How Stephen Harper is using paranoia to win in 2015

From Islam to oil sands critics, Harper is using a fear of outsiders to unite voters.

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A decade ago, with a Gay Pride parade on the streets of Jerusalem imminent, various senior religious leaders in Israel and Palestine – Jewish, Muslim and Christian – actually agreed about something. “This is not the homo land. This is the Holy Land,” Rabbi Yehuda Levin pitched in on behalf of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, neatly capturing the sentiment.

Today, Canada is having a comparable moment. Fear of Islam – not just Islamic State or “Islamism” – has bridged even the chasm of the country’s “two solitudes”: English- and French-speaking Canada. Recent polls suggest that Quebec sovereigntists, historically loath to support the Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, have come round with alacrity to his agitated views about security and the Muslim other.

Just over a year ago, the indépendantiste Parti Québécois (PQ) was defeated in the provincial election after pledging to bar citizens from wearing religious headscarves, turbans or “ostentatious” pendants while in government employment. But where the PQ’s “secular charter” failed, Harper appears determined to succeed. Since 22 October 2014, when the prime minister hid in a closet as a gunman rampaged through the Canadian House of Commons, Harper has shown himself to be a born-again version of his old acrimonious self. In no time at all, he used the hastily dubbed “terrorist” attack in Ottawa – in which a mentally ill vagrant named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed a soldier at the capital’s National War Memorial before storming the House of Commons and being shot dead – to foment the sort of fear and political division that has served the Conservative government so well since it took office in 2006.

“The international jihadist movement [has] declared war . . . on any country, like ourselves, that values freedom, openness and tolerance,” Harper said after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January. The following month – and not coincidentally in Quebec – Harper pledged to overturn a law allowing prospective Canadians to wear the niqab during citizenship ceremonies. (In reality, any applicant must affirm her identity and remove her niqab before a magistrate privately, prior to the public ceremony.) Then, in March, the prime minister told parliament that the niqab was “rooted in a culture that is anti-women”.

His provocative posturing, the former US presidential candidate Ralph Nader wrote, overstated the menace of Islamist terrorism and amounted to “exaggerated expressions that exceed the paranoia of Washington’s chief attack dog, former vice-president Dick Cheney”. Yet it has proved attractive at home – and not just to the Conservative Party’s base in rural and western Canada. It has had considerable appeal in Quebec, where in February a judge compared a Muslim woman’s hijab to a hat or sunglasses, demanding that she remove it. In this province where the Conservatives hold only five of the 75 seats, steamrollered by the first “Orange Wave” of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 2011, concerns about language and identity have buttressed all sorts of prejudices and the strategy has been working.

Bill C-51, a set of security laws that will provide the government with augmented powers of surveillance with paltry checks and balances, was sped through the parliamentary process. Supported by the Liberal Party’s Justin Trudeau, the bill was opposed only by the Green Party and Thomas Mulcair’s NDP, the official opposition for the first time in the country’s history. The NDP’s second Orange Wave – an upset in the Albertan provincial election on 5 May, ending 44 years of Conservative rule – has bolstered the party’s prospects. Yet it is a commonplace of Canadian politics that provincial electoral successes do not ensure progress at federal level.

Harper’s Canada is a place where imagined threats linger around every corner. Critics of the country’s oil sands projects are “activists” funded by “foreign money”. Opponents of greater police surveillance are “liberals . . . putting the rights of child pornographers and organised crime ahead of the rights of law-abiding citizens”. In March, Harper appeared to back vigilante justice, advising Canadians that guns provide farmers with “a certain level of security when you’re a ways from immediate police assistance”. By focusing on
Islamism, he has found a way to entrench his party’s position.

“To love one another is to hate a common enemy,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre. In October, Harper will rely on Canadian Conservatives and Quebecker separatists to behave like the Jerusalem leaders and prove Sartre’s point, winning his government a fourth term. 

This article appears in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph