International efforts to combat Islamophobia require more than lip service

Like so many UN resolutions…

Greater failure is with respect to lack of meaningful action on China and its oppression of the Uyghurs:

Earlier this month, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution designating March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia. 

Lauded by some, criticized by others, it remains to be seen whether such a move will actually have an impact on the millions of people worldwide who face state-sanctioned discrimination, oppression, and genocide. 

“Today UN has finally recognized the grave challenge confronting the world: of Islamophobia, respect for religious symbols & practices & of curtailing systematic hate speech & discrimination against Muslims. Next challenge is to ensure implementation of this landmark resolution,” tweeted Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister.

The resolution calls on the international community — governments, civil society, the private sector and faith-based-organizations — “to organize and support various high-visibility events aimed at effectively increasing awareness of all levels about curbing Islamophobia.”

The date of the annual commemoration holds significance as the tragic anniversary of the rampage on two mosques in Christchurch, N.Z. in 2019. The perpetrator was a far-right terrorist and white supremacist who livestreamed the first of his two mass shootings on Facebook. He killed a total of 51 worshippers.

The brutality of those attacks was a clear example of the devastating consequences of Islamophobia, a phenomenon that has reached “epidemic proportions,” according to a 2021 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief

“Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and other horrific acts of terrorism purportedly carried out in the name of Islam, institutional suspicion of Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim has escalated to epidemic proportions,” reads the report’s introduction. “Numerous States — along with regional and international bodies — have responded to security threats by adopting measures that disproportionately target Muslims and define Muslims as both high-risk and at risk of radicalization.”

Irrational fear of Muslims writ large has been used as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties around the world, provide unequal treatment to Muslim migrants and refugees, as well as utilized as a pretext to implement genocidal policies in various places including in China and in Myanmar. In India, home to the second largest population of Muslims in the world, the situation has become dire.

In a recent TIME magazine article titled “Is India headed for an anti-Muslim genocide?” Debasish Roy Chowdhury, co-author of “To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism,” provided a bleak assessment.

“Indian social media today is filled with videos of self-appointed protectors of Hinduism calling for the lynching of Muslims — an act so common that it hardly makes news anymore. High-profile Hindu supremacists are seldom booked for hate speech. Muslims routinely face random attacks for such ‘crimes’ as transporting cattle or being in the company of Hindu women. Sometimes, the provocation is simply that somebody is visibly Muslim. As [President Narendra] Modi himself has told election rallies, people ‘creating violence’ can be ‘identified by their clothes.’”

In February, schools in a state controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), banned female students from wearing hijabs. This followed the passage of what Human Rights Watch described as “a slew of laws and policies that systematically discriminate against religious minorities.” Protesters have been killed. 

Not surprising then that the Indian government opposed the UN resolution on Islamophobia. France, also accused of violating the human rights of its Muslim population, similarly pushed back.

“Time and again we have seen the French authorities use the vague and ill-defined concept of ‘radicalization’ or ‘radical Islam’ to justify the imposition of measures without valid grounds, which risks leading to discrimination in its application against Muslims and other minority groups,” said a spokesperson with Amnesty International last March. 

If an international day to combat Islamophobia is to have any meaning, it will require governments around the world to hold each other accountable.

Source: International efforts to combat Islamophobia require more than lip service

‘Another political extravaganza?’ Muslim academics, community members skeptical about what might be achieved at Islamophobia summit

Some merit to this reaction as summits tend to be one-time events, often more symbolic recognition of affected groups with limited ongoing impact and change. This does not make the motives for holding them insincere, just that their impact is limited.

The many meetings and conferences regarding antisemitism have not reduced the number of antisemitic incidents, for example:

A National Summit on Islamophobia will be held this month, in the wake of a deadly truck attack in London, Ont. that left multiple members of the same family dead and as violent incidents of street harassment against Muslim women have been reported in Alberta.

But with scarce details available about the virtual event, including its date, and with the history of inaction on Islamophobia at federal and provincial levels, Muslim academics and community members are skeptical about what might be achieved.

They told the Star they fear governments may be providing the same empty words and promises that emerged in years past, including after the Quebec City mosque shooting.

Discussions where governments consulted with community members about how to tackle Islamophobia and hate have happened before — and the moment for talking has passed, they say. It’s now time to dismantle policies that limit the rights of Muslim people in Canada, said Fatimah Jackson-Best, a public health researcher and lecturer at York University.

“We don’t need a summit to know [about Islamophobia], we see this happening in our news. We need action,” she said. “There are some pressing issues around safety and freedom of religion and expression that we need policy on expeditiously,” she said.

Jackson-Best cites Bill 21 in Quebec, which bans the wearing of religious symbols for public servants, as discriminatory as it disproportionately impacts Muslim women who are not able to dress the way they want and wear the hijab in jobs in the province, including as lawyers or teachers.

Along with an honest discussion about standing up against Bill 21, the summit would also need to feature a multitude of voices to reflect the vast diversity of Canada’s Muslim community. Black Muslims, refugees and those of lower income need to be spotlighted, she explained.

She’s not interested in empty discussions on topics of which the community and politicians are already aware.

“Is [the summit] going to be another political extravaganza?” she asked. “There was nearly an entire family killed in London due to Islamophobia. This is getting very dire, so I’m just anxious to hear what kind of summit it will be.”

Calls for a summit grew after the June 6 attack in London that saw Salman Afzaal, 46, Madiha Salman, 44, Yumna Afzaal, 15, Fayez Afzaal, 9, and Talat Afzaal, 74, targeted for their faith while they were out for an evening walk. Fayez was treated in hospital and was the sole survivor.

In the weeks since the murders there have been violent incidents targeting Muslim women in Edmonton, including an attack where a woman wearing a hijab was pushed to the ground and knocked unconscious, while another woman had a knife held to her throat.

The office of Canada’s Diversity and Inclusion Minister Bardish Chagger told the Star Wednesday evening that on June 11 the government committed to hosting the summit and that she “would like to assure all Canadians that work began that very day. This is an important step as we recognize that systemic action is necessary and needed.”

