Every few years, I feel very vulnerable and unsafe. This is one of those times.
On Sunday, five members – three generations – of a Muslim family went out for a walk on a summer’s evening in London, Ont., an opportunity relished by many Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. For this family, it was a regular activity before returning home to offer the sunset prayer, according to a neighbour.
Yet this simple act of enjoying nature with one’s family is no more because of an act of pure, unadulterated hatred.
While waiting at a stoplight, Madiha Salman, her husband Salman Afzaal, 15-year-old daughter Yumna, nine-year-old son Fayez, and 74-year-old mother-in-law were allegedly rammed by a 20-year-old driver who, according to police and witnesses, deliberately accelerated his pickup toward the family, targeting them because they were Muslim.
Initially, police said the extended family requested to keep the victims’ names private, but the family identified them in a statement Monday. Only Fayez survived. Now an orphan, he is recuperating in hospital.
What kind of world are we living in?
For Muslims, it is unfortunately one where the slow drumbeat of hate-filled violence has become louder. The 2017 Quebec City massacre, in which worshippers were gunned down at a mosque – a place of spiritual refuge – shook all of us to the core.
As a nation, we vowed to fight the scourge of Islamophobia. Muslims wondered if a visit to their local mosque might be their last. Such was, and is, the fear. Enhanced safety features – including screened entries and guards – became the uneasy norm.
Yet this was still not enough back in September, when 58-year-old Mohamed-Aslim Zafis was killed outside an Etobicoke, Ont., mosque by an apparent white supremacist. Mr. Zafis was a volunteer caretaker of the mosque he cherished. On that fateful evening, he sat outside, controlling entry to the mosque in compliance with COVID-19 protocols. The accused perpetrator slipped behind Mr. Zafis, slashed his throat and fled.
Violence is happening all over the country. This year alone, there have been multiple reported assaults in Edmonton, where strangers have threatened Muslim women. In at least five cases, women were pushed, kicked and/or punched in public.
Calgary has similarly witnessed numerous cases of assault against Muslims; three involved women physically attacked in broad daylight because of their hijab. Understandably, the women have been emotionally and physically traumatized.
And now, a family has been killed in London. Is it any wonder why Muslims – especially women – don’t feel safe?
Yet this country is far greater than the hate-filled zealots who seek to intimidate, sow fear and spread the bigotry that fuels them. The outpouring of grief and support from Canadians has been a balm to the shock felt by Muslims across the land.
Since the news came out about the attack, I have received heartfelt messages of support, including the following from my friend and colleague Myriam Davidson: “It breaks my heart,” she wrote. “The best I have is we are here standing with you. There is no place for Islamophobia in our communities – it is despicable. Whenever a synagogue gets attacked – what brings me comfort is when non-Jews speak up, call it out and reaffirm that we are an inclusive society where this is not tolerated. So I’m modelling the best I know how.”
And that is the key: reaching out the best way each of us can. Our society will be stronger for it. While Muslims will rely on their faith for spiritual succour, we will need emotional support from others to overcome our fears and to know that we are valued members of the Canadian family.
There are many ways to help. Some Muslims are fearful to go for a simple walk, so offer to accompany them. Donate to a fund for nine-year-old Fayez. Attend a vigil. Perhaps the most powerful gesture is to simply say, “I am here for you.”
Last week, I was mesmerized by the haunting, powerful rendition of O Canada by Winnipeg folk singer-songwriter Don Amero, accompanied by Elders Wally and Karen Swain, prior to a Habs-Jets playoff game. While Mr. Amero sang, I asked myself: “How does he have the fortitude to sing an anthem of a country whose government, for 150 years, committed cultural genocide against the Indigenous peoples of this land?”
I know I could not. Yet Mr. Amero taught me something that resonates today, which is that the power of love, of resilience, of dignity always conquers bitterness.
We will come together – whether it is to address deep-rooted historical prejudices against Indigenous communities, or contemporary hatred against minority communities. Let us dig deep into the well of human compassion to continuously build a more just, inclusive society.
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