Mohammed Hashim hoped it wasn’t terrorism, but that’s where his thoughts naturally went. He heard a van had mounted the sidewalk at a busy intersection in Toronto and driven for several blocks, killing and injuring people. There was no time to watch this news unfold online like everyone else – he had work to do.
No one knew the identity of the driver but it didn’t take long for the labels “Middle Eastern” and “jihadist” to spread on Twitter.
He coached prominent Muslims on what to say when journalists called. “Well, this is clearly a deviation from our faith,” was a favourite line in situations like this. Mr. Hashim loved the word “deviant” – it clearly and strongly communicated that this person was not following the teachings of Islam.
He reached out to contacts at City Hall to find out when and where the mayor would be giving a news conference, so he could send a few Muslims to the same place. If the attacker was confirmed to be a follower of Islam, it was important for viewers to think of the Muslims they saw on TV, along with the mayor, as “us” rather than “them.”
Finally, he helped the Council of Imams draft a statement condemning every aspect of the attack, which he was ready to release to every major news outlet in the country that evening. But he never hit send. He didn’t have to. Four hours after the incident, the alleged attacker was identified as Alek Minassian, a Canadian-born man of mixed Armenian and Iranian ancestry. Not “Middle Eastern.” Not a “jihadist.” Not a Muslim.
Mr. Hashim can’t help but see news stories in terms of what they might mean for Canadian Muslims. A labour organizer by day, he moonlights as an unofficial crisis manager for the community, helping craft PR campaigns, liaise with police and counsel those who have found themselves in the middle of firestorms. He does the (mostly pro-bono) work of de facto publicist, defence lawyer and therapist for his clients, who are often the victims of Islamophobic attacks.
Police data published by Statistics Canada showed a 151-per-cent increase in hate crimes targeting Muslims across Canada from 2016 to 2017 – the largest increase across any group.
In the past four years, Mr. Hashim has assisted the people at the centre of nearly every major news story involving Canadian Muslims. To some, he represents a new image of Canadian Muslims that is young, progressive and Canadian-born, but in the Toronto Sun, he’s been portrayed as a “spin doctor,” someone who exercises too much control over messaging in the community.
His motivation is simple: He wants to change the narrative about Canadian Muslims. While he’s done pro-active campaigns, such as organizing a debate for Muslim youth for the 2015 federal election campaign, the work that has come to define him is those moments when he runs toward Muslims in crisis.
“I typically show up on the worst day of people’s lives,” he said. “‘Hi, my name is Mohammed. I’m here to help you.’”
Overnight, an east Toronto Muslim family had gone from being one of the most sympathetic in the country to one of the most reviled.
It began on a day in January, 2018, when an 11-year-old girl appeared on every local newscast to explain how, while walking to school, an “Asian man” had followed her and cut her hijab with a pair of scissors. The story took off and by end of day, the Mayor, Premier and Prime minister had all decried the attack.
But a few days later all those newscasts had an update. Police had "determined the events described … did not happen.”
Evidence had shown the child had made up the story. The investigation was closed. The father was advised by relatives to avoid social media, where people were saying horrific things about his daughter, demanding his family be criminally charged or deported.
A group of protestors showed up at Parliament Hill, calling for Justin Trudeau to apologize. Strangers – were they reporters? angry neighbours? – had found their way into the family’s building and knocked on their apartment door. The child’s father was afraid to go to work, to send his children to school, to even pick up groceries.
Mr. Hashim had little sympathy for the family at this point.
“I was like, ‘What the hell is this nonsense?’ Like, if like there’s Islamophobia in Canada, it needs to be real,” he recalls thinking at the time.
But he pivoted. Worse than this revelation, he realized, was the impact of the family’s silence.
“If they don’t [speak up], they drag all of us down. And they let their failures be imposed as our failures and I’m not having any of that,” he said.
He also hated seeing how, in the absence of comment from those directly involved, media often turned to local imams. In the years since 9/11, Mr. Hashim says he noticed “every single imam was saying the most random shit that made no sense, that was inarticulate, that didn’t represent … any of our collective truths.”
Sometimes those messages were anti-Semitic or furthered negative stereotypes the public held about Muslims.
After being recruited by a friend of the family, Mr. Hashim arrived at their apartment one evening to offer his assistance. He had them explain in detail what had happened, how they were dealing, what they feared.
He is a master of holding eye contact, even when he’s uncomfortable, and readily offering empathetic smiles to fill long silences. His hair is often in a buzz cut (occasionally overgrown) and he usually wears jeans. It’s a look that projects “I’m just a friendly neighbour dropping by to help” rather than “Here’s a 25-point PR strategy and, by the way, I bill by the hour.”
