Nilofar Noor E. is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto with an academic and professional background in adult education, community development, and the non-profit sector. Her research focuses on social justice and technology in education that meets the needs of minority and immigrant learners. Her international work experience in South Asia spans projects related to women development, human rights, family law, and community health education.
Manaal Syed is a PhD graduate from the University of Toronto. She is a social worker and course instructor with a background in educational development, adult education, and community development. Her professional interests include equity-based curriculum design, supporting students in academic success and career development, and advancing inclusive on-campus services that focus on students’ well-being.
Understanding Islamophobia as a form of Othering
Take a moment to ask yourself: “Who am I?” You might describe yourself in terms of the various roles you occupy in school, work, family, sports, social activities and so on. You might also refer to factors such as race/racialization, culture, ethnicity, religion/faith, indigeneity, ancestry, economic and citizenship status, age, abilities, neurodiversities, gender identity and expression, sexuality, or other innumerable aspects of identity.
Now consider the question: “Who am I not?” This might feel more difficult to answer. Determining who we are not requires us to imagine, visualize, presume, and define others, that is, those individuals, groups and communities we differentiate ourselves from. This process is called othering—the way people and systems define those with whom they do not identify or affiliate themselves. The binary thinking of ‘self’ vs. ‘other’, or ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, is a core principle of othering.
In historical and contemporary conditions, various structures of power have relied on othering as the framework through which to organize their nation-building, domination, and subsequent social relations (i.e., interactions and interconnections between members of a society). For example, in the western context, historical events such as colonization, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, territorial occupations, and wars have been integral to creating and perpetuating contemporary inequalities and divisions around the world. These historical events have relied on constructing people who have been colonized, enslaved, and occupied as others.
Today, groups that are most often in minority are frequently othered through hegemonic discourse, which stereotypes and dehumanizes them through labels such as being inferior, flawed, lazy, inadequate, harmful, underdeveloped, uncivilized, backwards, deviant, strange, dangerous, ugly, criminal, immoral, unintelligent, or subhuman. Notably, othering can be explicit or tacit, which allows it to be implemented through a range of methods including ideologies, governance systems, policies, political rhetoric, media representations, and social commentary among the public.
The implications of othering can be grave. For instance, it can perpetuate inequality/inequity, social exclusion, discord, and violence, as well as violate standards of human rights and freedoms. Common manifestations of othering may include Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and discrimination against Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) communities, misogyny, and homo/transphobia, to name a few.
Islamophobia, as a potent example of othering, is defined as the unfounded fear and/or hatred of the Islamic faith and of Muslims. Many scholars trace the origins of Islamophobia to the historical violent and cultural encounters of Europeans with people from the Eastern and Middle Eastern regions. Western travellers, government officials, and authors of Medieval, Renaissance, and Colonial literature often misrepresented Muslims with paradoxical impressions of being uncivilized but exotic, barbaric but enticing, fascinating but repulsive (see Asad, 2000; Said, 1979).
The start of the 21st century sparked a renewed wave of world events such as the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre buildings in New York City and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S. and its allies. For over two decades, legislation, politics, the news media, and cinematic representations have significantly contributed to the continued othering of Muslims, who are frequently stereotyped as violent terrorists, barbaric and frightening, with radical beliefs. In Canada, this prevailing Islamophobic atmosphere translates into systemic othering that is embedded across various systems and institutions, as well as hate-motivated violence inflicted on everyday Muslims (Chaudhry, 2017).
As further illustration of Islamophobia, research suggests that within the charitable sector, Muslim-led charities face patterns of bias, discrimination and surveillance in federal revenue agencies’ auditing processes (Emon & Hasan, 2021). Similar prejudicial patterns also appear in many aspects of the education sector. School board reviews have pointed to Islamophobic content in the curriculum and instances of Islamophobic incidents in school governance activities (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2019). Muslim students also report facing microaggressions (subtle and indirect discriminatory comments or actions) within schools, due to their religious identity and faith practices (Hindy, 2016). At the higher education level, extracurricular student groups such as Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) and their members have reported facing increased scrutiny, tracking and/or aggressive targeting by government security agencies (CBC News, 2019; The Varsity, 2019).
