New book examines the links between media representations of Arab-Canadians and state policy

By Paul Fontaine

By Paul Fontaine

In Jenna Hennebry and Bessma Momani's new book Targeted Transnationals: The State, the Media and Arab Canadians, they argue that Arab-Canadians have been become "targeted transnationals" following 9/11, through state security and immigration policies that have eroded many personal and citizenship rights. The collection discusses the ways in which racialized media discourses present Arab-Canadians as a homogenous group and have reinforced discriminatory attitudes toward Arab-Canadians. The work also points to sites of resistance against institutional racism in Canada and ends with a reflection on the various challenges to integration that Arab-Canadians face, as well as on the issue of multiculturalism in the context of transnationalism and globalization.

Paul Fontaine spoke to Jenna Hennebry, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and the director of the International Migration Research Centre (IMRC), about how the book came together and the impetus behind its organization and approach.

PF: Can you give me a brief history of how the book came together?

JH: My colleague, Bessma Momani, and myself both work together with the Balsillie School of International Affairs and we had been attending events and conferences together. We decided to hold an event, which was sponsored by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), and we had a workshop with participants from across the country to talk about the intersections between mobility and transnationalism with respect to Arab-Canadians and mobility and transnationalism and the framing of that in the context of media, so we were thinking about the intersection of policy and other kinds of structures. It was a very fruitful session and out of that emerged a really solid book proposal in which we invited certain participants from that session to contribute.

Related content on J-Source:

PF: Throughout the book there is an interest in exposing the embedded nature of racism in representations of Arabs and Muslims. Did you perceive a lack in this kind of analysis in the past?

JH: I think there is some emerging scholarship in that area, some of our contributors are part of that scholarship, but there are others beyond that, of course. There are quite a number who are doing work in that area. We feel that this collection is part of that conversation, but we wanted to add to that conversation. There seemed to be disciplinary silos, so there were communications scholars talking about media issues, and then there were people in critical science, and social sciences more broadly, that studied migration policy, or studied border security or multiculturalism, and they weren’t connecting. So, part of our hope was that we could contribute to both sets of scholarship, but, we were also hoping to bring together the discussion because in the way we had conceptualized it, these are all structural elements of society, which have discursive elements and everyday practices embedded in them, but that they don’t operate in a vacuum and are, in fact, interrelated. So that, how things are framed in policy will shape how things are framed in the media and how this is framed in the media will shape policy, and policy responses are shaped by public opinion in some ways, so we wanted to think about the nuances about all that and how to navigate through all of that complicated quagmire.

We hoped that the volume would start that more interdisciplinary conversation and bring together that disparate knowledge, as well as opening the picture to think more broadly about the way in which domestic policy around immigration, multiculturalism, integration, border security, intersects with foreign policy issues, intersects with larger geo-political issues—and media representation has been part of that.

PF: How important was it that the collection pinpoint different sites of resistance to racist discourses? Where do you think scholarship needs to go in terms of exploring these alternate ways of pushing back against cultural pigeonholing?

JH: There is a level that I think policy should go, there is a level that I think scholarship could try to go and, then there is the level of the community, and obviously they are all connected—and some are connected more than others, I guess. At the level of scholarship, I would like to see more nuanced discussions of Arab populations so that we don’t commit the fallacy of homogenization of the group and certainly not the Islamisation of the group either. I think it’s important to recognize that, in Canada, roughly 44 per cent of the Arab population is actually Christian. We have to recognize that this is not a homogenous group as we move forward. Part of what we tried to do is say that a lot of the policy and media framing is assuming that it is an homogenous group and so it is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy that a group is kind of being shunted together, which we feel will have consequences.

So, in terms of scholarship, there should be a nuanced understanding of the differential categories, the differential groupings, the kinds of research that has happened in Canada about other ethic and ethno-cultural groups. We have a history of good research in ethnic and media studies and people who do work on ethnic-racial communities have established different bodies of knowledge around different groups. It’s not the case that we shove all Europeans together, for example, or that we shove all Asians together, but that’s certainly what has happened with Arabs and I think that has to change, especially since many of the different groups have come to Canada for different reasons at different periods of time. So Syrians are coming now as refugees, so their experience will be very different from those who came as skilled immigrants from Saudi Arabia, so they wouldn’t belong to the same category. I think the kinds of challenges to integration are going to be different, and the scholarship around what this means needs to recognize how different experiences of the groups are going to be meaningful.

I would like to see scholarship that is more interdisciplinary, that is trying to recognize the different linkages across these things. I find it funny that quite often media scholars, even though we have a sense of the military-industrial complex or how issues are intersected, I think there is a tendency to sort of narrow in on one set of representations and not connect it up to the broader socio-political and global-political structures that are at work and I think there is a need for that because these structures, when combined together, can have a lot of influence on one’s sense of belonging.

PF: Related to the mobilization of fixed identities and taking into consideration that the audience for this interview will be composed of journalists, how important is the media coverage resists lack of nuance in representations of ethno-cultural groups?

JH: I think it’s really important for journalists to avoid lumping every ethno-cultural group together under the term "Arab," especially as it’s not always that clear who’s Arab and who is not. There is also the question of self-identity that further complicates things, and so accuracy is important. If they’re Syrian, say they are Syrian, don’t just group them all together, and don’t assume that they’re Muslim, and then don’t make links from that to a questioning of their loyalty.

There has been a way of thinking about transnationalism historically that saw it as a threat to integration, but there’s now a sense that transnationalism—in the scholarship anyway—is seen as much more emancipatory, much more about enabling integration in a context in which you may have dual or multiple types of identities that you have to navigate through. For youth, in particular, transnationalism is important to their sense of belonging, to their connections to their cultural roots, it’s essential for them, so it’s not something that should be seen as problematic or as a sign of lack of loyalty. I think that the media are a little slow to get caught up to that scholarship, to that knowledge base that we have now, and I think policy is similar in that way. Scholars fully recognize and research indicates that if people feel they can learn their own language, can pass it on to their children, can consume cultural products, can travel, and can stay connected to family, they will feel like part of a community. If they are able to feel like part of a community and that they are not being separated or forced to sever themselves, then they will have a greater sense of belonging in Canada. So I think it’s essential, when we design policy and in media coverage, that we recognize how crucial that it for people’s sense of self and belonging. It’s no different for any other Canadian that wishes to engage with their roots, it’s part of being able to understand who you are in this very globalized context.