Chagger said the federal government has been committed to tackling Islamophobia since it took office, by passing M-103, which was a motion to condemn Islamophobia, and by developing Canada’s anti-racism strategy, creating the anti-racism secretariat along with adding white supremacist groups to Canada’s terror list.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims has put out a call for policy submissionsfor the summit that it will include in the final report it presents there.

Combating street harassment, specifically where hijab-wearing Muslim women are targeted, along with putting another 250 white supremacist groups on Canada’s list of terrorist organizations are just some of the issues the NCCM plans to raise, said spokesperson Fatema Abdalla.

A petition by the NCCM in June asking for Ottawa to convene a summit amassed more than 40,000 signatures.

Calls for a summit to address Islamophobia are not new and have been discussed since incidents of hate increased after 9/11, nearly 20 years ago, said Faisal Kutty, a lawyer and adjunct law professor at York University.

Anti-terror measures implemented at the time that have seen many innocent Muslim Canadians placed on no-fly lists, impeding their ability to work and travel, continue to be a major issue, he said.

Provincial and federal governments have portrayed the Muslim community as a threat and they have a track record of making hate towards Muslims worse, not better, Kutty explained.

“The government has played a significant role in breeding Islamophobia. The onus is on them to take the initiative to rectify the situation,” he said.

Kutty says he’s doubtful real policy that will help communities, like launching a national database on all hate crimes, will emerge from the summit.

He points to the failure by the government to pass real policy changes following the January 2017 mosque shooting in Quebec City that left six dead and five others seriously injured.

In 2017 following the attack, the House of Commons passed M-103 with a vote of 201-91, which was a non-binding motion that condemned Islamophobia. The majority of Conservative MPs voted against it.

As a result of that motion, a Heritage committee report with 30 recommendations on hate, systemic racism and Islamophobia was published and included creating a national action plan and improved data collection on hate crimes.

Other than declaring Jan. 29 a day of remembrance for the Quebec Mosque attack, not much was implemented from the report, said Kutty.

“That’s why I’m saying the track record has not been good,” he said. “The fact that people are acknowledging it and saying they want to do something about it is an improvement, but until we see action … I can’t really say we’re going to see too many improvements.”

After the June attack in London, a motion presented at Queen’s Park by Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter called on the legislature to condemn all forms of Islamophobia and commit to a six-month plan to tackle anti-Muslim hate in the province, including dismantling hundreds of white supremacist groups. It also called for support of the national summit.

But the province ended up tabling its own version of the motion that, while including condemning Islamophobia, did not include the six-month plan commitment, Hunter told the Star.

In a statement, the Ministry of the Solicitor General told the Star the province condemns all forms of hatred including Islamophobia and cited its anti-racism strategic plan that includes working with the Muslim community to tackle hate.

On Tuesday, Ontario also pledged $300,000 to Muslim organizations to address Islamophobia in schools.

The anti-racism directorate within the anti-racism strategic plan doesn’t have the resources it needs and is another instance where current government policies aren’t working, said Amira Elghawaby, a founding member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, which monitors, exposes and counters hate groups.

She said she hopes at the very least the summit will symbolize that governments are finally agreeing on the urgency of the issue.

“We finally got past the point of people still denying the reality of Islamophobia. And now we are starting to move toward addressing it, but it won’t happen overnight,” said Elghawaby.

Jasmine Zine, a sociology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, was the co-chair of the Islamophobia subcommittee under Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government. But it was dismantled when Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government was elected in 2018 and there is now a lack of proactive approach to Islamophobia — with statements and funding only emerging when there is an attack, said Zine.

“There’s been a lot of lost opportunities,” she said, referring to M-103, echoing Kutty’s comments about the 30 recommendations not being implemented.

She said she is unsure whether the summit will end up being politicians posturing, especially ahead of a possible fall federal election.

“It’s hard to feel that there’s a lot of sincerity when after the last terror attack there were opportunities to do something and they were not taken,” she said.

“So here we are again. It’s like déjà vu for a lot of us.”

Source: ‘Another political extravaganza?’ Muslim academics, community members skeptical about what might be achieved at Islamophobia summit

‘Hi, my name is Mohammed. I’m here to help you.’ Meet the unofficial crisis manager for Muslim Canadians

Good profile of Hashim and his bringing a more sophisticated awareness of how to work with the media:

Mohammed Hashim hoped it wasn’t terrorism, but that’s where his thoughts naturally went. He heard a van had mounted the sidewalk at a busy intersection in Toronto and driven for several blocks, killing and injuring people. There was no time to watch this news unfold online like everyone else – he had work to do.

No one knew the identity of the driver but it didn’t take long for the labels “Middle Eastern” and “jihadist” to spread on Twitter.

He coached prominent Muslims on what to say when journalists called. “Well, this is clearly a deviation from our faith,” was a favourite line in situations like this. Mr. Hashim loved the word “deviant” – it clearly and strongly communicated that this person was not following the teachings of Islam.

He reached out to contacts at City Hall to find out when and where the mayor would be giving a news conference, so he could send a few Muslims to the same place. If the attacker was confirmed to be a follower of Islam, it was important for viewers to think of the Muslims they saw on TV, along with the mayor, as “us” rather than “them.”

Finally, he helped the Council of Imams draft a statement condemning every aspect of the attack, which he was ready to release to every major news outlet in the country that evening. But he never hit send. He didn’t have to. Four hours after the incident, the alleged attacker was identified as Alek Minassian, a Canadian-born man of mixed Armenian and Iranian ancestry. Not “Middle Eastern.” Not a “jihadist.” Not a Muslim.

Mr. Hashim can’t help but see news stories in terms of what they might mean for Canadian Muslims. A labour organizer by day, he moonlights as an unofficial crisis manager for the community, helping craft PR campaigns, liaise with police and counsel those who have found themselves in the middle of firestorms. He does the (mostly pro-bono) work of de facto publicist, defence lawyer and therapist for his clients, who are often the victims of Islamophobic attacks.