The father recalls feeling immediately at ease.
Mr. Hashim’s advice was straightforward: Issue a public apology. “Don’t try to justify it,” he advised them. “Just own it.”
With their input, Mr. Hashim helped draft the note that he would distribute to media.
But the father wondered if it was enough to make things right with fellow Muslims who had turned against them.
“It’s a big thing for the community, too, because they were thinking, you know, ‘Next time, if something really happens, nobody’s gonna believe, you know, because you guys gave a bad name to the community,’ ” the father said.
Armed with Mr. Hashim’s advice and the right language, the father made it to his local mosque and asked the imam if, at the next Friday prayer, he could share an apology on behalf of the family after delivering his sermon. He agreed.
Things felt lighter after that. The father said he felt welcomed back by his community, as if he no longer had to lower his eyes and make a quick exit when he went to pray.
Learning how to speak to the diverse Muslim populations scattered across Canada came to Mr. Hashim precisely because he’s never been tied to any one Muslim community. He’s never had a “home mosque” per se; his labour-relations work takes him all over Toronto and its surrounding suburbs and he ducks into whichever mosque is in the area – one day he’s kneeling beside Somalis and the next day it’s Bosnians.
Shaila Carter, a long-time friend who had grown up in a conservative Muslim family, couldn’t make sense of Mr. Hashim the day she met him on the Mississauga campus of the University of Toronto: he introduced himself with a casual “Salaam alaikum” (“peace be unto you,” a common way Muslims greet each other) but with his smoking, tattoos and cut-offs, he didn’t look like a Muslim to her.
Mr. Hashim was a political science student and became close with Ms. Carter after they worked together on various student-government campaigns. Ms. Carter occasionally invited Mr. Hashim to join her in prayer and was pleasantly surprised when he eventually came – a reluctant embrace of a faith that didn’t have much of a place in his life before. He came from a Muslim family, but they weren’t devout.
After this, Mr. Hashim approached Islam with his student politician tool kit. He joined mosque boards and took issues raised by local Muslims straight to their MP or MPP’s offices. He got to know the leadership at different mosques well, and fantasized about unionizing the city’s imams.
Ms. Carter believes her friend has become such an effective interlocutor because he came to the faith as an outsider who understood how Muslims were seen by others.
In 2017, Ipsos-Reid released the results of a poll that showed how skewed Canadians’ perceptions were of Muslims. While they only made up 3.2 per cent of the population at the time and were projected to drop to 2.8 per cent of the population by 2020, those polled believed they were already 17 per cent of the population and would be 27 per cent of the population by 2020 – gross overestimations.
“Clearly, Canadian Muslims have an image problem,” says Amira Elghawaby, the former communications director at the National Council for Canadian Muslims, who has worked closely with Mr. Hashim on PR campaigns – both pro-active and reactive.
When a white supremacist commits a mass killing, his community doesn’t have to apologize for him or distance itself from him, but if a Muslim does the same, “I think many Muslim organizations feel compelled to forcefully and in a very clear manner state that they condemn these acts of violence and stand against them,” says Karim H. Karim, director of Carleton University’s Centre for the Study of Islam.
But Ms. Elghawaby and Mr. Hashim are optimistic that that trend is on its way out. And research suggests that when media portrays Muslims as individuals, rather than as a homogeneous bloc, the public’s fears are dispelled. Studies have found a correlation between ignorance and fear; when people have contact with Muslims, their views of them improve.
“Obviously, we can’t get to know every single Canadian,” Ms. Elghawaby said, “and that’s why it’s so critical and crucial that we help Canadian Muslims feel comfortable speaking to the media.”
It was this advice Mr. Hashim brought to the family of Faisal Hussain, the man responsible for the deadly attack on Toronto’s busy Danforth Avenue in July, 2018.
In the days that followed the attack, Mr. Hashim counselled a member of the Hussain family – who were under enormous media scrutiny – on the phone. There was something in Mr. Hashim’s voice on the other end of the line that immediately conveyed trust.
As he learned Mr. Hussain had suffered from psychosis and depression, that he'd tried and failed with various treatments, Mr. Hashim empathized with the family – but also saw an opportunity.
Revealing that Mr. Hussain had this struggle and that his family had tried to help him might make the public see them with some compassion. This was also a chance to clearly state that Mr. Hussain’s actions were in no way motivated by his faith. And there was no time to waste – ISIS had already claimed the attack, as they so often do.
The relative wrote a statement and sent it to Mr. Hashim. They exchanged edits. Then Mr. Hashim released it to the press.