Canada has also seen rising Islamophobic violence. For example, the 2017 hate-motivated shooting attack at a mosque in Québec City resulted in the murder of six Muslim worshippers. In 2020, a white nationalist murdered a Muslim man, by slitting his throat, while he was sitting quietly in front of a mosque waiting for prayer time in Etobicoke, Ontario. In 2021, four members of a Muslim family in London, Ontario on an evening stroll were intentionally mowed down in a truck attack by a man who espoused anti-Muslim sentiments. In addition, Muslim women—wearing religious attire in particular—face frequent violent physical and verbal attacks in everyday public spaces across Canada. Like institutionally embedded Islamophobia, these incidents do not occur in isolation. In fact, across these violent acts, perpetrators are either found to be active members of fringe hate groups or heavily influenced by readily available information and materials that demonize Muslims through Islamophobic, xenophobic, misogynist, and racist messaging.
At the policy and government level, several legislative actions, policies, and public debates in Canada have also furthered the othering of Canadian Muslims. Notable previous and ongoing examples include: Québec’s Bill 21, which bans the wearing of religious symbols in many public professions; Canada’s Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which facilitated the increased surveillance of Muslims and other minority communities; and a federal ban on the niqab (a face-veil religious symbol worn by some Muslim women) in Canadian citizenship ceremonies. Critics of such political actions have expressed significant concern that these political actions disproportionately and harmfully target Canadian Muslims’ religious and civic rights and freedoms.
These examples indicate that othering can follow a cyclical process—social othering (i.e., discriminatory sentiments and actions in society) often serves as justification for policy actions and political rhetoric, which, in turn, validate and amplify the intensity of social othering. Given that othering can be perpetuated in many ways, interventions are needed that cut across ideological, socio-cultural, and political spectrums to combat it. In the case of Islamophobia, these interventions have included policy advocacy efforts and public education campaigns by civil society organizations, faith groups, academia, and some government representatives. This chorus of voices raises awareness about Islamophobia as a broader phenomenon, while underscoring the need to address the everyday social othering of Canadian Muslims.
- Think back to a time when you, or someone you know, was made to feel othered. What actions perpetuated the othering? What actions (if any) helped to curb it?
- How might you as a student in the social sciences combat the othering of various groups in society? Are there on-campus activities (e.g., in academics, professional work, research, extra-curricular or social activities) that address this phenomenon?
Develop an activity or resource that either raises awareness or helps address Islamophobia—or any other form of othering—in Canada (e.g., racism and discrimination against Indigenous peoples, anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism and so on). Be creative! Explore how you can incorporate engaging and creative multimedia formats for your activity or resource (e.g., infographics, a website, video clips, a podcast episode, a poem, artwork, a zine, etc).
Brons, L. L. (2015). Othering. An analysis. Transcience: A Journal of Global Studies, 6, pp. 69–90.
City of Toronto (n.d). Islamophobia. https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/get-involved/community/toronto-for-all/islamophobia/
Noor Cultural Centre (2017). Islamophobia in Canada. http://www.noorculturalcentre.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Islamophobia-in-Canada-2017.pdf
Noor Cultural Centre (2021). Islamophobia: The long history of a violent present by Dr. Asma Barlas. https://noorculturalcentre.ca/lecture-islamophobia-the-long-history-of-a-violent-present/
Zempi, I., & Awan, I. (Eds.). (2019). The Routledge international handbook of Islamophobia. UK: Routledge.
Asad, M. (2000). Muslims and European identity. Can Europe represent Islam? In I. E. Hallam & B. V. Street (Eds.), Cultural encounters. Representing ‘otherness’ (pp. 11–27). London: Routledge.
Emon, A. & Hasan, N. (2021). Under layered suspicion: A review of CRA audits of Muslim-led charities: Full Report. Retrieved from https://www.layeredsuspicion.ca
CBC News (2019, August 7). When CSIS comes knocking: Amid reports of Muslim students contacted by spy agency, hotline aims to help. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/csis-students-university-muslim-campus-1.5229670
Chaudhry, A. (2017). Standing Committee Remarks. The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage (Department of Canadian Heritage, Government of Canada). Retrieved from https://openparliament.ca/committees/canadian-heritage/42-1/73/ayesha-chaudhry-1/only/
Hindy, N. (2016). Examining Islamophobia in Ontario public schools. Tessellate Institute. Retrieved from http://tessellateinstitute.com/publications/examining-islamophobia-in-ontario-public-schools/
Ontario Ministry of Education (2019). Review of the Peel District School Board. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/new/peel-district-school-board-review.html
Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
The Varsity (2019). Muslim Students’ Association says executives receiving surprise visits from law enforcement. Retrieved from https://thevarsity.ca/2018/11/12/muslim-students-association-says-executives-receiving-surprise-visits-from-law-enforcement/