Police data published by Statistics Canada showed a 151-per-cent increase in hate crimes targeting Muslims across Canada from 2016 to 2017 – the largest increase across any group.

In the past four years, Mr. Hashim has assisted the people at the centre of nearly every major news story involving Canadian Muslims. To some, he represents a new image of Canadian Muslims that is young, progressive and Canadian-born, but in the Toronto Sun, he’s been portrayed as a “spin doctor,” someone who exercises too much control over messaging in the community.

His motivation is simple: He wants to change the narrative about Canadian Muslims. While he’s done pro-active campaigns, such as organizing a debate for Muslim youth for the 2015 federal election campaign, the work that has come to define him is those moments when he runs toward Muslims in crisis.

“I typically show up on the worst day of people’s lives,” he said. “‘Hi, my name is Mohammed. I’m here to help you.’”

Overnight, an east Toronto Muslim family had gone from being one of the most sympathetic in the country to one of the most reviled.

It began on a day in January, 2018, when an 11-year-old girl appeared on every local newscast to explain how, while walking to school, an “Asian man” had followed her and cut her hijab with a pair of scissors. The story took off and by end of day, the Mayor, Premier and Prime minister had all decried the attack.

But a few days later all those newscasts had an update. Police had “determined the events described … did not happen.”

Evidence had shown the child had made up the story. The investigation was closed. The father was advised by relatives to avoid social media, where people were saying horrific things about his daughter, demanding his family be criminally charged or deported.

A group of protestors showed up at Parliament Hill, calling for Justin Trudeau to apologize. Strangers – were they reporters? angry neighbours? – had found their way into the family’s building and knocked on their apartment door. The child’s father was afraid to go to work, to send his children to school, to even pick up groceries.

Mr. Hashim had little sympathy for the family at this point.

“I was like, ‘What the hell is this nonsense?’ Like, if like there’s Islamophobia in Canada, it needs to be real,” he recalls thinking at the time.

But he pivoted. Worse than this revelation, he realized, was the impact of the family’s silence.

“If they don’t [speak up], they drag all of us down. And they let their failures be imposed as our failures and I’m not having any of that,” he said.

He also hated seeing how, in the absence of comment from those directly involved, media often turned to local imams. In the years since 9/11, Mr. Hashim says he noticed “every single imam was saying the most random shit that made no sense, that was inarticulate, that didn’t represent … any of our collective truths.”

Sometimes those messages were anti-Semitic or furthered negative stereotypes the public held about Muslims.

After being recruited by a friend of the family, Mr. Hashim arrived at their apartment one evening to offer his assistance. He had them explain in detail what had happened, how they were dealing, what they feared.

He is a master of holding eye contact, even when he’s uncomfortable, and readily offering empathetic smiles to fill long silences. His hair is often in a buzz cut (occasionally overgrown) and he usually wears jeans. It’s a look that projects “I’m just a friendly neighbour dropping by to help” rather than “Here’s a 25-point PR strategy and, by the way, I bill by the hour.”

The father recalls feeling immediately at ease.

Mr. Hashim’s advice was straightforward: Issue a public apology. “Don’t try to justify it,” he advised them. “Just own it.”

With their input, Mr. Hashim helped draft the note that he would distribute to media.

But the father wondered if it was enough to make things right with fellow Muslims who had turned against them.

“It’s a big thing for the community, too, because they were thinking, you know, ‘Next time, if something really happens, nobody’s gonna believe, you know, because you guys gave a bad name to the community,’ ” the father said.

Armed with Mr. Hashim’s advice and the right language, the father made it to his local mosque and asked the imam if, at the next Friday prayer, he could share an apology on behalf of the family after delivering his sermon. He agreed.

Things felt lighter after that. The father said he felt welcomed back by his community, as if he no longer had to lower his eyes and make a quick exit when he went to pray.

Learning how to speak to the diverse Muslim populations scattered across Canada came to Mr. Hashim precisely because he’s never been tied to any one Muslim community. He’s never had a “home mosque” per se; his labour-relations work takes him all over Toronto and its surrounding suburbs and he ducks into whichever mosque is in the area – one day he’s kneeling beside Somalis and the next day it’s Bosnians.

Shaila Carter, a long-time friend who had grown up in a conservative Muslim family, couldn’t make sense of Mr. Hashim the day she met him on the Mississauga campus of the University of Toronto: he introduced himself with a casual “Salaam alaikum” (“peace be unto you,” a common way Muslims greet each other) but with his smoking, tattoos and cut-offs, he didn’t look like a Muslim to her.

Mr. Hashim was a political science student and became close with Ms. Carter after they worked together on various student-government campaigns. Ms. Carter occasionally invited Mr. Hashim to join her in prayer and was pleasantly surprised when he eventually came – a reluctant embrace of a faith that didn’t have much of a place in his life before. He came from a Muslim family, but they weren’t devout.

After this, Mr. Hashim approached Islam with his student politician tool kit. He joined mosque boards and took issues raised by local Muslims straight to their MP or MPP’s offices. He got to know the leadership at different mosques well, and fantasized about unionizing the city’s imams.

Ms. Carter believes her friend has become such an effective interlocutor because he came to the faith as an outsider who understood how Muslims were seen by others.

In 2017, Ipsos-Reid released the results of a poll that showed how skewed Canadians’ perceptions were of Muslims. While they only made up 3.2 per cent of the population at the time and were projected to drop to 2.8 per cent of the population by 2020, those polled believed they were already 17 per cent of the population and would be 27 per cent of the population by 2020 – gross overestimations.

“Clearly, Canadian Muslims have an image problem,” says Amira Elghawaby, the former communications director at the National Council for Canadian Muslims, who has worked closely with Mr. Hashim on PR campaigns – both pro-active and reactive.

