Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
William Wordsworth famously wrote “the child is father of the man,” implying that childhood experiences shape our development into adulthood. Trauma, if left unaddressed, often leads to devastating consequences. We see this today in the aftermath of the Canadian government’s 150-year-old policy of cultural genocide toward the Indigenous peoples of this land.
Unfortunately, we are witnessing the emergence of a traumatized generation of Canadian children due to Islamophobia, exacerbated by the targeted killings of Muslims in Quebec City, Etobicoke and London. This alarming state of affairs was described in depth by lawyer Nusaiba Al-Azem at the National Summit on Islamophobia recently, which brought together government officials and members of the Muslim community for a spirited dialogue on ways to confront the scourge of anti-Muslim sentiment.
The summit wasn’t merely a gabfest, but provided a platform for community groups and experts to submit concrete policy recommendations, such as a national support fund for survivors of hate-motivated crimes, a special envoy for Islamophobia, and amendments to municipal bylaws and the federal Criminal Code to better deal with hate crimes.
On the issue of children, many panelists emphasized the importance of raising awareness of different cultures and faiths in our schools, so as to broaden the outlook of Canada’s youth. One excellent resource is the comprehensive Islamic Heritage Month Resource Guidebook for Educators developed for the Toronto District School Board. Pleas were made to review school curriculums with an anti-Islamophobic lens.
The plethora of voices at the summit included a new generation of leaders within the Muslim community that is articulate, insightful and fully immersed in Canadian culture and politics. A number of common themes did emerge from the diversity of opinions at the event.
First and foremost, there is an expectation that there will be tangible government action on the recommendations. Further consultations without action are not acceptable.
There is a pressing need to address online hate through legislation, since social media companies have failed to rein it in – with devastating consequences. This was tied to demands that the federal government take more forceful action against white supremacist groups.
Another common theme included the need to investigate anti-Muslim bias in a number of federal agencies, such as the Canada Revenue Agency, the Canada Border Services Agency and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Gendered Islamophobia also emerged as concern, given that it is Muslim women who are bearing the brunt of hate-motivated incidents. The spate of attacks against veiled Muslim women in Edmonton, Calgary, and Hamilton requires immediate action. No woman should ever be assaulted – let alone for what she chooses to wear in public. On the flip side, many hate incidents go unreported because victims don’t believe the police will take any concrete action. We need to build trust between law enforcement, the justice system and communities subject to hate-motivated attacks.
And while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, cabinet ministers, elected MPs and other government officials all expressed support for many of these initiatives, their steely silence on one issue spoke volumes. Muslim panelists unanimously spoke of the harm fostered by Quebec’s Bill 21, which forbids public employees from wearing religious-based symbols in the workplace. Judge Marc-André Blanchard, ruling on Bill 21 this spring, described how it ostracizes, excludes and dehumanizes those targeted, but said it was nonetheless legal because of the notwithstanding clause. All groups at the summit called for the attorney-general to be involved in legal challenges to this discriminatory law, which targets religious minorities.
Rarely discussed at the summit was the role of the political class in fostering anti-Muslim sentiment. Erica Ifill, writing in The Hill Times, lays out the evidence of “a direct line from the political and policy responses following 9/11 to the murder of the Afzaal-Salman family.” Muslims were vilified as a result of the “barbaric practices” snitch line and the banning of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. Less than two months after the mass shooting of Muslims at a Quebec City mosque, Conservative and Bloc MPs voted against a non-binding motion condemning Islamophobia.
With a federal election on the horizon, here are a few recommendations to party leaders whose words and actions carry great responsibility: Disqualify any candidate who has expressed xenophobia or has been affiliated with extremist groups; reject dog whistles to rile up your base; and finally, sign a memorandum of understanding among all party leaders to speak in unison against Bill 21 as an affront to fundamental human rights. Stop jockeying for Quebec votes on the backs of religious minorities.
Let’s not forget that each of us has the responsibility to work toward the kind of society we wish to foster – a place where every member feels safe, where we value the humanity of every individual, and where we respect differences – remembering that it is our common values that unite us.
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