Day 6

'It's like living in a nightmare': Canadian Muslims describe their experiences after 9/11

Canada experienced a spike in anti-Muslim sentiment in the aftermath of 9/11. On the 20th anniversary of the attacks, two Canadian Muslims describe how they were made to feel like outsiders in their own country.

20 years later, Canadian Muslims say they are still dealing with the fallout from the attacks

20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Canadian Muslims Sheema Khan, left, and Dany Assaf describe how they were made to feel like outsiders in their own country. (Submitted by Sheema Khan, Submitted by Dany Assaf)

Growing up in Edmonton in the 1970s and 1980s, lawyer Dany Assaf never saw himself as any different than his friends and neighbours. 

His family had a rich history in Canada — his great-grandfather moved to the country from Lebanon in 1927 and helped build the first mosque in Canada. Like many boys his age, Assaf also dreamed of becoming an NHL player. 

His family's Muslim faith never came in the way of their Canadian identity.

"We never imagined, we never even thought that we could ever be portrayed as the 'other,'" the author of Say Please and Thank You & Stand in Line told Day 6.

But that changed on Sept. 11, 2001, when the militant terrorist group al-Qaeda flew hijacked commercial airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon.

Much of the United States is preparing to mark the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in both New York City and Washington. Here, the Tribute In Light shines into the sky from Manhattan during a test on Tuesday, to honour the nearly 3,000 victims. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, including at least 24 Canadians.

"It's like living in a nightmare because now you've got stereotypes and prejudices that are being attributed to you when you have absolutely nothing to do with this kind of terrorist act," he said.

Being othered

According to a 2003 report from the Canadian Islamic Congress, more than 170 anti-Muslim hate crimes were reported to the group in 2002.

This was a nearly 1,600 per cent increase from the 11 such reports that were made in 2000.

"I thought one of [Canada's] distinguishing features was that we were nice, we were kind, we were polite. But 9/11 just took that veneer right off," said Sheema Khan, the author of Of Hockey and Hijab who moved to Canada when she was three years old in 1965.

Somehow, you're being pushed out or that you no longer belong for things that are completely beyond your control and things that you find abhorrent.- Dany Assaf

Shortly after the attacks, Khan started writing a column for the Globe and Mail about Islam and Muslim issues. Though she was warned by the editors about potential hateful comments, Khan said she did not expect some of the replies.

"You get people writing to you telling you to go home, that you should be deported, that you're a terrorist, terrorist sympathizer, that I should die," she said.

"I saw the ugliness, the bullying, the hate."

Assaf's family also received similar comments — not from anonymous voices online, but from one of their own neighbours.

"My parents' neighbour literally put up a sign in their front yard saying 'Osama bin Laden lives closer than you think,' with a big arrow pointing to my parents' house," he said. "That's how personal it became."

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For Assaf, such comments particularly hurt because of his family's nearly 75-year history in Canada.

"It's like almost a betrayal…. That somehow, you're being pushed out or that you no longer belong for things that are completely beyond your control and things that you find abhorrent," he said.

Making allies 20 years later

Hate crimes against Muslims are still an issue in Canada. In 2017, there were as many as 349 incidents of police-reported hate crimes against Muslims in a single year — a rise of 151 per cent over 2016.

A person holds a sign "United against Islamophobia" during a rally in Quebec City on January 30, 2017. The day prior, gunmen killed six people in a Quebec mosque during evening prayers. (ALICE CHICHE/AFP via Getty Images)

Assaf says the most effective way to resist the rise of Islamophobia in Canada is "to go back and draw upon the best of our Canadian history" in order to create the most inclusive meritocracy yet.

Khan adds that a universalist approach will help Canadians build on the common ground we all stand on.

"We have to … make allies with all kinds of communities and say we are against hate, period. And I think that's a much more powerful way to proceed," she said.


Written and produced by Mouhamad Rachini

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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