He also urged the family to give interviews, telling them what they had to say would seem more believable if it came from them directly, but they were resistant to that.
“When your face is out there, you don’t know what people are thinking. There’s a lot of racism out there and we didn’t want to be victims,” the family member said.
After their side of the story was public, the Hussain family received letters of support and empathy from strangers. But it also put a target on Mr. Hashim.
Right-wing commentators questioned Mr. Hashim’s role in all this: Why was he helping the family? They tried to connect the dots between this case and others they learned he’d been involved with. Were his motivations sinister? Some messaged him directly, suggested he was doing PR for the Muslim Brotherhood. For a while, security increased at Mr. Hashim’s office. He “digitally divorced” his wife, not wanting her to receive any of the vitriol that was filling his inbox.
But it hasn’t deterred him from doing this work. Even after there was nothing else to follow-up on, Mr. Hashim continued calling the Hussains, the family member said – just to check in on how everyone was doing.
“He was very consoling with his words. I remember him saying things like, ‘I wish I was there right now with you and your family and able to hug all of you,’ " the family member recalls.
To police, Mr. Hashim has become a useful community ally, says Meaghan Gray, a communications officer at the Toronto Police Service.
Ms. Gray and Mr. Hashim first connected about three years ago, when the TPS hired its first Muslim chaplain. Since then he has become one of the people she is routinely in touch with to ask about how the service was doing on the communications front and he’s helped on a dozen files.
“The almost constant conversation Mohammed and I have is, ‘How could the messaging that we give out possibly feed into any sort of Islamophobia?’ ” she said.
Despite the many cases he’s worked on in the past few years, Mr. Hashim sees his work being obsolete in another decade or two.
There are promising signs: Muslim politicians who speak out, community organizations that don’t feel they need to be as defensive as they once were and more enlightened journalists.
His vision for Canada in 20 years is one where imams are Canadian-born, mosques aren’t divided along ethnic lines and Muslims are never subjected to questions about whether they have a dual loyalty to Canada and the Muslim Brotherhood or jihadism or even the country from which their parents emigrated.
But for now, Mr. Hashim says, the work still feels necessary and is often messy; he admits he’s never had a “clean win.”
There are limitations to Mr. Hashim’s work, which have become clear in the months following his latest intervention. In the fall of 2019, Mr. Hashim called Ms. Gray to alert her to something alarming: A family, the Al-Soufis, who ran a popular Syrian restaurant downtown, had received written and phone threats for weeks. One day they jumped off the page – the owners’ son was physically assaulted.
Earlier that fall, the son had attended a protest at a People’s Party of Canada event and had been filmed blocking an elderly woman in a walker from entering the event. He was doxxed, and a flood of abuse was soon directed at his family and their business. Spooked after the attack, the family abruptly closed their restaurant.
After Mr. Hashim flagged the situation, Ms. Gray connected the local police division with the Al-Soufi family, and officers began an investigation.
It bothered Mr. Hashim that Islamophobia and xenophobia had prompted a family of recent immigrants to give up their dream. He explained to Husam Al-Soufi, the family patriarch, how his decision would be read by immigrants across the country.
“Your story is your story,” he told him. “If you allow your restaurant to be closed, that tells all of us that maybe we shouldn’t hope so much.”
He told them to reopen the restaurant. They did with the management help of Mohamad Fakih, the owner of Middle Eastern restaurant chain Paramount Foods. Mr. Hashim knew Mr. Fakih from earlier in the year, when Mr. Hashim helped Mr. Fakih publicize a defamation case he’d won against a Mississauga man who had accused Mr. Fakih in a series of videos of having ties to extremism.
The trust of Mr. Hashim was, again, nearly instant.
“So many people advised me to do something,” Mr. Al-Soufi said. “The only one I listened to was [Mr. Hashim].”
He convinced them to do what he couldn’t get the Hussain family to do: Hold a news conference at the restaurant. Two dozen journalists showed up.
Since the restaurant reopened, Mr. Al-Soufi’s son has been charged by Hamilton police with causing a disturbance, assault and theft for his behaviour at the protest. His son doesn’t have permanent residency and if he is convicted, he could be deported, Mr. Al-Soufi fears.
He isn’t sure he was right in following Mr. Hashim’s advice, as he now feels dread when he spends time in his restaurant. It’s hard for him to see a future for Canada where the public’s views of Muslims catch up with Mr. Hashim’s ideals.
“When people … criticize immigrants, it’s 100 per cent they’re not talking about new immigrants from Ukraine, from Russia, from Europe. They’re talking about us,” he said.