Sarah Jama's censure: Making people feel uncomfortable is part of the job

Sarah Jama, a member of the Ontario legislature for Hamilton Centre, recently faced censure from Doug Ford’s Conservative government. She was also removed from the Ontario NDP caucus by her own party.

The NDP’s disciplinary response and the removal of her from caucus cannot be separated from the current climate. It is right in the middle of a nationwide Islamophobic backlash, where scores of others are also experiencing a wide range of institutional discipline.

Jama’s social media statement, released three days after the Hamas attack on Israel, sparked the disciplinary action. In her statement, she called on Canada to “hold true to its history of peacemaking and refrain from military intervention.” She referred to Israel’s siege of Gaza and subsequent bombardment. She also referred to an analysis by the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories calling Israel’s occupation apartheid. Her statement left out any mention of the Hamas attack that spurred the latest round of violence. Jama posted an apology for her omission on social media about 24 hours later and condemned Hamas.

But this wasn’t enough for the Progressive Conservative government, who put forward a motion the next week to censure her.

Controversy is nothing new

For Jama, a Black disabled Muslim woman of Somali heritage, controversy is nothing new.

As Jama has said: “Mak[ing] people feel uncomfortable” has always been part of her work.

For example, before her role as a member of provincial parliament (MPP), Jama had been actively organizing in Hamilton, addressing issues of homelessness, racial justice and disability rights where she clearly ruffled more than a few feathers.

On the eve of receiving the 2022 Woman of Distinction award, Jama was gearing to face a police officer who had charged her with assault — a charge that was later withdrawn.

Climate of Islamophobia

But in this case, the issue did not go away. Jama’s current story cannot be separated from the current surge in anti-Muslim racism.

To understand this surge, it’s crucial to recognize the influence of the “Islamophobia Industry” in Canada. Sociologist Jasmin Zine, a noted authority on Islamophobia, delineates this industry as a conglomerate of media outlets, political figures, far-right, white nationalist groups and Islamophobia influencers and ideologues, among others, fostering an environment where harmful stereotypes of Muslims as innately provocative and violent become commonplace.

Read more: How Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism are manufactured through disinformation

This racialization lumps more than a billion Muslims into an undifferentiated mass, exploited by public discourse that sensationalizes violent narratives, devoid of geopolitical context or history.

This disregard of complexity, diversity and historical context in the operation of anti-Muslim racism means violence perpetuated by the likes of Hamas comes to be conflated with all Palestinians, all Arabs and by extension all Muslims.

This simple racist arithmetic, or Islamophobic math, produces horrific outcomes like the targeted killing of a six-year-old Palestinian-American Muslim boy in Illinois.

Here in Canada, according to a Statistics Canada report, hate crimes in general are up. Those against Muslims rose 71 per cent in 2021 from the previous year. And the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), has reported a sharp spike in the number of reports they have received regarding Islamophobic incidents these past few weeks (for example, instead of one report per day as they had previously, they are now receiving 13).

Additionally, Jama is a Black woman and it’s also essential to consider the intersecting and uneven nature of racism. According to the 2023 Black Muslim Initiative (BMI) report, written in collaboration with Toronto Metropolitan University, Black Muslim communities in Canada consistently endure the highest levels of discrimination and exclusion across various sectors, including employment and housing.

Examples of anti-Black Islamophobia

Navigating the multiple forms of jeopardy faced by Black Muslim women means simultaneously surviving both interpersonal and structural anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.

Anti-Black, hate-motivated Islamophobia is often directed at women. Here are some examples:

Feminist geographer Délice Mugabo explains: “anti-Black Islamophobia” is the exclusion of Black people from the category of the human and Muslims from the category of the citizen. Consequently, fidelity to the nation, and constitution as a person is readily up for interrogation.

Read more: CSIS targeting of Canadian Muslims reveals the importance of addressing institutional Islamophobia

The trouble ‘they’ cause

The swift dismissal of people like Jama reaffirms the interlocking dimensions of oppression. Jama’s censure reveals how a Black woman’s assertion of self is commonly read as troublesome: “hostile, aggressive, overbearing.”

In the United States, the only Black Muslim woman in Congress is Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, who faced censorship and removal from the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee for her comments on Israel last year.

In practice, this double jeopardy leaves Black Muslim communities suspended, saddled with heightened vulnerabilities, and often erased from dominant discourses surrounding both anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.

And living as a suspended community means being the first to go, the first to be discarded. There are few grounds available to provoke so called “trouble.” Trouble is disorder, disturbance, violation of expectations, norms and values. As a Black Muslim, you’re already seen as trouble incarnated.

Interconnected liberation

However, just as oppression is interconnected, so is liberation. Jama made her first public appearance at a peace protest this past weekend in Toronto. She addressed tens of thousands of protesters demanding a ceasefire in Gaza.

The on-going global demonstrations and actions are proving to be the grounds where we can bring our troubles, cries, joy and pain.

Hundreds of activists and academics have signed a letter supporting Jama and she has said she will announce her plans to fight her censure on Nov. 14.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

It was written by: Nadiya N. Ali, Trent University.

Read more:

Nadiya Nur Ali has received funding from The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). She is also affiliated with the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).