When a white supremacist commits a mass killing, his community doesn’t have to apologize for him or distance itself from him, but if a Muslim does the same, “I think many Muslim organizations feel compelled to forcefully and in a very clear manner state that they condemn these acts of violence and stand against them,” says Karim H. Karim, director of Carleton University’s Centre for the Study of Islam.

But Ms. Elghawaby and Mr. Hashim are optimistic that that trend is on its way out. And research suggests that when media portrays Muslims as individuals, rather than as a homogeneous bloc, the public’s fears are dispelled. Studies have found a correlation between ignorance and fear; when people have contact with Muslims, their views of them improve.

“Obviously, we can’t get to know every single Canadian,” Ms. Elghawaby said, “and that’s why it’s so critical and crucial that we help Canadian Muslims feel comfortable speaking to the media.”

It was this advice Mr. Hashim brought to the family of Faisal Hussain, the man responsible for the deadly attack on Toronto’s busy Danforth Avenue in July, 2018.

In the days that followed the attack, Mr. Hashim counselled a member of the Hussain family – who were under enormous media scrutiny – on the phone. There was something in Mr. Hashim’s voice on the other end of the line that immediately conveyed trust.

As he learned Mr. Hussain had suffered from psychosis and depression, that he’d tried and failed with various treatments, Mr. Hashim empathized with the family – but also saw an opportunity.

Revealing that Mr. Hussain had this struggle and that his family had tried to help him might make the public see them with some compassion. This was also a chance to clearly state that Mr. Hussain’s actions were in no way motivated by his faith. And there was no time to waste – ISIS had already claimed the attack, as they so often do.

The relative wrote a statement and sent it to Mr. Hashim. They exchanged edits. Then Mr. Hashim released it to the press.

He also urged the family to give interviews, telling them what they had to say would seem more believable if it came from them directly, but they were resistant to that.

“When your face is out there, you don’t know what people are thinking. There’s a lot of racism out there and we didn’t want to be victims,” the family member said.

After their side of the story was public, the Hussain family received letters of support and empathy from strangers. But it also put a target on Mr. Hashim.

Right-wing commentators questioned Mr. Hashim’s role in all this: Why was he helping the family? They tried to connect the dots between this case and others they learned he’d been involved with. Were his motivations sinister? Some messaged him directly, suggested he was doing PR for the Muslim Brotherhood. For a while, security increased at Mr. Hashim’s office. He “digitally divorced” his wife, not wanting her to receive any of the vitriol that was filling his inbox.

But it hasn’t deterred him from doing this work. Even after there was nothing else to follow-up on, Mr. Hashim continued calling the Hussains, the family member said – just to check in on how everyone was doing.

“He was very consoling with his words. I remember him saying things like, ‘I wish I was there right now with you and your family and able to hug all of you,’ ” the family member recalls.

To police, Mr. Hashim has become a useful community ally, says Meaghan Gray, a communications officer at the Toronto Police Service.

Ms. Gray and Mr. Hashim first connected about three years ago, when the TPS hired its first Muslim chaplain. Since then he has become one of the people she is routinely in touch with to ask about how the service was doing on the communications front and he’s helped on a dozen files.

“The almost constant conversation Mohammed and I have is, ‘How could the messaging that we give out possibly feed into any sort of Islamophobia?’ ” she said.

Despite the many cases he’s worked on in the past few years, Mr. Hashim sees his work being obsolete in another decade or two.

There are promising signs: Muslim politicians who speak out, community organizations that don’t feel they need to be as defensive as they once were and more enlightened journalists.

His vision for Canada in 20 years is one where imams are Canadian-born, mosques aren’t divided along ethnic lines and Muslims are never subjected to questions about whether they have a dual loyalty to Canada and the Muslim Brotherhood or jihadism or even the country from which their parents emigrated.

But for now, Mr. Hashim says, the work still feels necessary and is often messy; he admits he’s never had a “clean win.”

There are limitations to Mr. Hashim’s work, which have become clear in the months following his latest intervention. In the fall of 2019, Mr. Hashim called Ms. Gray to alert her to something alarming: A family, the Al-Soufis, who ran a popular Syrian restaurant downtown, had received written and phone threats for weeks. One day they jumped off the page – the owners’ son was physically assaulted.

Earlier that fall, the son had attended a protest at a People’s Party of Canada event and had been filmed blocking an elderly woman in a walker from entering the event. He was doxxed, and a flood of abuse was soon directed at his family and their business. Spooked after the attack, the family abruptly closed their restaurant.

After Mr. Hashim flagged the situation, Ms. Gray connected the local police division with the Al-Soufi family, and officers began an investigation.

It bothered Mr. Hashim that Islamophobia and xenophobia had prompted a family of recent immigrants to give up their dream. He explained to Husam Al-Soufi, the family patriarch, how his decision would be read by immigrants across the country.

“Your story is your story,” he told him. “If you allow your restaurant to be closed, that tells all of us that maybe we shouldn’t hope so much.”

He told them to reopen the restaurant. They did with the management help of Mohamad Fakih, the owner of Middle Eastern restaurant chain Paramount Foods. Mr. Hashim knew Mr. Fakih from earlier in the year, when Mr. Hashim helped Mr. Fakih publicize a defamation case he’d won against a Mississauga man who had accused Mr. Fakih in a series of videos of having ties to extremism.

The trust of Mr. Hashim was, again, nearly instant.

“So many people advised me to do something,” Mr. Al-Soufi said. “The only one I listened to was [Mr. Hashim].”

He convinced them to do what he couldn’t get the Hussain family to do: Hold a news conference at the restaurant. Two dozen journalists showed up.

Since the restaurant reopened, Mr. Al-Soufi’s son has been charged by Hamilton police with causing a disturbance, assault and theft for his behaviour at the protest. His son doesn’t have permanent residency and if he is convicted, he could be deported, Mr. Al-Soufi fears.

He isn’t sure he was right in following Mr. Hashim’s advice, as he now feels dread when he spends time in his restaurant. It’s hard for him to see a future for Canada where the public’s views of Muslims catch up with Mr. Hashim’s ideals.

