December Column

In the face of the terrorist attacks on Paris we have seen renewed violence against Muslims in our own communities. The day after the attacks in Paris the only mosque in Peterborough was deliberately set on fire in an act of arson. Acts like this must be seen and prosecuted for what they are, as hate crimes against our communities. We must send a message that intolerance and hatred has no place in the Canada in which we want to live.

It bears repeating that ISIL is not Islam. Too often the media equates the terrorist message they espouse as a form of Islam. They represent the message of Islam to the same extent that the KKK represents the message of Christianity. Both organizations use fear and terror to sow their message of intolerance and hatred. While no one in North America believes the KKK represents messages of Christianity, too often the violence of ISIL is understood as a message of Islam. We need to be vigilante in how we monitor our own ideas of Islam and the Muslim community. It is too easy to collapse categories when we know little about them.

Terrorist acts, like those in Paris seek to sow the seeds of discord, fear and anxiety. Fear is a blunt and powerful weapon and while it is part of the terrorist arsenal it is propagated by our media coverage of such events. Islamophobia is the byproduct of such coverage and grows in the face of fear and ignorance. Like racism which can be both subtle and gross in how it is expressed, Islamophobia operates in many different ways. Too often it is expressed through fear and ignorance of difference. Stephen Harper used Islamophobia invoking the niqab in the run up to the federal election this summer. Thankfully Thomas Mulcair called him out on this tactic recognizing the racism behind it and the electorate sent Harper and his conservatives packing.  

Fear of clothing as a signifier of difference is sadly not new. Many immigrant communities have had to face judgement about their clothing and dress when they arrive in Canada. What we need to remember is that clothes do not make the man. Dress is only one way in which we express ourselves and if someone chooses to dress in a particular manner, as a democratic society we need to support their decision. After all, how does someone’s choice of clothing impact us? Does the wearing of religious garb; be it a crucifix, a lace shawl, a yarmulke, a bindi, a sari, a burka or a niqab affect us in any fundamental way? Democracy and multiculturalism means fostering and celebrating difference because it makes us stronger as a community. I for one, want to live in a community where everyone feels safe and comfortable to live their life to their fullest potential no matter how they dress.

At the same time we have seen calls to halt the migration of refugees from Syria because one of the Paris terrorists used that route to enter Europe. Whether or not this was the case the plight of the refugees cannot be collapsed with the tactics of terrorists. This is what they want. They want us to be motivated by fear and to throw good judgement to the wind. We need to recognize that the refugees fleeing Syria and the surrounding area are fleeing for their lives and not allow Islamophobia to interfere with our ability to help alleviate the suffering of so many people fleeing war and strife.

Members of our Muslim community have spoken of the fear they feel in the wake of such terrorist acts. We have a large Muslim community (according to the 2011 census 7.7% percent) in the greater Toronto area and those I have spoken to, both young and old, fear reprisals from the communities they call home. The sentiments of Asma Jabar a young French woman interviewed after the stadium attack in Paris reflect similar attitudes in Toronto. In an interview she stated, “There is no easy solution to Islamophobia. As Muslims, our salvation comes from our neighbours. Instead of being scared, we should be more open. We should express ourselves and let people know us personally.” Like any kind of fear the ignorance that fuels Islamophobia dissipates in the face of knowledge.

We need to stand together with our Muslim brothers and sisters reminding everyone that they are an important part of the Canadian community. Anyone who seeks to drive a wedge between our communities must be held accountable. In response we need our politicians, community leaders and our school boards to show support and solidarity with the Muslim community of Toronto. We must not allow the terrorist tactics of organizations like ISIL to come between us and what we can achieve together. I hope this column is a first step towards achieving this goal.