Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
Two summers ago, shortly after details emerged about the heinous murder of four members of the Afzaal family in London, Ont., I found myself noting the plethora of pickup trucks in my suburban neighbourhood. Rather than taking walks near my home, I drove to a nearby park, where I thought it would be safer to stroll. But even during a short walk through the parking lot, I was vigilant about cars circulating nearby. This is what fear does to you. The instinct to survive kicks into high gear and guides – for better or for worse – your thoughts and actions.
In the ensuing weeks, I could not help but think about the last moments of Yumna Afzaal, her parents Madiha and Salman, and her grandmother Talaat. My heart ached for her surviving nine-year-old brother. As I learned more about their lives, their closeness as a family, their exemplary immigrant success story, I mourned not only their loss, but also what we lost as a society.
Taking a cue from former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attack in 2019, I will not mention the name of the man who murdered a vibrant Canadian family in cold blood. Who, upon his arrest, sought notoriety for his act of terrorism like all of the other low-lifes who preceded him. Not only did he want to kill Muslims, he demanded his arrest be filmed.
There is immense relief following the guilty verdicts rendered by the jury in this case, delivered after a gruelling 11-week trial in Windsor for four counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder. The testimony was difficult to stomach. We heard of the deep-seated hatred the perpetrator held for Muslims. His intent was to terrorize Muslims and inspire fellow white supremacists to murder in his footsteps. He even researched speeds at which pedestrians are most likely to die when they are struck by a vehicle. To ensure death upon impact, he outfitted his truck with a grill bar.
We also learned about his strict Christian upbringing, during which he and his siblings were isolated from the wider community by his mother for fear of bad influences. She ingrained in him that non-Christians would suffer in hell. Although he pushed back in high school after his parents’ divorce, he admittedly became a Christian fanatic at 17. His views morphed into those of white supremacy – he wore a crude “Crusader” outfit at the time of the murders, including a T-shirt painted with a black cross. Police found copies of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and Mein Kampf in his apartment. Will there be a full-scale analysis of the role of religion in this act of terrorism? Or is this warranted only if the perpetrator is ostensibly Muslim?
The closing arguments by the defence seemed to defy the brazen, repeated confession given immediately after the murders. Yes, he drove his truck into the family, according to his lawyers. But it was because of his dysfunctional family, the death of his great-grandmother, psychedelic mushrooms, the internet and a panoply of mental health issues – take your pick. The jury did not buy any of it.
Following the verdict, Madiha Salman’s mother, Tabinda Bukhari, expressed heartfelt thanks to all Canadians who helped attain a modicum of justice, who offered their sincere support through the pain. Ms. Bukhari spoke achingly of the “enduring grief, trauma and the irreplaceable void left by the loss of multiple generations.” She reminded us that while a goal of this heinous act was to drive people apart, Canadians have come together to denounce terrorism and heal together. She called for urgent reflection on this tragedy and the need for action to combat hate.
A nine-year-old was orphaned by this attack. He will need much support to heal. No matter what fear his family’s attacker tried to instill, every Muslim child needs to know that they should not be afraid to be authentically themselves and that they fully belong to this society. London Mayor Josh Morgan reminded that “each of us has an obligation, as individuals and as a society, to combat and confront hatred in all its forms. This verdict does not absolve us of that responsibility.”
During these unsettling times of rising Islamophobia and antisemitism, the verdict is a stark reminder of what happens when hate goes unchecked. We must be vigilant against the proliferation of ideologies that seek to drive us apart, while ensuring that each member of our society is not fearful for their personal safety.
The human spirit has the resiliency to overcome evil with good. Yumna’s school mural reminds us of the virtues we all share as we strive toward a just, compassionate society. That is her legacy. What will be ours?