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Sara Ahmed talks about a Muslim member of the Flemingdon Park community who was attacked and robbed. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Sara Ahmed talks about a Muslim member of the Flemingdon Park community who was attacked and robbed. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

'Motivated by hate': Muslim girls told not to walk alone in Toronto at night Add to ...

Teenage Muslim girls at a north Toronto mosque have a new rule this week: Don’t walk alone to Islamic night school. And whatever you do, don’t jaywalk – you don’t want to give drivers any excuses, cautioned Aleemuddin Syed, director of Darul Khair Islamic Centre.

“You can’t read the person’s mind,” he told The Globe and Mail. “He could hit her.”

The warnings came after the Islamic State’s co-ordinated killings in Paris and an ensuing spate of anti-Muslim hate crimes in Canada. The incidents this week include the burning of a mosque in Peterborough, Ont., and racist graffiti and many reported verbal encounters across the country, leading Muslim and police groups to offer safety advice.

Mr. Syed’s mosque saw one of the most violent incidents. A 31-year-old mother who attends the Darul Khair mosque was picking up her five-year-old from school on Monday when she was approached by two male strangers and viciously beaten. Kicks to her stomach left her with heavy bruising and possible internal bleeding.

The assailants also tore off the woman’s hijab and robbed her. According to the victim’s brother, they told her, “You terrorist, you don’t belong here.”

Police say the incident appears to be “motivated by hate.”

Anti-Muslim crimes have been on the rise in Canada for the last few years. Several Muslim Canadians said Tuesday that, despite the events of this week, such incidents still feel rare. But for some, they have shaken a sense of everyday safety for the first time.

“It came as a very big shock,” said Owais, the older brother of the beating victim. “Forty years here, never heard about anything like this.”

The woman, whose name has not been made public, grew up riding her bike around the Flemingdon Park neighbourhood, where she still lives. Every day around 3 p.m., she picks her older son up from the school that she attended as a child, said her brother.

“We were born and raised here, so when people say, ‘Go back to your country,’ well, unfortunately, they don’t realize that this is our country. We are proud Canadians,” he said.

When their family moved from India more than four decades ago, they were some of the first Muslims in the area and were initially harassed, said Owais, who didn’t want his last name published because of safety concerns. He remembers walking to kindergarten with his own mother, who wears a hijab, while older children threw eggs at her, he said.

In the 25 years since, however, the neighbourhood has become a place of “overwhelming” mutual support, he said.

When he first saw his normally outgoing sister at the hospital, she wouldn’t stop crying, he said. “She goes, ‘They just beat me, they just beat me.’ That’s all she kept saying,” he said.

On Tuesday, she told him she couldn’t stop mentally reliving the attack. Neither of her children witnessed it, but her five-year-old saw her taken away on a stretcher, and the three-year-old was so upset Tuesday he wouldn’t eat, their uncle said. “It’s a lot of damage for a stupid act,” he said. “Hopefully these guys get apprehended really quick.”

Police told media the suspects were two white men, one about 30 years old wearing a white and grey shirt, and the other wearing a white hooded sweatshirt.

On Tuesday, dozens of mothers wearing hijabs talked outside the school. Sara Ahmed said news of the attack was “so scary,” but parents were determined to see it as an anomaly by someone “who does not belong here.”

“We are a peaceful religion, and we are not going to treat them like the way they treat us,” she said.

A letter sent home by the school principal offered ideas for “street-proofing” children, like having them walk with a buddy.

Similar tips have been disseminated across Canada. The Muslim Council of Greater Hamilton asked people with a beard, prayer cap or hijab to walk in groups.

On its Facebook page, the Muslims of Calgary group suggested doing extra volunteer work through a local service. “An activity as simple as shovelling your neighbour’s sidewalk can have a huge impact to neutralize the negative media publicity and stereotyping,” the group advised.

Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau issued a public statement on Tuesday encouraging members of the Muslim community to call 911 if they ever feel threatened. “We understand that these recent global events may be very challenging for members of our communities, and that this incident may exacerbate these challenges and even be an opportunity for hatred to be misdirected,” he wrote.

Two national Muslim groups asked Canadians to unite against the attacks. “Such hateful and cowardly acts are abhorrent to all Canadians who stand united in condemning xenophobia and hatred,” said Ihsaan Gardee, the director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

“It is exactly this type of behaviour that extremist groups seek to provoke,” said a statement from the Muslim Association of Canada.

The past few days have also seen shows of support. Muslim leaders in Peterborough asked the public to stop fundraising after receiving more than $110,000 to help rebuild their mosque after a fire on Saturday that was also classified as a hate crime. The repairs will only cost $80,000, said the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association.

From 2012 to 2013, hate crimes against most minority groups decreased, but those against Muslims increased, according to Statistics Canada. Muslims are also unusually likely to see attacks against women, the agency noted.

The threats feel more common now than after 9/11, said Muhammad Asif, the imam of Darul Khair. One reason, he said, may be the Islamic State’s self-picked name – ISIS – which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

“I think in the media it says ‘Muslim, Muslim, Muslim,’ so people go thinking all Muslims are like this,” Mr. Asif said. “After 9/11, they’re saying ‘al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda,’ and the word ‘Muslim’ never comes into it.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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