Popular journalism, religious morality, and the Canadian imaginary: queers and immigrants as threats to the public sphere.

Author:Mosurinjohn, Sharday
Position:Report
 
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Introduction: The Relationship between Religion and Tolerating Diversity in Canada

This article argues that in Canadian news media, the figure of the queer citizen and the figure of the immigrant function as symbols for the threat of change to an imagined national community and that religion is a key discursive vehicle for conveying that threat. Analyzing the discourse surrounding two recent events documented in the English national press, I demonstrate how these transgressive figures are composed in a powerful and particular way through the vignettes of journalistic practice. The first is the October 2011 suicide of Ottawa resident Jamie Hubley, a gay fifteen-year-old who took his own life after blogging publicly about his struggles with homophobic bullying by his Catholic school peers. The second is the 2011-2012 trial concerning a Muslim family of Afghani immigrants to Montreal in which the father, second wife, and son were convicted of first-degree murder for the "honour killings" of the first wife and three teenage daughters in 2009. I examine an emerging discursive framework, characteristic of reporting about these tragedies and the issues in them involving suicidal gay youth and "oppressed brown women." Rather than decrying difference wholesale, this reporting disingenuously evokes a commitment to tolerance without occasioning a substantial interrogation of what is really being tolerated and why.

At first blush, it appears that these two tragedies could not be more different. (1) The first case, Hubley's suicide, shows how Canadian society needs to go further than the concept of tolerance to accept and expect non-heterosexual identities and relationships; it points out where the limits of inclusion need to be pushed. The second case, though, makes the opposite point. The Shafia case illustrates that the boundaries of acceptability must be drawn clearly to exclude vigilantism and misogyny, whether motivated by religious values or not. Moreover, it should prompt reflection on the fact that what is called honour-related violence is not unrelated to what is called domestic violence, or to other forms of gender-based violence.

Despite these differences, there are some important similarities in media coverage and public reaction between the Hubley and Shafia cases, and there is value in exploring them alongside one another. Doing so enables us to see how differently the category of religion is constructed when it is attached to a white, queer, Canadian, Catholic boy than when it is attached to a racialized, polygamous, immigrant family of Muslim men, women, and girls. More broadly, it illuminates what kinds of difference are and are not acceptable in Canadian society. At the same time, examining the Hubley and Shafia cases highlights that the media need to do a better job of reporting on the ordinary lives of minorities, including religious, racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities--especially when those ordinary lives involve denouncing stereotypes and speaking up for their own prosocial values. It is important, however, to acknowledge that this kind of reporting is not completely absent from the press. For example, on 9 December 2011, near the middle of the Shafia trial, the Canadian Press ran a story entitled "Shafia Honour Killing Prompts Canada Muslim Clerics to Band Together in Denouncing Them." Quoting a Calgarian imam who began using his sermons to reinforce an Islamic message of gender equality amid the media buzz around Islam and honour killing, this piece aimed to show that traditional Islamic values can fit into Canadian society. And just days before Jamie Hubley's death, the Globe and Mail ran a piece by Melissa Carroll headlined "Mental Illness? Yes, but Also Homophobia" (7 October 2011) that nuanced the discourse around bullying and mental illness by bringing in the issue of prejudice against sexual minorities. In it, the writer indicted the media for "habitually avoid[ing] the relationship between youth suicide and queer sexuality"--an omission she called "glaring, given that studies have overwhelmingly cited lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth as one of the most at-risk groups for suicide (with a 32-per-cent rate of attempt, compared with the cited 7 per cent for heterosexual teens)" (Carroll 2011b, para. 4). The line of thinking I will develop here is therefore not that any reasoned treatment of these issues is missing entirely in the media, nor even that the more sensational coverage represents a departure from conventional journalistic etiquette--after all, it is the nature of the press to report on the extraordinary--but rather that analyzing the coverage of the Hubley suicide and the Shafia murders suggests that the media should take cases such as these as an opportunity to explore the deeper questions they raise.

Canadian Values and Canadian Fears

I begin by opening a discussion of how certain values around sexuality, religion, and race came to be dominant in Canada. Throughout this discussion, I focus on similarities and differences in how the concept of religion functions in constructing the queer and the immigrant as threats to those values.

It is interesting to consider that opposition to homosexual (2) identities and practices has been almost entirely religious in nature (Goldie 2001)--religion being defined for my purposes here by popular usage of the designation and the consequences of so-called religious phenomena for day-to-day life. (3) Moreover, the subtler form of discomfort that reigns in Canada--what could be called "tolerant antipathy"--has been discursively ordered through the normative framework of a hegemonically Christian majority culture. In other words, while shallow or hypocritical rhetoric around tolerance is far from citing biblical prohibitions against homosexuality, it is nonetheless informed by the Christian values on which Canadian society was built, and one of those values is the ascendancy of heterosexuality. Conversely, in the case of "undesirable" immigrants (often assumed to be nonwhite, and, ironically, often perceived to be homophobic and misogynistic), (4) opposition is often framed in terms of the supposed incompatibility of their religious values (usually Islamic) with Canadian mores like gender equality and tolerance for sexual diversity (Thobani 2007, 222).

While queer people and racialized or religious-minority immigrants are seen to present different threats, and therefore to have different agendas and be concerned with different identity politics, the figure of the immigrant and the figure of the queer are nonetheless linked by association with concepts of tolerance and difference--or, more often, the friendlier-sounding "diversity." The problem of diversity they present needs to be met, goes conventional thinking, with the solution of cultivating and setting limits to tolerance. The work of drawing these boundaries would appear to fall to some hard-to-define majority "us" that does the courtesy of tolerating "them." In pointing out that the figures of the queer and the immigrant are categorically linked in the public imagination around Canadian national identity, I want to emphasize how this imagined national identity is deeply informed by Anglo-Protestant values inherited from the white European settlers who began the ongoing colonization of these lands. In the cultural context that dominates Canada, newsmakers can moralize about the significance of the queer and the immigrant vis-a-vis Canadian culture and values without ever having to acknowledge the specific histories of those values and cultural practices. "Canadian culture" and "Canadian values" appear ahistorical, never named as religious or Western European in origin.

The myth of a tolerance-and equality-loving Canada maintains a great deal of traction. Identifying with it allows people to define their views as always already not racist, not Islamophobic, not homophobic--in short, not oppressive--because they flow from an identity that is, by definition, tolerant of these kinds of diversity. Citizens who identify with the image of the equality-and tolerance-loving Canadian might not experience themselves as fearing sexual, religious, and cultural "others" at all, but the work of scholars like Sherene Razack, Sunera Thobani, Terrie Goldie, Gary Kinsmen, and many others chronicles long histories of discipline and punishment for ethnicized and racialized foreigners as well as queers of all stripes. Kinsmen considers, for instance, just "how much the Canadian state has done to oppress sexual diversity through treating homosexuals as prima facie risks to national security" (Goldie 2001, 5) and flatly asserts that "Canadian state formation has been an anti-queer project, a project of heterosexual hegemony in association with class, gender, race, national, linguistic, and other forms of hegemony" (Kinsmen 2001, 210). In Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics, Razack (2008, 146) observes that "the eternal triangle of the imperilled Muslim woman, the 'dangerous' Muslim man, and the civilized European is fully in evidence" in Canadian "minority rights" debates. In particular, she notes the odd alliance of "Canadian feminist and state responses to the prospect of the introduction of Sharia law as an option for Muslims settling disputes in family law" (146).

Among the fears plaguing the figures of the immigrant and the queer are particular kinds of economic insecurities. For immigrants, this fear has to do with the idea of the foreigner taking resources that don't properly belong to them. Avvy Go (2011) notes that at a time when Canada was actively bringing in white European immigrants to settle the prairies, it was also discouraging black, Chinese, Indian, and other immigrants of colour from entering the country through strategies as flimsy and diverse as astronomically expensive head taxes (the Chinese head tax of $500 in...

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