Just weeks after four members of a Muslim family were killed in what police have called act of terror, Aalia Bhalloo stood shaking in the middle of a Toronto-area grocery store, stunned at the words of a shopper who called her “disgusting.”
“Making your daughter wear that thing on her head is child abuse,” the woman told Bhalloo, referring to her 11-year-old’s headscarf.
In her 36 years in Canada where she was born and raised, never before had Bhalloo experienced outright hate.
Her first instinct: to call the police.
“How would I know that those people wouldn’t be waiting for me outside in their car and the moment I stepped outside they run me over?” Bhalloo said. In the wake of the London attack, the fear was hardly far-fetched.
Yet, as Canada enters the final week of an election only months after politicians of all stripes took to a stage in London in a show of solidarity, racism and anti-Muslim hate in particular have barely registered on the campaign trail.
That’s raising concerns about just how much substance was behind their words in a year marked by a so-called racial reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools, an uptick in anti-Asian racism amid the pandemic, and the deadliest attack on Muslims in the country since six worshippers were killed at a Quebec City mosque in 2017.
Leaders can’t be allowed to be push hate to ‘backburner’
“We can’t have politicians be allowed to get away with pushing this issue to the backburner,” Fareed Khan, founder of Canadians United Against Hate told CBC News.
“I think it’s up to Canadians — not just racialized Canadians but also the allies who have come out in the tens of thousands this year to support Black Canadians and Indigenous Canadians and Muslim Canadians — to say, ‘No we can be better than this’ and we’re not going to let you get away with being silent on this issue.”
Over the last decade, Canada has seen police-reported hate crimes against Muslims rise from 45 in 2012 to 181 in 2018.
That number fell to 82 in 2020, though the past 12 months have seen profound examples of violence against Muslims, including the London attack, the fatal stabbing of Mohamed Aslim Zafis outside a Toronto-area mosque by a man with alleged links to neo-Nazi ideology, as well as multiple hate-motivated attacks on Black and racialized women in the Edmonton area.
As recently noted by the National Council of Canadian Muslims, more Muslims have been killed in targeted hate-attacks in Canada than any other G-7 country in the past five years.
No major party committing to fight Bill 21
That’s something NCCM’s CEO Mustafa Farooq says “is absolutely something that should be addressed by every federal leader … If they’re not willing to address it, I think that tells you a lot about where their priorities lie.”
The Liberals have adopted some of the group’s 61 recent recommendations to counter Islamophobia in their campaign platform, including a $10-million annual investment for a national support fund for survivors of hate-motivated crimes. They have also committed to a national action plan for combating hate and creating new legislation to combat the spread of online hate.
The Conservatives promise to double the funding for the federal security infrastructure program and make it easier for religious institutions to apply to protect themselves against hate-motivated crime, though Farooq points out nowhere in their platform are the words Islamophobia or racism mentioned.
WATCH | Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is asked about fighting racism:
Meanwhile, he says, the NDP is the only party to explicitly endorse an office for a special envoy on Islamophobia and has also promised online measure to counter hate.
Still, says Farooq, none of the federal leaders have committed to intervening to fight Quebec’s Bill 21 in court — which bans some civil servants, including teachers, police officers and government lawyers, from wearing religious symbols at work. Instead, the leaders of the Liberals, Conservatives and Bloc Québécois all called the English-language debate question on Quebec’s secularism law offensive and unfair.
That’s something Toronto imam Hamid Slimi believes needs to change.
“I believe governments should never interfere in people’s personal decisions when it comes to what they want to wear, what they believe, how they want to practise their religion.”
Issues like that have been drowned out amid the din of the campaign, he says.
“It’s like you’re in a market. There’s so much noise, everybody’s selling this and selling that and you can’t focus.”
Silence on hate makes it more ‘acceptable’
But for all the noise, for Bhalloo it’s the silence from leaders about the subject that’s most worrying.
“It does absolutely worry me for myself, but more importantly, my children who are growing up in this society that will have to face Islamophobic types of events or incidents or hate incidents, such as my daughter who had to face it as well,” she said.
“The silence of it just makes it that much more socially acceptable.”
As many took advantage of advance polls over the weekend, the world also marked 20 years since 9/11, when al -Qaeda hijackers attacked New York and Washington, killing nearly 3,000 including 24 Canadians.
That date isn’t without significance in a year that’s seen such profound examples of anti-Muslim hate, says Khan.
“What we’re not remembering was the Islamophobia that it fuelled, the national security policies that are still in place that affect primarily Muslims. It doesn’t register on people that that singular attack has changed our society and has engendered racism, has fed white supremacy and Islamophobia,” he said.
‘The face of Canada is changing’
Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a professor of sociology and criminology at Sheridan College, agrees.
“9/11 is connected to Islamophobia because that essentially became the birth of Islamophobia as we know it today. The ‘war on terror’ is the foundation on which today’s Islamophobia rests.”
Indeed, the Canadian Islamic Congress reported more than 170 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2002, up from just 11 in 2000.
And to anyone who believes problems of Islamophobia or racism in general don’t affect the public broadly enough to come up in an election campaign, Ghaffar-Siddiqui points out you don’t have to be Muslim for anti-Muslim hate to kill you.
The first person to be killed in a hate-crime after 9/11 was a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man gunned down at his gas station in Arizona four days after the attacks by someone who mistook him for a Muslim.
That’s why she and others believe the politicians who took to the stage in London after the killing of the Afzaal family need to deliver on their promises, not only for the Muslim community but for Canada as a whole.
“The face of Canada is changing,” she said.
“We have always been known for multiculturalism, but it’s one thing to show yourself as that type of nation and another to actually have the people of your nation feel safe in this country.”