“When people … criticize immigrants, it’s 100 per cent they’re not talking about new immigrants from Ukraine, from Russia, from Europe. They’re talking about us,” he said.

Source: ‘Hi, my name is Mohammed. I’m here to help you.’ Meet the unofficial crisis manager for Muslim Canadians

Backlash over the Women’s Mosque of Canada is predictable – and misplaced

Of note:

Across the country, makeshift mosques are popping up in various towns and cities. Many Canadian Muslims are observing Ramadan and renting out community centres, or taking up space in each other’s living rooms, basements and local dining halls to join in congregational prayers before breaking fast or to perform extra evening prayers.

There isn’t anything controversial about these gatherings. As meals are set out on tables, patterned prayer rugs, large colourful linens or simple mats are laid out nearby. Men, women and children eventually line up together in prayer.

Yet, one such pop-up gathering has received particular attention – and not all of it positive. A few weeks before Ramadan, a group of women launched the Women’s Mosque of Canada. The inaugural Friday prayers were held inside Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto. Roughly 40 Muslim women and allies from various faith traditions listened to co-founder Farheen Khan give the sermon.

While the prayers proceeded in tranquility, reaction to the event was less calm. The debate that emerged once again symbolizes the divide that continues to exist in our communities when it comes to the place of women in traditional sacred spaces.

Why do we need this, wondered people writing in an online discussion group of more than 300 Toronto Muslim activists, leaders and scholars and posting to the Women’s Mosque’s Facebook page. One community leader admonished the effort, saying there was nothing in Islamic tradition to support the notion of a women-only mosque. Others suggested the effort would only divide people and would reinforce harmful stereotypes about the oppression of women.

Then there were the supporters, including several men who have themselves witnessed the unequal treatment of women and girls. They are sometimes banished to cramped rooms and poorly maintained areas, or made invisible behind barriers – physically and spiritually separated from a wider community in which they expect to belong.

“It’s been 30 years. How long should I tell my daughters to wait before they get taken as equal partners where they worship?” asked Naeem Siddiqui, a long-time community advocate.

Many women have decided they’ve already waited long enough.

Ms. Khan, herself deeply tied to the traditional mosque environment, was hoping to avoid any backlash. She simply aims to provide an opportunity for women and girls to regularly gather for Friday prayers and together reclaim their religious inheritance.

“Like many women, I grew up in a religious family and attended mosque. In fact, my father was one of the founders of the first mosque in Mississauga, so faith is an essential part of my life,” she wrote in a recent essay for NOW Magazine. “But as I got older I felt less connected to the experience. I didn’t see myself reflected in the scholarship, in the language and in the programming offered to women. Women’s Mosque of Canada is an attempt to engage women, like myself, to reconnect with their religion in a space with other women.”

That Muslim women, often facing the brunt of Islamophobia, need a place to heal is not lost on many. “Sadly, the reality today is that many women feel welcome everywhere except in what we believe are the best places on Earth, the mosques,” Ottawa Imam Sikander Hashemi acknowledged in an e-mail.

Indeed, a 2016 Environics survey of Muslims in Canada confirmed that women were much less likely to attend places of worship than their male counterparts.

Canadian filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz chronicled the growing alienation she felt in her own local community in a 2005 National Film Board documentary, Me and the Mosque. Little has changed since then, although many continue to push for better representation of all levels of mosque governance and participation.

Following in-depth studies of American mosques titled Re-Imagining Muslim Spaces, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding launched a toolkit in 2017 to encourage religious leaders to nurture more welcoming spaces. Other American national institutions have similarly called for more inclusion and provided advice on how to achieve it. Last year, the Muslim Council of Britain launched a six-month program to train women to become mosque leaders.

“Muslim women, Muslim male allies and non-Muslim supporters of mosque reform are participating in one of the most significant struggles presently happening in our global Islamic communities,” Canadian researcher Fatimah Jackson-Best wrote in 2014 for the magazine Aquila Style. “Mosque reform is not some fringe movement or a bunch of troublemakers trying to jeopardize the image of Islam. This is about spiritual equality and destroying archaic notions that are based in culture and custom and have little to do with the religion.”

Growing alienation has sparked the UnMosqued movement in which women, young people and converts eschew traditional institutions, including multimillion-dollar mosques, in search for alternatives or third spaces. These are formal and informal gatherings outside of traditional religious centres and homes, where there is often less rigidity and an authentic embrace of diversity.

Those anxious about the Women’s Mosque of Canada should be less concerned with the thought of women reconnecting with their faith and instead commit to addressing the schism that drove them out of the mosques in the first place.

Source: Backlash over the Women’s Mosque of Canada is predictable – and misplaced Amira Elghawaby

Elghawaby: Those who serve our country should not face discrimination of any kind

The Canadian Forces, like the RCMP, struggle with diversity:

Almost every public institution in our country claims it wants to better reflect the populations it serves. The same is true of our military. Parliament’s defence committee has even begun a study to determine which groups need better representation.

As the nation marks Remembrance Day, it’s important to reflect not only on those who have sacrificed their lives and well-being serving our nation, but those who have had to face racism and harassment in doing so. If such barriers continue to exist, efforts to recruit people of colour and people of various faiths and backgrounds will ultimately fail.

One needs only look to the very top to understand the challenge at hand.

Canada’s defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, has acknowledged facing significant racism throughout his long career in the Canadian Armed Forces. This has been his reality since joining the Forces in 1989 and even more recently. The first Sikh-Canadian to command a Canadian Army regiment has faced racist and vulgar comments on his personal Facebook page, as well as on the Forces’ official page. “I still can’t take this guy seriously as head of the armed forces!” posted one person. “Man, it’s not us! Sikh?”

Consider the case of Bashir Abdi, a Canadian of Somali descent who served for 10 years in the Forces. In 2013, Abdi says he obtained permission to attend Eid celebrations for the day. Yet, when he returned, he was fined and eventually convicted at a military summary trial for being “Absent Without Leave.” He was fired from his post and took his case to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. “As Canadian society and workplaces continue to grow and diversify,” reads his GoFundMe page, “it is imperative that we bring more attention to the issue of fair religious accommodation so that no one else has to experience Bashir’s humiliation.”

