Paris attacks backlash 'nothing new,' Canadian Muslims say, but public also supportive

Idil Abulkadir is used to explaining complicated equations in the classroom. But in an open letter to Muslim students following the deadly Paris attacks, the Ottawa high school teacher felt compelled to share a different and very personal lesson.

Muslims are speaking out about Islamophobia, but also find encouraging signs of support

Hundreds met at Valley Park Middle School in Toronto's north end Saturday to support Muslim residents after several attacks. Many Muslims say other Canadians are showing support for the community. (CBC)

Idil Abdulkadir is used to explaining complicated equations in the classroom. But in an open letter to Muslim students following the Paris attacks, the Ottawa high school teacher felt compelled to share a different and personal lesson.

"After tragedies like the one in Paris, the world erupts in fear," wrote Abdulkadir in the letter published online Thursday. "The strangers who think we are monsters cannot be convinced otherwise. If it wasn't us, they would hate someone else."

In the letter, Abdulkadir tells students not to become obsessed with fighting back against stereotypes and to focus instead on friends, neighbours and other allies — lessons she says she learned the hard way over the years.

After every big event like this there usually is a backlash. It's definitely a pattern.–Idil Abdulkadir

Her comments echo the sentiments of many Canadian Muslims who say they've become used to verbal and sometimes physical attacks following major extremist attacks going back to Sept. 11.

The days following the Paris attacks have seen an increase in suspected hate crimes, including a mosque in Peterborough, Ont., set on fire, a Muslim woman beaten and robbed near an elementary school in Toronto and a YouTube video in which a man wearing a Joker-style mask threatened to kill one Arab per week.

What has changed, Muslims say, is their willingness to speak out about such incidents and the outpouring of public support they've seen. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, Rania El Mugammar was in the ninth grade. "This is bad," she recalls thinking as she watched images of the World Trade Center attacks on the news.

What she didn't realize then was how her own life would be changed.

Rania El Mugammar is the founder of a Toronto non-profit group called SpeakSudan. She says she first experienced Islamophobia after the Sept. 11 attacks.

El Mugammar, now 26, recalls strangers hurling obscenities at her in the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks. Her father cautioned her not to wear a hijab and not to speak Arabic outside the home.

For many Muslims, the Sept. 11 aftermath was the first time they'd experienced such a backlash, said Toronto imam Yusuf Badat. That, in part, made the experience "much more serious" than what he's seen after Paris.

But Abdulkadir felt she needed to reach out to Muslim students who may be experiencing such attacks for the first time. "After every big event like this there usually is a backlash," she said. "It's definitely a pattern."

Spike in suspected hate crimes 

Earlier this year, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), an Ottawa-based Muslim civil rights organization, began tracking hate-related incidents reported in the media and to the police.

The council said it saw an "immediate spike" in the number of anti-Muslim incidents following attacks on Parliament Hill and in Quebec in October 2014.

In the days that followed those incidents, a mosque in Cold Lake, Alta., was defaced with the words "Go home."

According to the latest Statistics Canada data, hate crimes against Muslims increased from 45 in 2012 to 65 in 2013. 

But the National Council of Canadian Muslims said the official numbers only reflect cases where charges are laid, and the numbers might not tell the whole story. 

El Mugammar said young Muslims who have experienced Islamophobic sentiments after such attacks have become adept at organizing and speaking out when they experience hate and discrimination.

"Now our communities have gotten very tech-savvy … we have been able to really draw attention to what's going on," said El Mugammar, herself the founder of a Toronto non-profit group called SpeakSudan.

Public support for Muslims

Also encouraging, said Toronto community organizer Seher Shafiq, 25, is the swelling of public support for Muslims affected by the backlash after Paris on social media through hashtags such as #standwithMuslimsTO and #illridewithyou.

Badat has also noticed how social media has helped both Muslims experiencing Islamophobia to speak out, as well as make it easier for the broader public to respond with support. "After 9/11 this wasn't there," he said.

Yet Shafiq wonders how much of a role the internet plays for those affected by Islamophobic attacks, worrying that those with language barriers or who don't report assaults may never document their experiences.

"All of the stories that don't make it to the media or to Facebook statuses are just totally erased," she said.

Rima Berns-McGown, a history professor at the University of Toronto, said it can be especially difficult for Canadians to acknowledge when they may be intolerant.

'It means a lot to us as Canadians to see ourselves as open, but we need to understand that we have a serious problem with racism in this country. We're a little bit like an alcoholic. One of the reasons we have trouble dealing with it is that we have trouble admitting it," she said.

But with the Paris attacks coming after October's federal election, Berns-McGown said, Canadians may now have a lower tolerance for assaults motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.

"Over the course of the election campaign, we were actually forced to think about these questions as a country more explicitly. And maybe that's a good thing."

For her part, Abdulkadir, who is now working toward a master's degree, said she was inspired to reach out to Muslim students after one of her own professors heard reports about anti-Muslim backlash and asked her if she was OK — something she said might never have happened if people who experienced such assaults hadn't come forward.

"It feels like a tide is turning now," she said. "People are coming to a collective understanding that hate is what the terrorists want."


Shanifa Nasser is a journalist with CBC Toronto interested in national security, the justice system and stories with a heartbeat. Her reporting on Canada's spy agency earned a 2020 Amnesty International award and an RTDNA, and her investigative work has led to two documentaries at The Fifth Estate. Reach her at: