Election coverage: Samira Laouni

There is a whole lotta ugly going on out there in the election coverage these days. (I’m thinking Canada, but this is true in the U.S. as well, and, come to think of it, likely anywhere else that might be having an election. But that’s a different story.)

Montréal-Bourassa NDP candidate Samira Laouni (pictured below right) is bearing the brunt of some of the most Islamophobic news coverage out there (even worse than what we usually cover on MMW.) Ms. Laouni, a Muslim woman who has a doctorate in economics from the Sorbonne, has lived in Quebec since 1998, and has worked in a number of jobs, non-profits and community volunteer projects.

The media coverage of Ms. Laouni’s campaign ranges from the confused and skeptical (a national parliamentary candidate who wears a headscarf? *gasp!*) to outright offensive. Some samples:

An article from the Montreal Gazette is probably the best of the bunch, giving the most biographical information about Ms. Laouni, and acknowledging that some people in Muslim communities (such as those scary extremists that keep Islamophobes up at night) might actually view her as “a bit of an iconoclast,” rather than as a fellow Islamist.

A Toronto Star article starts off by fixating on the headscarf (actually, that’s probably true for most the articles), and emphasises the confusion that most people apparently feel upon meeting Ms. Laouni. Either people really are staring at her with looks of utter bewilderment, or the writer of the article is just having a really difficult time getting past the idea that people might take a woman in a headscarf seriously. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Either way is disturbing.

Then there is the openly hostile. Ms. Laouni was interviewed on September 10 on 98.5fm, a Montreal-based radio station. (To listen to the interview, which was conducted in French, you’ll have to go to the radio show’s website and go back through the archives to September 10.) A summary of the interview was published in the Montreal Gazette. Throughout the interview, the host repeatedly tried to bait his guest, trying to make her come across as some kind of extremist. Impressively, Ms. Laouni managed to dodge every question, laughing off his assumptions, and reiterating her commitment to Canada and to her constituents. Some “highlights” (I really wish the computer had a “sarcasm” font):

  • The interview began with the host commenting on Ms. Laouni’s headscarf, which he referred to as “sexy.” She laughed it off, despite how completely inappropriate it is for virtually any interview to start with a comment that the interviewee looks sexy. Of course, the topic of the veil resurfaced numerous times throughout the interview, because really, it’s not like they had better things to talk about.
  • In a couple instances, the host asked Ms. Laouni how she felt about representing people like non-Muslims, Jews, and “adulterous” women, apparently trying to expose her Islamist political leanings. She calmly responded that she represents everyone in her constituency. When asked about how she would feel about a gay bar opening in her riding, she responded that she would have no problem with it. Even when the host tried over and over to try to get her to judge what would be considered a “bad” Muslim woman, Ms. Laouni didn’t fall for it and repeated that it is never her role to judge.
  • Asked about sharia law, she responded that it’s generally interpreted in oppressive ways, and that she would be against implementing it in Canada. She even went as far as to say that as MP, she would place the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms over the Qur’an. (It is clearly lost on the interviewer that this statement would likely lose support from every “Muslim extremist” out there.)
  • She was asked repeatedly about her involvement with the Canadian Islamic Congress, a very large national organisation. Her reply was that she is no longer involved, and was only ever involved as a volunteer, doing things like going to Hérouxville to speak to people about Islam, and supporting the family of Cédrika Provencher, a young girl from Quebec who has been missing for over a year.
  • The sexual comments keep coming; the host talks suggestively about how Ms. Laouni must have liked shaking his hand, and later mentions that in “Islamic law” (i.e., his misinterpretation of it), she would need four witnesses to prove it if he were to rape her. This is all said in a joking tone, but is still pretty problematic.

The combination of anti-Islamic comments that the interviewer made led the Canadian Union of Public Employees to call for his resignation, and for an investigation of hate comments.

Amazingly, the same show did a follow-up a few days later, with a representative from PointdeBasculeCanada.ca, and anti-Islamist website, in which they managed, through mind-bending leaps of logic, to re-position Ms. Laouni as an Islamic extremist. Quotes were taken out of context and twisted, and her connections to the Canadian Islamic Congress were re-emphasised, in order to link her to other supposed extremists. Although the focus was more on the apparent extremism of other people than on any of Ms. Laouni’s political platforms, the interview seemed constructed in a way to undermine all of the points that she had made, and to convey that despite all the points that she had made that might have made her seem like a good candidate, she was still fundamentally a religious fanatic.

This idea is taken up in many editorials that have been published, such as this one in the National Post. Samira Laouni’s candidacy is described as “worrying,” in part because of her “enthusiasm for sharia law.” While Ms. Laouni’s own politics are only barely described beyond this (unfounded) sentence, the article links her to the CIC, and then goes on to describe the “extremist” and “problematic” ideologies of Yvonne Ridley and Mohamed Elmasry. Ms. Laouni’s attempts at promoting “respect” and “tolerance” in Hérouxville are undermined in the article, which contrasts those ideals with a poem written by Ms. Laouni’s riding president. The next two paragraphs are largely focused on a website that the riding president – not Ms. Laouni herself – is apparently associated with. In other words, in the entire article, all of the accusations against Ms. Laouni are made through guilt by association, with not a single example of “Islamism” on the part of Ms. Laouni herself. From a journalistic standpoint alone, it is incredibly irresponsible. Looking at the broader implications of how this impacts Ms. Laouni and her campaign, it is alarming and insulting, to say the least.

All this, and I didn’t even tell you about most of the French-language stuff that’s getting said.

It’s worth giving some context to the particular case of Quebec. This is not to accuse all Quebeckers of being racist, or to imply that this Islamophobic panic couldn’t happen elsewhere, but other recent stories (the town of Hérouxville’s code of conduct for new immigrants, and headscarf bans in soccer and martial arts, stand out as some of the more prominent ones) do point to a particular polarisation happening in la belle province. A recent Globe and Mail article quotes a national study on Islamophobia and anti-Jewish sentiment:

Anti-Muslim sentiment rose overall in Canada, according to the Leger Marketing poll released Friday. Thirty-six per cent of the 1,500 respondents across the country expressed anti-Muslim sentiment, compared to 27 per cent a year ago. The difference was more notable in French Canada, where the number increased to 49 per cent from 42 per cent in 2007.

I’ll try to keep an eye on this, and make sure that we post updates here, either in follow-up articles or in the Friday links.

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