Canada’s defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, has acknowledged facing significant racism throughout his long career in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Or take the disturbing episode this past spring, when a group of officer cadets were expelled from the Royal Military College in Saint-Jean, Que., after video emerged of them desecrating a Qur’an with bacon and semen during a cottage party.

The head of Canada’s military, Gen. Jonathan Vance, has admitted that the Forces are struggling to identify those within the ranks who not only hold racist views, but who are actively engaged in white supremacist and right-wing activities. “Clearly it’s in here,” Vance said earlier this fall in an interview.

None of this makes joining the military a particularly endearing proposition, nor will it help improve the numbers. As of 2018, 15.4 per cent of the military were female, 2.7 per cent were Indigenous, and 8.1 per cent were visible minorities. The Department of National Defence has said that by 2026, it wants the military to comprise 25 per cent women, 3.5 per cent Indigenous peoples, and 11.8 per cent visible minorities.

“I used to wonder how Indigenous soldiers who went to residential school felt about serving for a country whose government discriminated against their people,” wrote Indigenous journalist Wawmeesh Hamilton in a recent online post.

At the very least, their contributions must be acknowledged, and existing challenges addressed. That begins with education as well as clear consequences for racist and anti-immigrant behaviours and attitudes.

Success looks like Capt. Barbara Helms, who joined the Forces as its first Muslim female chaplain this past April. And we can look as far back as 1996, when the late Wafa Dabbagh became the first Canadian Muslim woman to wear the headscarf in the Forces. In a 2008 media interview, Lt.-Commander Dabbagh described her experience as“95-per-cent positive.”

As defence committee chair Stephen Fuhr put it recently, “having a diverse, healthy, happy military personnel will have a direct impact on combat effectiveness. So we need to determine that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Among those we memorialize are those who defeated the very worst fascist and white supremacist forces of our time. Lest we forget.

Source: Elghawaby: Those who serve our country should not face discrimination …

Losing our religion: How anti-Muslim sentiment threatens religious freedom | Toronto Star

Asma Maryam Ali and Amira Elghawaby on risks to religious freedom.

While Muslim women should feel safe wearing the hijab, is there not also a broader question of religious edicts requiring head coverings, or the need for edicts permitting their removal?

And yet, news of emerging anti-Muslim militias, the significant rise of hate crimes and hate incidents and apparent lack of consequences, the proliferation of xenophobic, and bigoted groups online, the tacit acceptance of discriminatory policies by some municipalities, and even occasional political rhetoric targeting Muslim communities, threaten to undermine all that is positive.

Some Muslim women in our circles are now seeking religious edicts that deem it acceptable to remove the head scarf in order to feel safe. In a striking parallel, Muslims in 15th century Spain sought a similar edict from the Mufti of Wahran to allow them to alter what many deem an Islamic compulsory act so that they could be less visible.

Canadian Muslims at work and school are also now debating whether to worship at the appointed times or to delay it in order to avoid tension. In June, anti-Muslim protesters gathered to protest in front of a secondary school in Toronto as students were heading home.

A 2016 study out of San Francisco State University highlighted how American Muslim children between the ages of 5 and 9 years old are internalizing this zeitgeist. According to the findings, one in three children did not want to tell anyone they are Muslim, 1-in-2 did not know whether they could be both American and Muslim, and 1-in6 would pretend not to be Muslim.

This process, called “dissimulation” by the late French scholar Jean Baudrillard, is deeply concerning because it signifies a gradual deterioration of cultural and religious identity.

Where does this leave us? With a faith and identity that’s constantly in question, and inevitably in flux. We must collectively address these worrying trends in order to promote healthy, cohesive communities where everyone is encouraged to fulfil their potential and be true to their varied and diverse identities.

Let’s not allow these values to be relegated to Canada’s own history books.

Source: Losing our religion: How anti-Muslim sentiment threatens religious freedom | Toronto Star

Quebec: Des points de vue divergents sur la laïcité de l’État

Some initial commentary before the start of Quebec’s hearings on Bill 62, which bans face covering (i.e., niqab, burka)in the delivery and reception of public services:

Des points de vue opposés se feront entendre lors des consultations qui s’amorcent mardi en commission parlementaire sur le projet de loi 62 favorisant le respect de la neutralité religieuse de l’État et visant notamment à encadrer les demandes d’encadrements religieux dans certains organismes, réponse du gouvernement Couillard au projet péquiste de charte de la laïcité.

« C’est un débat qui divise mais qui fait avancer, comme les débats sur l’avortement, sur la peine de mort ou sur l’aide médicale à mourir », a souligné la juriste Julie Latour, qui comparaîtra en commission parlementaire au nom du regroupement Juristes pour la laïcité et la neutralité religieuse de l’État.

La Commission des institutions a prévu neuf jours d’audiences cet automne au cours desquelles 42 groupes et individus seront entendus, un nombre qui est appelé à augmenter puisque l’horaire prévoit des ajouts.

C’est la quatrième fois que le gouvernement québécois tente de faire adopter un projet de loi pour préciser la neutralité religieuse de l’État et définir des balises pour l’octroi d’accommodements raisonnables dans le secteur public et parapublic. Les deux projets de loi précédents, 63 et 94, présentés par le gouvernement Charest ont été abandonnés tandis que la défaite du Parti québécois en 2014 a clos l’épisode du projet de loi 60 sur la charte « affirmant les valeurs de laïcité » défendu par le gouvernement Marois.

À l’entrée du Conseil des ministres mercredi dernier, la ministre de la Justice, Stéphanie Vallée, qui pilote le projet de loi 62 a indiqué que le gouvernement avait en main « des avis juridiques solides » à l’appui de cette nouvelle tentative législative. Elle a dit souhaiter que le nouveau chef de l’opposition officielle, Jean-François Lisée, reste fidèle aux propos qu’il a tenus lors de la course à la chefferie : le candidat jugeait que le projet de loi était un pas en avant et qu’il fallait l’adopter.

