'Be intentional about trying to make friends': Activists on being an ally to Muslims

A panel on being an ally to members of the Muslim community is happening this month, amid increased discussion about hate crimes in Toronto and beyond.

Islamophobia in Toronto is nothing new, say organizers of upcoming panel

Adil Dhalla, executive director for Toronto's Centre for Social Innovation. (Submitted by Adil Dhalla)

Throughout his life, Adil Dhalla says he's been called a terrorist, and told to "go home."

"I am often the last person on any TTC car to be sat beside," Dhalla, a Muslim man living in Toronto, told CBC Toronto. "That might not seem like a big deal to anybody else, but when it happens to you throughout your life, you begin to wonder what that means — and it does have an impact on you."

Dhalla is also the executive director of Toronto's Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), and later this month, he's moderating a panel discussion in Regent Park on how to be a Muslim ally. Being an ally means speaking up or taking action when you see someone facing prejudice, he said.

"Be intentional about trying to make friends with people from an identity that you might not have a familiarity with," Dhalla said.

People also need to take responsibility to educate themselves on the diversity within the Muslim community, said panel co-organizer Rania El Mugammar, a Toronto-based equity, inclusion and anti-oppression educator.

"It's about learning how to leverage your privilege and your resources and your capacity and your social power," she said. "It's important for being an ally to any marginalized population."

Rania El Mugammer, a Toronto equity, inclusion, and anti-oppression educator. (Submitted by Rania El Mugammer)

The CSI's Nov. 28 panel is the latest in a series of 'How To Be An Ally' events focusing on gender, identity and religion, and will also explore strategies for building safe and inclusive spaces for the diverse members of the Muslim community. The discussion also aims to shed light on how Islamophobia manifests in the Canadian cultural landscape.

While the panel has been in the works for months, it's happening amid heightened discussion of racism and hate crimes in Toronto — and across North America — in the wake of Donald Trump's polarizing U.S. presidential victory.

In Toronto, residents recently spotted racist posters inviting "white people" to join the "alt-right" movement. A man was also caught on camera hurling racist insults at another man on a bustling streetcar Monday night.

But El Mugammar, a black Muslim woman living in Toronto, stresses these incidents are nothing new. Islamophobia has long been normalized in Canada, she said, and recent incidents are only surprising to "non-racialized" people. Despite the increased attention on potential hate crimes, Toronto police said Tuesday they haven't noticed an up-tick in the past couple of weeks.

The reality is, these things have been happening for a long time.- Rania El Mugammar, a Toronto-based equity, inclusion and anti-oppression educator, on racist incidents in Toronto

"(These incidents) are shocking white people — that's what's happening," El Mugammar said. "The reality is, these things have been happening for a long time."

Shilbee Kim, a community manager at CSI's Regent Park branch who is helping organize the event, identifies as a Muslim ally. "For me, it's about listening and hearing people with lived experience and building empathy through this panel discussion," she said.

So where does that level of understanding begin? It's all about learning about others, according to Dhalla.

"I think we need to create a culture of tolerance, and in order for tolerance to exist, we need to know a bit about each other," he said.

How to be an Ally: Islamophobia at the Intersections is happening November 28 in Ada Slaight Hall at Daniels Spectrum.