The curious case of Canada's right-wing PM hosting first iftar meal

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For years, U.S. President Barack Obama has hosted an annual iftar, a meal in which Muslims break their Ramadan fast, at the White House with American Muslims.

And before him, there was Republican George W. Bush, who hosted one iftar every year to recognize the contributions of American Muslims to society.

But America’s northern brother Canada has never had its top leader hosting iftar for its Muslim citizens, up until last Monday when Prime Minister Stephen Harper held the event.

The staunchly-right wing leader of the Conservative Party invited Muslims families to break their fast at his official residence, 24 Sussex Drive in the capital Ottawa.

At Sussex Drive, Harper told a crowd of 40 people that “this house belongs ultimately to all Canadians.”

“And I hope all Canadians, especially our Muslim friends and neighbors, share in these blessings tonight,” he continued.

The move, however, surprised Canadian Muslims who grew accustomed to what they deem as Harper’s anti-Muslims diatribes, including the latest conservative bill to ban niqabs during citizenship ceremonies.

“This event certainly came as a surprise to many given the government’s record of action that has alienated, marginalized, many Canadian Muslim communities,” Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, told local news site iPolitics.

He added: “Given that it is election season, we hope that this event is not merely a vote-soliciting tactic but a real sign of change of tone and attitude.”

Other Muslim Canadians also confirm Gardee’s sentiment.

“To the Canadian public opinion in general and not just Muslims, it seems to be just an election ploy,” Ruba al-Hassani, a Toronto-based socio-legal academic at Osgoode Hall Law School, told Al Arabiya News.

According to Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, there were 1,053,945 Muslims in Canada or about 3.2% of the population, making Islam the second largest religion after Christianity and the fastest growing religion in Canada.

‘Token Muslims?’

The 42nd Canadian federal election is scheduled to take place on Oct. 19, with a recent poll showing the center-left New Democratic Party (NDP) being in the lead. The poll also comes after four decades of Conservative rule.

Traditionally, Muslim Canadians tend to vote either for NDP or for the Liberals, however the latter might have some trouble garnering wider Muslim support as it backs - together with the Conservatives - Bill C-51, the government’s anti-terror legislation which critics say hampers civil liberties.

“The conservatives are starting to realize that maybe this is something they can do to save face, so they started with the iftar. We do not even know who they invited for the iftar… that’s another issue,” Hassani added, describing the Muslim attendees as “token Muslims.”

Laith Taha, an engineer from another Ontarian city, Windsor said Harper is “trying to get some Muslims on his side.”

“There is a new current within the Conservative Party that is trying to reach out to the Muslim population,” said Taha, who hails from a city that has a high concentration of Muslims and Arabs.

Taha has Muslim friends who are lobbying with the Conservatives. Since last year, he said the Conservatives held a dinner at the Rose City Islamic Center in Windsor, where they registered about 200 Muslim Canadians as being part of their party.

Asked if Harper’s move is a show of desperation to garner the Muslim vote, he said: “that’s what I have heard from many people around me, that he is desperate to get votes, and he is feeling the heat that some of the candidates in his party are trying to change the political view about the conservative party.”

However, Hassani thinks otherwise.

“We can’t tell if they are desperate, because they seem to be that way, at least, they do not seem concerned with the consequences of the statements,” she said, citing the Conservative’s bill to ban the niqab in the last parliamentary session before the summer break.

While Hassani said there is a difference between banning the hijab and the niqab, she heralds such bill as a bad sign to Muslims, asking “what is next, the hijab?”

And it is not just Muslims who express concern over the Conservatives.

“A lot of Canadians are concerned that Harper does not even represent Canadians values, especially in the international arena in terms of foreign policy,” she said, adding: “even the way he tackles crime and gun control, Canada used to have a gun register and he canceled it; that is so American of him.”

In a column posted on Sunday, Canadian writer Carol Goar’s described how Harper has “altered the face of Canada.”

“Some of Harper’s changes — the muzzling of federal employees, the withholding of public documents, the stifling of dissent, the marginalization of Parliament — can be undone,” Goar wrote.

However, other changes “such as the dismantling of national institutions will be difficult and expensive to reverse,” Goar added.