Pour Louis-Philippe Lampron, professeur de droit à l’Université Laval, le projet de loi 62 consiste pour l’essentiel en « une redite » du projet de loi 94 présenté en 2010. « C’est essentiellement une codification du droit canadien actuel sur la neutralité religieuse de l’État », estime-t-il. À cela s’ajoute la même disposition que dans le projet de loi 94 sur l’obligation d’avoir le visage découvert pour fournir ou recevoir des services de l’État, que ce soit dans les écoles, dans les centres de la petite enfance (CPE) et les garderies subventionnées, dans le réseau de la santé et pour les autres services publics. Un accommodement à ce sujet devra être refusé pour « des motifs portant sur la sécurité, l’identification ou le niveau de communication requis ». Mentionnons qu’il n’est aucunement question de signes religieux.
Au moment des consultations sur le projet de loi 94, la Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ) avait exprimé un « malaise » relativement à cette interdiction qui portait, sans le dire, sur des signes religieux. « On peut même dire que ça vise explicitement un symbole religieux d’une religion [l’islam] », a fait observer Louis-Philippe Lampron. « Il y a des raisons de croire que ça pourrait être contesté. » Ou que l’interdiction ne s’applique pas en raison de l’octroi d’accommodements.
Pour sa part, Me Julius Grey, bien qu’il s’oppose au multiculturalisme et qu’il soit en faveur de la laïcité, est contre l’interdiction des signes religieux, sauf pour les agents de l’État qui détiennent un pouvoir de coercition (juges, policiers, agents correctionnels, etc.), comme le recommandait la commission Bouchard-Taylor. Il trouve inconcevable qu’on puisse priver quelqu’un de soins médicaux, quelles que soient les circonstances.
Pour Julie Latour, le projet de loi 62 est « un jalon ». À ses yeux, il manque à la neutralité religieuse de l’État et à la laïcité un socle juridique qui passe par l’enchâssement de leur principe dans la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne.

Source: Des points de vue divergents sur la laïcité de l’État | Le Devoir

Some of the notable absences from the hearings:

Faux départ pour la commission parlementaire sur le projet de loi 62 concernant la neutralité religieuse de l’État. Une vingtaine de groupes et d’experts que les députés voulaient entendre ont décliné l’invitation. Et pas les moindres : notamment Gérard Bouchard et Charles Taylor, qui ont présidé la commission sur les accommodements religieux.

La ministre de la Justice, Stéphanie Vallée, y voit malgré tout une bonne nouvelle. Le refus de tous ces groupes «envoie un signal qu’ils sont confortables avec la version présentée par le gouvernement, ce qui n’était pas le cas» pour le projet de charte des valeurs du Parti québécois, a soutenu sa porte-parole, Isabelle Marier St-Onge.

Or, en entrevue à La Presse, Gérard Bouchard a assuré qu’il n’a pas changé d’avis sur le port de signes religieux, une position qui va plus loin que ce que propose Mme Vallée. Comme on peut le lire dans le rapport de la commission qu’il a coprésidée, il recommande d’interdire ces signes chez les agents de l’État dotés d’un pouvoir de coercition (policiers, gardiens de prison, procureurs de la Couronne et juges). Le projet de loi 62 précise seulement que les services publics doivent être donnés et reçus à «visage découver», une mesure qui cible le voile intégral.

«Mes idées sur la laïcité sont bien connues, et je m’en tiens toujours aux propositions que nous avons émises il y a huit ans. Je n’aurais que répété ce qui est écrit dans le rapport pour l’opposer à ce qui peut être écrit dans le projet de loi. Je ne voyais pas mon utilité, parce que je n’ai rien à ajouter», affirme M. Bouchard.

 Horaire modifié

L’horaire des auditions, qui débutent mardi à Québec, a été revu à la toute dernière minute en raison des multiples refus de témoigner. Ce cafouillage est d’autant plus étonnant que le projet de loi 62 a été déposé par Mme Vallée il y a longtemps, en juin 2015.

Une vingtaine de groupes refusent de discuter de neutralité religieuse

And English language coverage in the Globe:

The new legislation, “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for religious accommodation requests in certain bodies,” tabled by the Liberals last year, would make it illegal to give or receive government services if a person’s face is covered. Since no Quebec public employees mask their faces, according to the government, the bill would effectively target Muslim women who wear the niqab or burka.

 Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said when introducing the legislation that it was required “for security, identification and communication purposes.”

She has been unable to say how many women wear face veils in the province.

Bill 62 is the latest iteration of Quebec’s efforts to impose official secularism in the public domain (though the new legislation would allow the crucifix over the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly to remain in place).

The bill is seen as a more moderate version of the former Parti Québécois government’s derided “charter of values,” which had set out to ban turbans, kippas, head scarves and other religious displays among Quebec’s civil servants. The bill is believed to have contributed to the PQ’s defeat at the polls in 2014.

The Liberals’ bill would allow for religious accommodations as long as they fit certain sets of guidelines, such as being “consistent” with the equality of men and women.

Still, some groups question the need for the law and say it unfairly targets minority women, who could be excluded from accessing public services.

“How necessary is all of this?” Amira Elghawaby of the National Council of Canadian Muslims said. “How many women might actually be wearing the face veil in Quebec? I doubt that it’s a huge critical mass.” She said that re-opening the issue creates a “malaise.”

“There should really be no suspension of people’s human rights based on popular sentiment toward a religious practice,” Ms. Elghawaby said.

 Hearings to begin on proposed Quebec law targeting veiled women 

Anti-Islamophobia ad campaign draws heated debate online

Means it’s working:

An ad campaign drawing attention to Islamophobia has Torontonians talking — and that’s just the point, backers of the campaign say.

The poster, recently rolled out at about 150 TTC stations and bus shelters across the GTA, depicts a young white man squaring off against a young woman in a head scarf.

