Seventeen minutes of livestreamed horror, 50 killed, a moment of silence.
“It could have been any of us,” says Asiyah Robinson, president of the University of Victoria Muslim Students’ Association, as the Muslim community and their supporters gathered and prayed for the victims of the Christchurch massacre.
The single, deadliest attack on Muslims in New Zealand’s recent history has struck fear among Muslims in Canada, where hate crimes targeting Muslims grew by 151 percent in 2017, according to Statistics Canada.
At the same time, the brutality of the crime has pushed to the fore the need for a dialogue to counter Islamophobia.
“As soon as news broke about New Zealand, there was a lot of worry and uncertainty within the Muslim community. People wanted venue where they could discuss worries,” says Sheikh Ismail Nur, the Imam of Masjid Al-Iman in Victoria, during a discussion-forum of more than 80 people.
The gathering on March 22 at Victoria City Hall was rooted in the fact Islamophobia is a reality, and that it affects the entire community. According to the Canadian Review of Sociology, Islamophobia is “the dread, hatred and hostility towards Islam and Muslims perpetrated by a series of closed views that imply and attribute negative and derogatory stereotypes and beliefs to Muslims.”
Seeing Muslims as separate or “the other” perpetuates negative stereotypes, stemming from the view that Islam is a violent religion and that Muslims are religious fanatics promoting a political ideology.
For Zaheera Jinnah, an expert in Migration and Refugee studies, the process of “othering” is fueled by nationalist, racist and anti-immigrant sentiments, so ingrained that the mainstreaming of hate has become routine.
“It’s important to ask: Who belongs? How do we protect the rights of those right to belong is questioned?” she poses, arguing that subtle forms of discrimination, something as indistinct as giving a Muslim a judgmental look, happen every day, even in Canada.
“That right has been challenged based on who you are, how you look, how you dress where you come from,” adds Jinnah. Worse, these types of racism are hard to describe and report – unseen, and not as blatant as the attack in 2017, where six Muslim men were killed when a gunman opened fire as they were holding their evening prayers at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec.
The recent report of the Canadian Labour Congress, “Islamophobia at Work: Challenges and Opportunities,” states that vilifying Muslims — especially because of negative media portrayals — has eroded values and identity, stripping Muslims of rights and privileges in workplaces and everyday life.
‘The night that changed my life’
Faiza Rezgui, a resident in Victoria, remembers the day she suffered the worst form of exclusion, all because of single photograph of her published by a newspaper in Vancouver in 2001, after the September 11 attacks.
She had joined a group of protesters rejecting the war in Afghanistan and the media never asked for permission nor talked to her about why she was there. Upon seeing the image, three of her closest, non-Muslim friends at the University of British Columbia told her to stay away.
“That incident affected my whole life until now I still feel it. If you are against war, it does not mean you are for 9/11,” she shares. “They excluded me, and I was excluded from many other groups at UBC because of that incident.”
Since then, she has been taking careful measures when speaking up. “Maybe people hate Muslims because of what’s happening in the world. Muslims in the West don’t talk freely. You cannot just speak up and say this should not happen. We have those internal barriers.”
Rezgui hopes for the day she can freely communicate her ideas and feelings, as she represents a Muslim population in Canada that is mostly composed of immigrants.
Navigating a layered identity
Studies show people identifying as Muslims in Canada are most likely to be a person of color, and a member of a racialized group. They are mostly Black or have South Asian, or Arab/West Asian heritage, and this is why Islamophobia should also be seen as an intersection of religion, cultural, racial and even gender backgrounds.
“We should not dilute Islamophobia to a single lens of being Muslim. Many Muslims in the West are from racial and ethnic minorities, perhaps migrants, speak different languages and have diverse countries of origin and ancestry,” says Jinnah. “And because of these multiple
identities that Muslims hold, they may face multiple forms of discrimination, exclusion, and violence.”
To address this problem, she proposes a collection of accurate data on Islamophobia to craft an evidence-based intervention.
The gathering at Victoria City Hall was designed toward making policies that could make this step a reality, along with engaging schools and educating children about what Islam as a religion stands for.
“We want a very constructive discussion on how to move forward as a community,” says Nur. He says his experience as a Muslim in Victoria has generally been positive, but this does not mean Islamophobia does not happen.
This is why he supported Asiyah’s initiative when her organization proposed a series of activities to address the fear and misconceptions following the New Zealand attack. It began with a safety talk for Muslims, creating a safe space at UVic, and a discussion group, with more to come. The mosque in Victoria will also be holding more open house activities.
“Once they come to the mosque and they see, they understand that even though we are worlds apart, we had so much in common,” Nur says. “The hope is to have more of these discussions open to the wider public and for us in turn to reach out to policy makers.”
During the forum, Rezgui reminded the community that Islam is for peace, and all about fostering love. The group shared notions of solidarity, of standing together to overcome forms of hate crime.
“In the light of the tragic terrorist attack in New Zealand, as Muslims we believe there is a silver lining to everything,” adds Nur. “We rely on our faith and we try to bring something positive to a very negative situation — that those 50 innocent lives who were lost were not lost for anything.”
As for Asiyah and her friends, as their tears of anger and grief flow, they will continue to cry against injustice, and empower others to do the same.