Trigger Warning: Islamophobia, racism, and violence.
After any Islamophobic incident in Canada, there seems to be a general pattern.
First, a sense of shock and bewilderment from non-Muslims that something horrific could occur in our peaceful nation. Second, a statement of solidarity is issued from politicians, ensuring Muslims that they are seen and valued. Third, a tendency to treat the incident as a one-time terrorist attack without pulling up the rotting roots of racism and Islamophobia under Canada’s foundation.
As someone who is often the only Muslim girl in the room, I’ve developed a tendency to block out the horrific. I can’t think about China’s Muslim internment camps without feeling a surge of anger and helplessness. I try to breathe when I hear passive-aggressive comments about Muslim women being forced to wear the hijab. I change the subject when someone brings up Trump’s Muslim Ban.
My pattern of avoidance goes against every fibre of my loud, political, social justice warrior being. It doesn’t make sense, nor does it align with who I want to be. Finally, after deep reflection, I realized I avoid it because it’s what I’ve been socialized to do.
After the Quebec City mosque shooting in 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a statement. “Thirty-six million hearts are breaking with yours,” Trudeau said. “Know that we value you.”
Though his words were meant to be comforting, Trudeau’s words fall short and remain hollow. While his statement of solidarity was necessary, statistics show that an alarming number of Canadians feel fear and hatred towards Muslims. It’s uncomfortable to admit it, especially for a country like Canada, but it has to be said: Muslim lives are still not valued. A horrific anti-Muslim hate crime attack takes place. We cry. We make statements. We avoid the underlying Islamophobia that manifests in slurs, whispers, and fearful looks. We move on.
On Monday, June 7th, Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, their daughter Yumna Afzaal, 15, and Salman’s 74-year-old mother were brutally murdered. Nathaniel Veltman saw the family walking down the street in London, Ontario, made a decision that they did not deserve to live, and slammed into them in his black truck.
Only 9-year-old Fayez Afzaal survived.
I cannot detach myself from this trauma. I cannot stop thinking about a nine-year-old boy losing his entire family because of a premeditated, planned murder – fuelled by hatred and bigotry. They were killed while going on a peaceful evening walk.
For me, being Muslim has always had the bitter aftertaste of understanding I am not really wanted here. Upon moving to Canada, my father went by Frank instead of Farouk so he could find work. My mother was the only non-white teacher at an upper-class private school and certainly the only Muslim. She has dealt with microaggressions for the majority of her adult life.
My family and I have the privilege of not looking like a typical Muslim family. I am an Ismaili Muslim, and the majority of Ismaili women in Canada do not wear hijabs. I wear revealing clothes, have blonde highlights, and many of my peers at Queen’s were surprised to learn about my religious affiliation. However, people who are easily identifiable as Muslim do not have the same privilege as I do. Putting on a hijab – a symbol of honour, devotion, and modesty – is like wearing a target.
The shocking Instagram graphic with statistics on Islamophobia is correct. According to a report on Islamophobia in Canada, submitted to the UN in 2020, “46% of Canadians have an unfavourable view of Islam – more than for any other religious tradition… 42% of Canadians think discrimination against Muslims is ‘mainly their fault,’ and 51% support government surveillance of mosques.”
In 2020, 140 hate crime incidents were reported against Muslim women in Alberta, including hate crimes.
Muslims receive extremely negative media coverage – reporters are often unconsciously perpetuating a violent, untrustworthy stereotype of Islam rather than working to combat it. A prime example is the connotation of the word “terrorist,” which immediately makes most think of a Muslim presenting man.
Canada has mastered the art of performing diversity. Our politicians and leaders know precisely which issues to sweep under the rug and which instances of representation to highlight in the global community. At an overwhelmingly white institution like Queen’s, I feel uncomfortable as a woman of colour but especially uncomfortable as a Muslim – and the work of crafting EDII initiatives has fallen on students of colour who are emotionally drained.
I don’t believe there is one way to dismantle Islamophobia in Canada, but Nathanial Veltman was 20 years old – he was our age. Hatred and violence against Muslims is not an outdated phenomenon, pervasive only in older generations of white Canadians. Educated university students feel it. Young people are so fearful of Muslims that they are willing to murder them.
Canada needs to stop treating anti-Muslim hate as an anomaly. Our politicians and Canadian citizens need to internalize the statistics of Islamophobia and prioritize those facts against racist, microaggressive media coverage of Muslims. We need meaningful institutional reform – the roots of Islamophobia in our country can no longer be ignored. I, for one, am done sinking into my pattern of avoidance – and non-Muslims should be done too.