“Go back to where you came from,” he says.

“Where, North York?” she replies.

The ads, launched this week by the City of Toronto and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), have sparked a flurry of comments online and on the street — precisely the point, said Amira Elghawaby: “to have constant dialogue … and force people to rethink their assumptions.”

Elghawaby, spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said recent events have rekindled latent prejudices.

The idea for the campaign was brought forward last fall, to cushion the arrival of Syrian refugees, she said, but has become all the more urgent in the wake of the Conservatives’ proposed partial ban on the niqab in 2015, presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, the fallout from the Paris attacks and mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando, Fla..

“Islamophobia has become a serious concern in many communities in Canada,” said Elghawaby, whose organization was consulted on the ad’s creation but isn’t an official part of the campaign.

It’s not uncommon for women wearing a hijab to field unsolicited questions about their origins or criticism of their appearance, Elghawaby said. “That almost goes with the territory of being a visibly Muslim woman in Canada.”

Hijabs and hockey don’t clash; head scarves and beavertails aren’t incompatible, she says: “In other words, I’m as Canadian as the next guy or gal. And newly arrived immigrants and refugees will eventually be as well.”

Some people saw the ad as entrenching stereotypes and inflaming tensions.

“I think it’s in poor taste. I think it feeds into a racial stereotype,” said Toronto resident Bryan Carras, referring to both figures depicted.

“It’s an oppressive form of expression. It makes me sick to think of the countries where there’s human rights problems and where (the hijab) is everywhere,” he said.

Reddit post of the ad sparked more than 200 comments in less than six hours last week.

Some were supportive: “I suppose it’s good for these messages to be out there, as a reminder — to victims as well as perpetrators — that this s**t isn’t acceptable.”

Others less so. “It creates a further divide between people by playing on a stereotypes (sic),” one commenter typed. “You think it’s just white people spewing Islamophobic rhetoric?” wrote another.

A fourth quipped in response: “It’s almost as though, in this instance, white men take things ‘too personal’ and need to stop ‘looking for reasons to be offended…’”

More than 80 per cent of Muslim respondents in an Environics survey last April said they were very proud to be Canadian, 10 per cent more than non-Muslims. Yet an assumption remains “that people who look different are not from here,” says Patricia Wood, a York University geography professor who focuses on diversity and urban citizenship.

Not only can that harm a person’s sense of belonging or safety, it’s simply not accurate, especially in Toronto, Wood says.

Source: Anti-Islamophobia ad campaign draws heated debate online | Toronto Star

So who says Muslims can’t be both devout and patriotic? – iPolitics

Amira Elghawaby’s take on media coverage of the Environics poll of Canadian Muslims:

CBC’s original headline acknowledged some of the good news — but somehow still managed to frame the results in a negative light: “Muslim Canadians love Canada, but faith more important to their identity: survey”.

That “but” seemed to suggest that one couldn’t both love Canada and strongly identify as Muslim — that somehow, for Muslims, patriotism and faith are mutually exclusive. To its credit, the CBC quickly reacted to the feedback and changed the headline — but the damage had been done. The majority of reader comments reacting to the initial story were negative, harping on stereotypes portraying Muslims as people who are unable or unwilling to integrate — people who want to ‘change’ Canada to suit themselves.

“Faith overrides their ‘love’ of Canada … what does that tell you folks. Tells me importing people more loyal to religious dogma then (sic) laws, culture and peoples of this country is a bad idea,” wrote one commenter.

The Toronto Sun’s coverage was simply obtuse. One Sun columnist offered this observation: “It’s a stretch to say this survey shows Muslims are in fact becoming more Canadian. It paints more of a complicated picture. But based on the increases in the Muslim population and their religious observance, Canada’s certainly becoming more Muslim.” At least one anti-immigrant blogger wallowed in this interpretation of the poll, using it to support his dire warnings of a Muslim takeover.

Given the slant on some of the coverage, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that two-thirds of the Canadian Muslims polled cited “media representation” among their top concerns — followed closely by anti-Muslim discrimination. That slant helps explain why there is such unease about the media among Muslims — and why close to half of non-Muslim Canadians surveyed still hold negative views of Islam and Muslims.

Source: So who says Muslims can’t be both devout and patriotic? – iPolitics

Supremacist attitudes are a universal enemy

Amira Elghawaby of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) on the link to supremacist attitudes:

What we seem to miss while seeking to understand these senseless acts of violence committed in the name of any religion, or political ideology, is that this nihilistic hate is often based on supremacist attitudes.

Instead of constant condemnations of those who say they are fighting and killing in the name of Islam, we must universally condemn those who paint the world in the false dichotomy of black and white, good and evil, or right and wrong.

Anyone who implicitly or explicitly advocates the supremacy of a particular group over another should think twice about how this dehumanizes fellow human beings around the world.

We have to acknowledge that nationalism can also be used to create and bolster a sense of righteousness and dominance in the minds of some. That isn’t to say that being proud of one’s country, or fellow citizens, is blameworthy. But we should beware of how nationalism may disconnect us from others in the world, or even within our own communities, and how it can be manipulated by agenda-driven interests and metastasize into something more sinister as we witnessed in Brussels with the unwelcome appearance of neo-Nazis at a recent weekend memorial.

Consider what fuels those who support such attitudes, including what fuels them to support the likes of Donald Trump. The head of the U.S.-based National Policy Institute and a white nationalist, Richard Spencer, told VICE News last December that “[Trump’s] basically saying that if you are a nation, then at some point you have to say, ‘There is an ‘Us,’ and there is a ‘Them.’ Who are we? Are we a nation? In that sense, I think it’s really great.”

Supremacist attitudes are dangerous, not least because they also make it harder to engage in meaningful discourse around the drivers of violence. Our best chance of fighting extremist ideology is to find our common humanity and not simply reinforce false polarization within our societies. The doubling of hate crimes against Muslims over the past three years here in Canada speaks clearly to this.

Source: Supremacist attitudes are a universal enemy |