Omer Aziz is the author of the forthcoming book Brown Boy: A Story of Race, Religion, and Inheritance.
There is a special sort of fear that every Muslim feels as we move about the world. It is a fear grounded in the experience of being insulted and stereotyped for how we look and dress. It is a fear borne out of the fact that for 20 years, day after day, our people have been depicted as terrorists. It is a fear heightened in Muslims who wear the shalwar kameez or hijab, knowing that danger lurks around them. The fear resides in the body, in the reality that our lives can be stolen at any moment simply because we are Muslim.
On Sunday, four members of a Muslim family were killed in cold blood as they went for their evening walk. Grandmother, father, mother, daughter and son enjoying a warm summer evening. In a few brief moments, a man wearing a body armourlike vest allegedly sped toward them in a pickup truck. The whole family, save for the boy, was killed. Three generations were massacred in an instant. Four lives run down in an alleged act of brutal terrorism.
This was a killing carried out in the open, we are told, by one of the white sons of this country who had come to believe that the bodies of Muslims are disposable. If so, he was not acting alone but in accordance with an ideology that preaches that Canada belongs only to white people.
Around the Muslim community, there is shock and horror. But there is also resignation, for the ugly truth we have known for years is that hatred directed against our people has become mainstream. Islamophobia has been given respectable cover by politicians and pundits who in one breath disclaim violence and in the next contend that Islamophobia is not real. The former, Conservative federal government could use toxic terms such as “barbaric cultural practices” with impunity because its leaders knew that some portion of the citizenry could be counted upon to share their contempt. The Premier of Quebec can target the head scarves of Muslim women because he knows that some percentage of his voting base despises Muslims. And when the House of Commons passed a symbolic resolution four years ago condemning Islamophobia, 91 MPs voted against it. It is easy to call out racism in the aftermath of racialized murder, but where was this concern when Islamophobic ideas were festering and growing?
Islamophobia is the only form of racism whose existence is still denied. But the evidence of Islamophobia is all around us, from coast to coast. A white criminal shoots up a mosque in Quebec City or assaults Muslim women on the street in Edmonton or punches a hijab-wearing teenager on a bus in Vancouver or fires 11 shots from a BB gun at a mosque in Montreal or allegedly stabs and murders an elderly Muslim man outside a mosque in Toronto or mows down a Muslim family in London, Ont., and we are told: “This is not us.” But the driver of that pickup truck was very much one of “us.” It is alleged he was one of the many white citizens of Canada who believe that the rest of “us” should be put in our place. The evidence that Islamophobia exists is found in the four innocent Muslims buried in our soil this week.
For too many years, Muslims have experienced collective punishment. We have accepted, at some level, that we must constantly distinguish ourselves from criminals. The reality is that Muslims are some of the most law-abiding citizens in the country, full of decency and love, raised to believe that violence is never the answer, for that is not the way of faith. We have heard the most vile rhetoric used against us and have patiently forgiven those who use the canards of “free speech” and “national security” to justify discrimination. But a line must be drawn.
Now, the politicians who deny Islamophobia must be held accountable and face our collective fury at the voting booth. The right-wing media outlets that publish sensationalized accounts of Muslim “barbarism” must be openly condemned for creating an environment where violence becomes inevitable. Their words do not exist in a vacuum. Their words are a prelude to the cruelty done to our bodies. Islamophobia begins with ideas. It ends – as racism always does – in violence.
Like many Muslims, when I saw the photograph of the victims in London, I saw my own family. I saw my mother’s hijab and my father’s shalwar kameez. I saw love in the eyes of the grandmother, saw hope in the eyes of the daughter, saw wonder in the eyes of the son. I saw a family that had immigrated to this country, endured hardship after hardship, raised two beautiful children – only for their stories to be cut short. In them, I saw the best among us.
Nothing can bring back this family, but in the face of this tragedy, we can confront the bigotry that poisons our society. We can address the radicalization of our fellow citizens without excusing it away. And we can look within ourselves, at the hatred that spreads among us, and begin to create a society of love and true acceptance that makes that little boy proud, hoping, in the end, that he will one day forgive us.
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