids condoms is encouraging them to have sex. If you read my last post you know that I don’t agree that having a frank discussion about our choices and their consequences, and then giving people the freedom to make those choices, is the same as endorsing something. This is particularly true when we don’t actually have the ability to stop people from doing these things: we weren’t successful in stopping abortions, we’ve never been successful in stopping teenagers from having sex, and we’re incredibly unsuccessful at stopping people from smoking marijuana. Remember, if we can’t enforce a law it becomes an unjust law – and too many unjust, unenforceable laws makes for an unjust society. So while the intention of those who oppose harm reduction is to take a firm moral stance, the result is often quite the opposite: attempting to enforce unjust laws, and removing the help that we might have offered to those who are dealing with the consequences of their actions (or all too often, the actions of a rapist).

Showing mercy and grace to people who are facing the consequences of their immoral actions (or of the immoral actions of others) is deeply and profoundly Christian, perhaps more than anything else we could do. We serve a God who, “while we were yet sinners,” died for us; who forgave his executioners as they nailed him to a tree. This unbounded love for those who are living immorally or unjustly is so profound that we wear crosses around our necks and place them at the front of our churches to remember it. It is what defines us as Christians. So as a Christian who also wants to be a Member of Parliament and write just legislation, I see laws that give room for grace and mercy as deeply and profoundly moral. So what does this look like in practice, and in relation to abortion?

Refugees, and Getting Out of the Way of Morality

There was a time in which every hospital was funded by the church. In the time leading up to the social reforms of the 1960’s (the “welfare state”, healthcare, etc.), churches were divided on such measures: some saw the social gospel as filtering through all of society, so that even the government became God’s tool for serving those who needed help; others saw the government as stepping into the church’s territory, and resented the idea of things like healthcare and welfare that removed the necessity of the church’s service of the needy. As time went on we became more and more individualized, our homes have become fortresses that outsiders rarely breach for a cup of coffee, and hospitality seems a thing of the past; it appears that the role of government in supplying for the needy got the church off the hook, and we tend to this day to focus on weekly programs for our members rather than the focused service initiatives and hospitality that used to characterize Christians. I’m not saying this to lambaste the church, but only to point out that our social role has changed drastically over the past fifty years, and that is in part because of the government taking on roles we once had a monopoly on.

People are moral actors, and the church makes a point of trying to train and encourage people to act morally. Government can prohibit or enforce actions, but sometimes government can get in the way of the moral actions of people. Let’s use the current refugee crisis as an example.

It is morally unacceptable to allow people to die when we have the means to save them. It is also morally unacceptable to exclude a foreigner from our community (check Deuteronomy 10:19 or Exodus 22:21 or Leviticus 19:34 or Ephesians 2:12 if you doubt it). In spite of the fact that we know there are around 60 MILLION refugees living in crisis around the world, our government has designed our refugee system in such a way that it only brings in 10,000 refugees per year, and it takes 4-5 years and tens of thousands of dollars to get in. By definition, a refugee is someone who needs help now, and probably has few resources. Most Canadians are willing to help refugees, but this is a great example of legislation that actually prevents moral action.

There are around 25,000 churches in Canada. If every one of them sponsored one refugee family, we could bring in around 150,000 people and settle them in caring communities across the country. As an MP, I would work to reform the refugee system so that the government can get out of the way of ordinary Canadians and churches who want to do something profoundly moral and Christlike; and I would work with churches to help them navigate the system in order to bring more people in as quickly as possible.

Abortion

So what is the Green Party stance on abortion, and how would I as a Christian MP uphold morality while still upholding the law?

The Green Party stance begins with the promise to always support access to a safe abortion. This sent my red-flags up when I first read it, but knowing what I do now about the history of prohibited abortion and harm reduction, I agree with it. But my agreement with that point didn’t come until I came to terms with the rest of our stance on abortion, which is to work to address the issues that lead to unwanted pregnancies in the first place – things like poverty, women’s inequality, safety, and social supports. I would add to that list that it’s about time we had a serious conversation about the over-sexualization of our culture. These other steps are something that no other party is talking about, and what made me appreciate the Green position.

Among all of the political party positions on abortion, the Green position is the only one I think has any chance to change the status quo. While Conservatives like Ted Falk are genuinely interested in introducing abortion laws, Stephen Harper has said unequivocally that he will not re-open the issue, and while they claim to have a free vote on “matters of conscience” Conservatives still voted down a Conservative back-bencher’s private member’s bill that would have made it illegal to coerce an abortion (and I probably would have supported that bill, had I been an MP). The Liberals and NDP are firmly pro-choice, and don’t appear to be interested in dealing with unwanted pregnancies in a more compassionate way. The debate is so polarized that nobody is looking for a third way, a way to save babies AND women, except for us Greens. I think that a compromise on “principle” that leads to saving more lives is far more moral than taking a moral stand on the issue and demanding all or nothing, but Jake Epp saw what happens to people who take a middle stance on this issue – it cost him his job as MP of this riding. I hope we’ve all noticed how few lives have been saved by insisting on taking a moral stand rather than seeking a compromise; a third way is necessary to see any movement on this issue at all.

As MP for Provencher, I would work within the current abortion laws: there are none, and I see no chance of that changing any time soon (neither does Ted Falk, as he admitted at the all-candidate forum on Thursday). I would continue to ensure that safe abortions are accessible, but remember that this is a harm reduction strategy designed to save women’s lives. At the same time, I would work to create space for moral action, whether by writing bills or by simply working with community groups and churches, to provide supports for pregnant women in order to address the concerns they face. We must remember that people don’t have abortions for fun, they have them because they have serious needs that we have not addressed. The Green Party wants to implement a Guaranteed Livable Income to ensure that nobody has to live in poverty, and we have a national housing strategy to ensure that everyone has access to a safe and affordable place to live; these are the types of things that governments can do to address basic needs. We would also run public health campaigns and educate people about fertility, and introduce strategies to hold men to account for their act in producing an unwanted pregnancy.

But I would also work with churches to connect them with clinics or charities to sponsor a pregnant woman. As with refugees, if every one of the 25,000+ churches in Canada sponsored a pregnant woman we would save a lot of lives. Providing a hospitable community is something that government has never been able to do, but somehow we in the church lost track of that part of our calling as the government took over our mandate to provide hospitals and colleges. Meals, clothes, transportation, child care – these are all things that churches can offer without great cost and with great personal care and connection; but if government tries to offer them, it can only do so in impersonal, money-intensive ways. Government can never replace the church’s ability to care for people, but it can do a number of things to create space for the church to fill with love and grace, and create more justice through the combination of our efforts than we could ever hope to create alone!

This is a complicated subject, and I’m happy to discuss it further. Please leave a comment or send me an email. Together, we can make a third way that stands a chance of making a difference – for children and women.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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True Diversity is Hard, but So Worthwhile

On Friday evening I hosted the second of our six lectures, this one titled “Embracing Diversity: Living an Enriched Life Within Canada’s Borders” and presented by Wendy Peterson. Wendy described diversity by noting that there are hundreds of distinct First Nations in North America, but that we treat them all as a single entity under the Indian Act and in our culture. She recalled seeing a local newspaper article that referred to two women who were “aboriginal in appearance”, and asked us what we thought that should mean: did it mean that they looked like doctors, teachers, theologians? She showed us a series of photos of her own friends, mostly aboriginal, and while not many of them looked alike, they were all similarly (highly) educated and successful people. She noted that she herself is “pigmentally challenged” (she is Metis), but that her son is often assumed to be Filipino, even by other Filipinos. So what does it mean to be “aboriginal in appearance,” and how can we have a truly diverse society and welcome refugees when we still have difficulty acknowledging diversity within our first peoples?

Diversity is hard. One of the greatest strengths of the human brain is its ability to categorize things: there are so many things and creatures around us, if we saw every single one of them as unique we would not be able to process it all. Our brain simplifies the process by creating categories, which is why we can say “lawn” instead of seeing millions of individual blades of grass. This is handy for lawns and leaves, but less helpful when we’re dealing with people, because categorization requires simplifying something down to a particular characteristic. Human beings are too complex to be simplified like that and still maintain their dignity, and because of this, our ability to relate to them is diminished. We can’t relate to people who are reduced to a single characteristic, especially if that characteristic that we’ve reduced them to is the very way that they are different from us. But that’s precisely the way we categorize people: by the ways they are different from us, rather than the ways we are the same. This makes sense from the perspective of efficient systems of categorization, but it does nothing to help us empathize with people who are different from us. The name for this process is called “Othering”, turning a person who is actually very like us in most ways into an “other”, someone who is very much unlike us.

It’s nearly impossible to get through life without othering people. We all do it, by virtue of our brain functions if for no other reason; but we’re also often raised with certain notions of different people groups or “others.” We tend to gang up on public figures when they let their othering slip out in a debate or interview, but we’re all guilty of it any time we fail to treat someone as a human being with their own thoughts and volition. Is my height my dominant characteristic? I sincerely hope not – I would hope it would be my intellect, my integrity, my attitude, or some virtue – but I once walked down a busy street in Osaka, Japan, and I drew an awful lot of stares, and while I don’t begrudge people for noticing that I stand out, it gets frustrating explaining that I’m not a basketball player. I can’t imagine what it’s like to explain to people that I do indeed have a “real” PhD (one example that Wendy gave on Friday), or have people assume that I’m a terrorist simply because of my skin tone or last name. In our culture, we need to find a balance between recognizing differences and reducing people to those differences. That’s hard to do, but it’s so worthwhile!

In our government, though, we don’t have the limitations of our brains as an excuse for othering. We have carefully crafted policies and laws that should not succumb to any person’s cultural or racial blind spots. Even so, in Canada we have a long history of policies that thoroughly and deliberately “other” indigenous people, and we are currently doing the same to Muslims. A perfect example is the way that our government refuses to allow a woman in a niqab (a garment that some Muslim women wear as an act of religious obedience and devotion, to express modesty) to swear an oath of citizenship. Two courts have already upheld her right to swear the oath without removing her head covering, but the Harper government has appealed to the Supreme Court. Harper’s argument is that the niqab comes from a culture that is anti-women, and that may be; a niqab may be used by many as a way to suppress women. But the moment we assume that rather than listening to this woman’s own story, we have othered her in a way that strips her of her dignity even as she attempts to swear an oath to our nation. We absolutely should support women’s rights, but we cannot do so by removing their freedoms and pigeonholing them based on a single characteristic.

Muslims vote at about half of the national average rate – only about 30%. Indigenous people in Canada vote even less. I have a hard time blaming them, given our history and current policies. We need a government that is willing to replace policies that other entire people groups with policies that truly embrace diversity. This will be hard: it will cost us money, and security. The Green Party of Canada wants to begin dialogue with First Nations on a nation-to-nation basis, rather than treating all First Nations as a single group, and honouring the treaties that we made with them. We want to collaborate with them to solve problems, rather than assuming a paternal stance and telling them how to run their affairs. We also want to support more refugees, and streamline the refugee process as much as possible so that we can adequately respond to the demand. These things will be difficult to do, but they’re so worthwhile! Join us. Vote Green.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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