A few months ago I was applying for a job when I was suddenly required to attend an in-person interview with a member of the intelligence services. I was interviewed by a white male, who very politely went on to ask me questions for the next two hours. The most puzzling part of the interview though was that I suddenly saw my life through a very gendered lens.
I was asked about my conversion to Islam and whether or not a “boyfriend” had tried to recruit me for the purposes of “extremist activities.” I was also encouraged to provide a list of people who I thought could potentially be “radicalized.” The cherry on top was that he said that as a woman I am much more susceptible to “influencing” because women who are in-love do “inappropriate” things. Leaving aside the fact that the guy automatically assumed that I was heterosexual and that there was a man in my life, I felt quite confused.
To make things worse, the same story and questions were repeated in the context of my Latin American background and my mother’s activism with Indigenous communities. What it came down to was that I, as a woman of multiple identities, could be a threat, but I could also be a valuable ally against “extremists.” Now, keep this point in mind. In the 80s Latin Americans were their time’s radicals. These days the List of Terrorist Entities in Canada mostly targets Middle-Eastern and North African organizations; however, Latin American revolutionary movements featured heavily in this list, and even now former involvement with a revolutionary movement can be problematic for immigration purposes. In addition, today Indigenous communities continue to be seen with suspicion because of sovereignty movements and anti-capitalist approaches. Yet, “extremism” is not new to Canada (Here are a few examples).
Weeks after my interview, following another attack against military personnel, Canada’s Parliament was attacked. Several theories about the perpetrator were given throughout the day, but little information was publically available. But finally the identity of the shooter was released: Michael Zehaf-Bibeau , a convert to Islam, had attempted an attack against Canada. As the events unfolded, I wrote a piece in my blog, as I feared that Muslims would be put, once more, at the centre of political discourses about “extremism” and “terrorism” followed by anti-Muslim sentiments.
The Muslim community was quick to act in an attempt to proactively show their commitment to peace and to Canada. Several media sources showed how Muslims across the country condemned the Ottawa shootings. The Global News, CBC and CTV have featured pieces showing Muslims standing up against extremism. A social-experiment video was applauded in media outlets after it “demonstrated” that Canadians are not Islamophobic despite the earlier attacks; and pictures of solidarity among community members circulated widely after a Cold Lake mosque was vandalized, and the community (Muslims and non-Muslims) got together to erase the graffiti.
But other processes are taking now place. Muslim leaders across the country (mostly male), in an attempt to disassociate themselves from extremism, have released a number of documents that have put many Muslims at odds. In partnership with the RCMP (Police services) they released “United Against Terrorism,” a handbook outlining the difference between jihad and terrorism, and providing Muslim parents with tips on how identify “radicalization” among children and youth. In theory, it may sound like a good idea… However, when the handbook is religion-specific and it is published in partnership with the same institutions that perpetuate racial profiling and criminalization of Muslims in Canada it only propagates the idea that Muslims are violent terrorists and a danger to the country.
Interestingly enough, the handbook mentions the word women only three times, and the word “girl” is never mentioned, the assumption being that girls and women are less likely to be “radicalized.”
In the past I have talked about how female converts to Islam are often depicted in the media. Images of brainwashed, almost-fakely-modest women permeate these portrayals. Female converts are infantilized in an attempt to take away the agency of their conversion. What is more, Muslim women, converts or not, who take up violent conflict, are seen less as agents than their male counterparts. But gender issues aside, the handbook was so problematic that even the RCMP withdrew its support.
Now, Muslim leaders are trying different things to appease the government and, to some degree, the communities across Canada that continue to display anti-Muslim sentiments. In Calgary, an imam has created a background checklist to determine a convert’s likelihood of becoming radicalized. Once more, a good idea in theory, except that, what are you going to do with those who are flagged as potential “radicals”? Not let them convert? Or call the police? On what grounds?
The Islamic Supreme Council also published an information document warning converts against “extremism” and “radicalization.” Once more, women do not feature here (except in two instances), and the tone maintains the infantilization of converts. It turns out that some of us are deemed as ‘right’ sources of Islam, while others not so much… Yet, at the heart of the issue is that it almost seems like a scapegoat strategy. Muslim converts are now “the other” even in Muslim communities.
God forbid we deconstruct the terms “extremism” and “radicalization” to recognize their political use. God forbid we talk about political, economic, social and mental health-related issues when discussing “extremism” and “radicalization.” And God forbid that for once converts to Islam, particularly women, are attributed any kind of agency or knowledge. The sad part is the above documents have some support from Muslims, who think that “screening” converts is the way to go. As if the meanings of “radical” and “extremism” weren’t political and contextual, and as if exclusion played no part in acts of violence.
The question is, how is the marginalization of converts the answer to Islamophobia?
Eren Arruna Cervantes is a writer for Muslimah Media Watch and a university student whose research focuses on the politics of gender and women in organized religions.
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