As It Happens·Q&A

'No more vigils, no more platitudes,' says Muslim leader mourning slain family

When thousands of people gathered in front of the London Muslim Mosque on Tuesday night, mourning the family killed in a suspected hate crime, Nusaiba Al-Azem was standing ready at the podium. Al-Azem is a London, Ont. lawyer and second vice-chair of the mosque. She hosted the vigil where politicians also paid tribute to the family. 

Nusaiba Al-Azem says it's time for 'actual change' to combat anti-Muslim hate in Canada

Nusaiba Al-Azem, second vice-chair of the London Muslim Mosque, speaks during a vigil for the victims of the deadly vehicle attack on a Muslim family in London, Ont. (Nicole Osborne/AFP/Getty Images)

When thousands of people gathered in front of the London Muslim Mosque on Tuesday night to mourn a family killed in a suspected hate crime, Nusaiba Al-Azem was standing ready at the podium.

Al-Azem is a London, Ont., lawyer and second vice-chair of the mosque. She hosted the vigil where politicians also paid tribute to the family. 

Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna Afzaal and Salman Afzaal's 74-year-old mother Talat Afzaal were killed in a hit and run while out for an evening walk in their northwest London neighbourhood on Sunday.

They were waiting to cross the street at a red light when a man drove his pickup truck into them. The couple's son, nine-year-old Fayez, remains in hospital in stable condition. 

Police said the Muslim family was targeted for their faith. A 20-year-old man is in custody on four charges of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. Local police say they are in touch with RCMP and prosecutors about the possibility of filing terrorism charges as well. 

The fatal attack marks the first mass killing in the city's history — and it has caused fear in the community.

"It was one of us.... We are all victims of pervasive Islamophobia in our society and we all pay a price for that hatred," Al-Azem said at the vigil. "I know my nieces, my nephews and my extended family have shared their worries to their parents, [saying] 'Mama, do I look too Muslim? Or am I OK?'"

Al-Azem, along with other community leaders, said they want to see concrete action preventing attacks like this from happening again, particularly from the politicians who joined them at the vigil.

She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about that night. Here is part of their conversation.

Nusaiba, what did it say to you when more than 10,000 people showed up [Tuesday] night to attend the vigil?

I think it was certainly 10,000 individual decisions of solidarity and love, so that goes a long way.

 And obviously, members of the Muslim community and the London community wanted to grieve. 

Did it give you much comfort? 

Certainly. Seeing that many people, it does provide some comfort.

We just spoke to a former [Progressive] Conservative candidate in London, Ontario, who wrote a Facebook post that has been making the rounds. [He said the accused was] "raised in a racist city that pretends it isn't." Do you think that's the case?

I do think there is pervasive racism in London.

[Whether] you want to call it a racist city or you don't, there are a lot of people still suffering from racism in this city.

What are your own experiences? 

I've experienced racism in various, nefarious ways since as long as I can remember, whether it was overt or covert racism.

It's really the smaller stuff that actually has more of an impact on you emotionally, but certainly I've also experienced the death threats. 

I once had a manifesto sent to me about how to exterminate "the Muslim problem," etcetera. This is unfortunately not new. 

And did you ever go to the police with these things? 

I did not go to police for the death threat at the time. I was very young and it honestly didn't even occur to me really to do it, which is crazy. You would think that Islamophobia isn't so normalized that people casually calling for your death should be something that you would feel like you should go to police for. But, unfortunately, especially at that time, in the height of the [former prime minister Stephen] Harper administration era ... Islamophobia was a daily occurrence.

We talked about that with [former PC candidate] Jeff Bennett ... about the Harper Conservatives running on a platform in 2015 that was full of button pushing, like having a ban on niqab and calling for a snitch line against "barbaric cultural practices." What effect has it had that these things were called for during a very public federal campaign? 

It doesn't even just stop there. 

I mean, I wish it did. Maybe it was heightened during the periods that you reference. But unfortunately, Islamophobia has been something that's been used for political expediency. And it's sickening that Islamophobia could be used for political gain, that we live in a society where that is something that could be used in a way that the voters would look at it favourably. 

Last night at the vigil, Erin O'Toole, the leader of the Conservative Party, was there. He said that the nine-year-old boy who survived the attack on Sunday will be "looking to the nation to act." What would you like to see him do?

The Muslim community's ask was very clear yesterday. 

We would like for a national summit on Islamophobia to happen immediately.

I'll be frank in saying that there were a number of political leaders who came and spoke. They held space where maybe other community members could have spoken, and that's not for free. The price of that is that we expect some change. 

You want to hold them to that? 

Exactly. 

Politics can change, the same way that stances on gay marriage have changed over years. 

Maybe it was once politically expedient to not stand for Muslim rights. In any event, we're trying to look at what can we do now and moving forward. 

'We can't keep losing our family,' London, Ont., vigil hears

CBC News

14 days ago
3:12
Thousands gathered outside a London, Ont., mosque on Tuesday night to show support for the city's Muslim community and honour the lives of four family members who were killed on Sunday in what police said was a premeditated attack because of their faith. 3:12

Just this week, Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau was asked about Bill 21, [a Quebec law passed in 2019 that bans public civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work] ... and he said that Quebec has the right to do that. You're a lawyer. What does that mean to you? 

There is a major legal jurisdiction in Canada wherein if I was, let's say, working as a Crown prosecutor and I moved to Quebec, I would have to be forced to choose to either practice my faith or practice my profession. That's awful. 

There's many examples of structural Islamophobia that's embedded in our nation and that is tolerated, if not promoted, at the government level. 

That's why the summit is necessary, because we need to unpack all of this.

Why does it take the death of three generations of a family, people run over and killed because they're Muslim, why does it take that before this conversation can be had? 

That is an excellent question. And the real question is, why did it take a death last year and the six deaths in Quebec? Who knows if it even will take this. And hopefully this is where it ends. 

No more vigils, no more platitudes, no more any of it, because we want to see actual change.


Written by Mehek Mazhar with files from Kate Dubinski. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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