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Rights + Justice
Election 2015

Harry Smith: Harper's Cultural War on Muslim Women Must End

Our history proves why racial and religious division is dangerous.

Harry Leslie Smith 10 Oct

Harry Leslie Smith is a survivor of the Great Depression, a Second World War RAF veteran and an activist for the poor and for the preservation of social democracy. He has written several books about Britain during the Depression, the war and postwar austerity. Join him on Twitter @Harryslaststand.

It was autumn like today when I first saw Canada's coastline from the deck of the Empress of Australia in November 1953. I was a new immigrant who had come to this land from England with my wife to put down roots in a country that promised both economic opportunity and fair play.

At that time, I was 30 years of age but because I had experienced both the extreme hardships of the Great Depression and the horrors of the Second World War, I was old beyond my years and ready for a fresh start. Fortunately this country gave my wife and me a chance for that new beginning. But it was more than hard work and luck that brought material and emotional comfort to my life; it was also my generation's commitment to build the welfare state in part to prevent our young from ever having to encounter the despair of the Dirty Thirties or the bloodshed from our world war against Nazism and imperial Japan.

The social safety net that my generation helped create had the support of people from all walks of life because it helped sustain our growing economy and made our country more productive. It allowed the middle class to expand because workers were able to concentrate on their professions rather than being burdened by medical or education expenses or by being saddled by unsustainable mortgage debt. The social safety net allowed me along with millions of others from my generation to rise from street urchin to middle-class homeowner.

Moreover, because so many Canadians of my generation had come from nations fraught with religious and ethnic tension, we tried to create a more tolerant society that crossed political beliefs. Inclusion and acceptance became a watchword that no political party could own because every Canadian shared the concept that human rights were universal. That's why even in the 1980s it was Brian Mulroney, a staunch conservative prime minister, who showed the world Canada's moral courage when we fought against the advice of our allies for sanctions against the racist, cruel and evil South African apartheid regime and also demanded with inviolable determination that Nelson Mandela be set free from his imprisonment on Robben Island.

But now the fall air is crisp with the politics of hate and fear as Canada's general election wends its way to election day on Oct. 19. It has been this country's longest and most expensive election campaign in history. And the most important, because the democratic values that make Canada the envy of the world are at stake. The Harper government has muzzled scientists, silenced environmentalist and now with its crass politics of race, also threatens to destroy the ethnic mosaic that made Canada a unique oasis in a world of conflict.

Not since the since the early 20th century has a prime minister demeaned himself, his party and his humanity by employing racial and religious fear to castigate a specific group of Canadians as the enemy within to win an election. It is not only shameful, it's dangerous. Yet Stephen Harper persists like a modern-day Joseph McCarthy in creating a sweltering climate of fear against Canadian Muslims by employing dog whistle politics that equates an honourable religion with terrorism and radicalism.

History repeating

The Harper government has waged a cultural war against Muslim women who choose by the dictates of their faith to wear the niqab. Already women have been physically and verbally attacked for donning the veil. We have not seen this type of xenophobia since the Second World War, when Japanese Canadians were vilified and eventually stripped of their rights as citizens and forced to live in labour camps far from the communities they once called home.

Make no mistake: the Harper government has attacked faith, the rights of women, and ones right to express personal or religious liberty in a manner of one's own choosing. It is abhorrent and should have no place in 21st century Canadian politics.

Yet perhaps the most appalling aspect of Stephen Harper's attack on law-abiding citizens of the Muslim faith is this notion being peddled by Tories that it is being done in defence of women. A prime minister that has repeatedly dismissed and disparaged calls for a governmental inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women is no friend to women or any group that doesn't represent the interests of the Conservative Party.

In this election we must remember Canada's ugly and racist history that waged cultural genocide against First Nations and enslaved early Asian, Indian, Muslim and Caribbean immigrants to a lifetime of servitude. We must understand that the politics of fear and politics of greed are viruses that destroy society if left unchecked.

Voters must be mindful Canada could be transformed from a tolerant, forward-thinking nation to a regressive country -- where bigotry darkens the landscape like an uncontrollable forest fire. All it takes is an electorate that embraces, from either indifference or fear, the politics of racial and religious division.  [Tyee]

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