Zarqa Nawaz is a writer and filmmaker who created Little Mosque on the Prairie. She is the author of the new novel Jameela Green Ruins Everything.
Over the past few weeks, I watched the siege of Ottawa along with millions of Canadians. Trucks choked the downtown, crowds waved giant Canadian flags, firecrackers went off at night, men lounged in hot tubs and hot dogs were grilled on the BBQ, all against a backdrop of incessant, deafening honking. It was like witnessing a block party, crashed by middle-aged white men with a penchant for military fatigues and giving the occasional sieg heil.
I never thought I’d live to see the day when words generally ascribed to Muslims would be used to describe white people. I could hear the incredulousness in reporters’ voices, because for them, it was the first time the narrative of who is dangerous was changing.
I was incredulous, too: Listening to flabbergasted news pundits using phrases such as “radicalized,” “domestic terrorists” and “threat to democracy,” while expressing fear that they were going to influence others to destabilize countries around the world, shocked and surprised me.
Why? Because diversity and inclusion are finally being extended to the world of terrorism.
Newspapers used to be filled with stories about radicalized young Muslims streaming into Syria to join ISIS. People want to believe that Muslims naturally gravitate toward violent groups, turn to anarchy and try to destroy democratic institutions. As Azadeh Moaveni writes in Guest House for Young Widows, her seminal book about political machinations in the Middle East: “Slowly ISIS became, in the Western imagination, a satanic force unlike anything civilization had encountered since it began recording histories of combat with the Trojan Wars.”
And then Donald Trump was elected president. Overnight news stories involving Muslim terrorists were replaced with stories about QAnon and the Proud Boys. It was as if our brown fairy godmother waved her magic wand and said, “Muslims will no longer dominate the headlines.” We had done our time. Media were breathlessly covering white men in buzz cuts roasting marshmallows over a burning cross. For the first time, I could point to white extremists, such as those who helped hold Ottawa hostage for weeks, not to mention the rioters who, a year ago, ransacked Capitol Hill, leaving five people dead.
White supremacists are changing the global mythology that has always pitted people of colour against the forces of civility and order. When the media used words such as “insurrection” and “occupation,” for the self-described “freedom convoy,” I was astonished. I’ve never lived in an era when white people were watching other white people behaving badly on a such an epic scale. They were making Muslims look good.
It’s a relief because study after study has shown that terror attacks by Muslims receive far more attention than those by non-Muslims, which in turn fuels Islamophobic hate crimes. Canadian Muslims are all too familiar with what happens with such oversaturated coverage.
In 2017 Alexandre Bissonnette, a young, radicalized Quebecker, went on a shooting rampage in Quebec City’s largest mosque, killing six men. He said in court that he wanted to save Canadians from Muslim immigration and was visibly taken aback when the interrogating officer mentioned that he might be charged with terrorism. Just last year, another white man, 20-year-old Nathaniel Veltman, hit with his truck a Muslim family taking a walk in London, Ont., killing four of its members.
I am often asked if I thought that creating Little Mosque on the Prairie would help humanize Muslims. This question has always rankled me. Muslims are already human, so why do we need to prove it?
But it turns out we do. Sohad Murrar, an assistant professor of psychology at Governors State University, organized a study where one group of people watched six episodes of Little Mosque while another group watched episodes of Friends. Dr. Murrar said that those who watched my show “were a lot more positive towards Muslims both on explicit and implicit measures of prejudice” – results that remained true weeks afterward. Unsurprisingly, the control group that watched Friends showed no change in bias against Muslims.
This bias plays out in the way white Ukrainian refugees are being treated. “These are not the refugees we are used to,” said Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov earlier this week. “These people are intelligent, they are educated people. This is not the refugee wave we have been used to: people whose identity we are not sure of, people with unclear pasts, people who could have been terrorists.”
We have seen media reports on how Black and brown refugees are being pushed back at border crossings to leave Ukraine, denied food and water, and sleeping outside in the cold, while white Ukrainians are given priority on trains and buses. This give credence to how non-white migrants are seen as a threat. The hashtag #AfricansinUkraine and social-media handles such as @blackpeopleinukraine have sprung up to highlight these double standards.
As pundits talk about the dangerous rise of white nationalism in Canada, and how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion has destabilized the world in a way that no other conflict has threatened to do in recent memory, I hope this is an opportunity for people to reflect on how Muslim people have been treated. My greatest hope is that despite the differences in colour and faith, we begin to see each other as people deserving full and complete humanity, willing to give everyone the refuge and support they need.
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