Defeating hate takes more than remembering tragedy

Since the initial outpouring of response to the 2017 shooting at the Quebec City mosque, it feels like Canada has been dragging its feet in addressing the root causes of Islamophobia, write Sanaa Ali-Mohammed and Shazlin Rahman.

It feels like Canada is dragging its feet in addressing the root causes of Islamophobia

At a vigil in Montreal on Jan. 29, people hold photos of the victims of the mosque shooting in Quebec City three years earlier to the day that left six people dead. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Sanaa Ali-Mohammed and Shazlin Rahman. Ali-Mohammed is a human rights advocate, organizer and board member at the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, and volunteer with the Muslim Youth Fellowship. Rahman is a nonprofit communications specialist, writer and artist whose work focuses on expanding the representation of women of colour. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

It takes more to defeat hate and its itinerant ideologies than remembering their most violent manifestations, like the Quebec City mosque shooting of Jan. 29, 2017.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, we saw an outpouring of support from across Canada. We saw vigils organized from Toronto to Iqaluit. Political leaders across party lines and levels of government issued statements condemning the attack. Human chains formed around mosques to embody solidarity with Muslim neighbours.

While it is crucial to mark the date and honour the lives lost, the way many Canadians did again this week, as two Muslim women and visible minorities who have been working to improve inclusivity in this country, we know there is more to defeating hate. 

And it feels like Canada has been dragging its feet in addressing the root causes of Islamophobia.

Six men had to lose their lives in Quebec City before we could begin to even acknowledge that perhaps Islamophobia poses a threat to our social fabric.

The six victims who died in the Quebec Mosque shooting, clockwise from left: Mamadou Tanou Barry, Azzeddine Soufiane, Abdelkrim Hassane, Ibrahima Barry, Aboubaker Thabti and Khaled Belkacemi (CBC)

When MP Iqra Khalid introduced motion M-103 in 2017 calling on the federal government to condemn and study Islamophobia, systemic racism and religious discrimination, she was met with near-hysterical backlash from the far-right.

While M-103 ultimately passed, it was disheartening to observe that it was the result of a lone Muslim woman who took a stand and was subsequently subjected to explicit threats and hate.

And instead of providing solutions, the resulting lacklustre report by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage appeared to debate whether the term Islamophobia should be used to describe experiences of anti-Muslim discrimination at all.

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid speaks about her anti-Islamophobia motion on Parliament Hill on Feb. 15, 2017. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Meanwhile, we continue to see examples of systemic Islamophobia in Public Safety Canada's "No Fly List," which racially profiles individuals who are identifiably Muslim or have Muslim-sounding names.

We see allegations of systemic Islamophobia and anti-Black racism, two forms of discrimination that are often connected, coming to light in one incident after another at different school boards.

And perhaps the most painful dismissal of the mosque attack was the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government's passing of Bill 21 in 2019. Although the bill's stated goal was to eradicate religious symbols in the public sector, it is widely acknowledged that Muslim women who wear a hijab are among those who will be most affected.

Not surprisingly, reports show a spike in the number of Muslim women targeted by verbal and physical assaults following the bill's passing.

People demonstrate against Bill 21 in Montreal on Oct. 6, 2019. The controversial Quebec secularism law bans some public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

As historian and racism expert Ibram X Kendi argues in his book How to Be an Antiracist, it is our institutions that are responsible for creating and reinforcing biases and assumptions held by individual members of society about racialized groups. These biases fuel individuals' discriminatory behaviours against members of the group in their daily interactions.

This type of discrimination often takes a toll on the well-being of targeted individuals, but does not typically involve explicit derogatory references to racial or religious identity.

This everyday Islamophobia can be seen in the dismissal of the ideas, opinions, and professionalism of Muslim individuals.

Canadians may recall, for example, that when Ginella Massa made headlines as the first hijab-wearing news anchor on Canadian TV, the visible display of her faith triggered a small but loud group of detractors to question her ability to be objective.

What this shows, and what we've learned through countless conversations with Muslims across Canada, is that Islamophobia operates on a spectrum.

Like it or not, the small subconscious biases towards a Muslim woman in hijab exist on the same spectrum as ideas that lead to Muslims being gunned down mercilessly in their houses of worship.

As a society that sees each human being as inherently valuable and worthy of respect, our response to tragic events like the mosque attack in Quebec City cannot be limited to words and one-time measures.

Instead, we need to examine how ideologies like white supremacy and Islamophobia take root within our society.

Soldiers of Odin at an anti-immigrant, anti-Islam protest in Toronto on March 19, 2017. (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be hopeful.

Understanding, trust, and collaboration between various justice-seeking groups and Muslim communities continue to grow.

The province of Ontario and multiple municipalities across the country have either adopted a Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia, or declared their intention to adopt one. We trust this will set the stage for important personal and public policy conversations about Islamophobia in this country.

Our ask is simple: If Canadians are truly committed to recognizing and addressing Islamophobia, we will need to do the difficult work of examining and challenging deeply held and often subconscious biases in our society against Muslims. This requires reforming the way our institutions function, to ensure Muslim voices are given the same import as others. It will also require checking our assumptions about Muslims on a personal level.

The next time you see a woman in a hijab, for example, take a moment to reflect on what your assumptions are about her and why.


Sanaa Ali-Mohammed is a human rights advocate, organizer, board member at the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, and volunteer with the Muslim Youth Fellowship. She has led several initiatives advocating more inclusive public-policy, including the #UnitedAgainstIslamophobia campaign.


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