Special Report – Muslims and Arabs in Canada Feel Racist Backlash After Terrorist Attacks
By Faisal Kutty – Muslims and Arabs in Canada are bracing themselves against the growing backlash from the horrific terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The onslaught, in fact, has already begun. A number of mosques were firebombed in the days following the attacks, and police forces, advocacy groups and the media throughout the country have documented numerous reports of harassment, vandalism, assaults and death threats.
The first Friday after the attack, members of the Muslim and Arab communities gathered at mosques and churches across Canada to join in the continent-wide day of mourning for the thousands killed in the terrorist attacks. But community and political leaders also called for tolerance and reason following a spate of racially motivated attacks targeted at those perceived to be Muslims and Arabs. A number of Sikhs also were assaulted, and arsonists gutted a Hindu Temple in Hamilton, just outside of Toronto, on the weekend after the attacks. Police estimate the damage at more than $500,000.
While condemning the “immoral and criminal acts” of terrorism in the United States, Naeem Siddiqi, speaking for more than 100 Muslim organizations at a press conference on Friday, Sept. 14, expressed concern over “the growing number of anti-Muslim incidents documented in the last few days.”
Muslims across Canada had been harassed, taunted and threatened, Siddiqi said, and their places of worship desecrated. Several Muslim schools—in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal—were closed, he said, and many Muslim children were kept home from public schools for fear of physical attacks.
“Canadian Muslims should not suffer for being Muslim,” Siddiqi said on the front steps of the Islamic Center of Toronto, located on a tree-lined street in Toronto’s west end. “Their families, like the families of other victims, have been devastated.”
While no official count yet had surfaced, some reports suggested that numerous Muslims may have died in the terrorist attacks in the U.S., Siddiqi said.
Imran Yousef of the Canadian Muslim Civil Liberties Association (CMCLA) said that mosques in Oshawa, St. Catherines, and Montreal had been attacked by firebombs; Muslim children in Oakville, Ont., had been assaulted; and Muslim women had been targeted because of their distinctive mode of dress.
“It is critical to ensure that the hatred does not spread.”
An irate driver ran one woman off the road, Yousef said, while hate letters and death threats had come in via e-mail and phone messages to numerous individuals and community organizations.
Yousef said that dozens of calls had been placed to Islamic groups across Canada to report incidents of harassment, intimidation, assault or vandalism since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Muslim groups were joined by the head of the Canadian Federation of Nurses, human rights commissioners in Ontario and Nova Scotia, and B’nai B’rith Canada, a Jewish human rights group, all of whom issued statements warning Canadians not to direct their fear and anger toward members of the Muslim faith.
“Our concern is that these acts will grow in number,” said Kathleen Connors of the nurses’ federation, which represents 120,000 nurses in Canada. “Muslim Canadians and Arab Canadians are no more responsible for these acts of terror than Christian Canadians were responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing,” she said.
Her feelings were echoed by B’nai B’rith Canada president Rochelle Wilner, who said, “This is a time when we must work together in good faith, as we did during the Gulf war and beyond, to counter Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism.”
The Canadian Federation of Nurses has produced stickers with the slogans “Muslim Canadian” and “Muslim Canadian Supporter.”
Prime Minister Jean Chretien visited the Ottawa mosque and expressed his disgust at the targeting of Muslims and Arabs. “These acts have no place in Canada…or any civilized nation,” he stated. “They have made me feel shame as prime minister.’’
Other parliamentarians attended the ceremony as well, including NDP Leader Alexa McDonough, Liberal MPs Mac Harb and Mark Assad, New Democrat Svend Robinson and Canadian Alliance MP Rahim Jaffer, a Muslim. Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli also attended.
All federal political party leaders joined with the prime minister in calling upon Canadians to show restraint and to refrain from blaming or scapegoating Muslims and Arab Canadians for the acts of a handful of criminals.
“This is what the Muslim community has needed to hear from our Canadian political leaders for the past week,” responded Prof. Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress. “There was no ambiguity in what was said in the House of Commons and we are very gratified.”
Added CIC vice president Mrs. Wahida Valiante, “We commend our party leaders for taking a clear stand against prejudging or demonizing Muslims and Arab-Canadians.
The federal leaders were joined by a number of other politicians. “It is critical ….to ensure that the unfathomable, unconscionable hatred does not spread,” said Ontario Liberal Gerard Kennedy, who represents the provincial district where the Islamic Center of Toronto is located. Mayor Don Cousens of the City of Markham, which is home to a large number of Muslims, expressed the same sentiments,
Mosque members have taken it upon themselves to step up security by staying in their houses of worship overnight and locking gates which normally would be kept open, said Riad Saloojee, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR)-Canadian Chapter. At least one mosque has hired a private security firm for protection after a number of hate crimes. Javid Mirza, president of the Hamilton Mosque, called the move sad but necessary. “You’re talking about peoples’ lives here,” Mirza told the Hamilton Spectator. “I’m not playing games.”
As was the case in other cities across North America, Hamilton Police Chief Ken Robertson provided some comfort to the community by beefing up department resources to investigate and deal with such hate crimes. “This kind of criminal attack will not be tolerated in any way, shape or form,” Chief Robertson said.
CAIR, CMCLA and the Canadian Islamic Congress are working with local community groups to document and respond to incidents of hate. Daily updates of incidents are being posted on the leading Canadian Islamic news Web site, <www.islam.ca>. At this writing, the CIC was organizing a press conference to deal with backlash.
The fallout has forced some community groups to become more public relations savvy. Calgary’s Muslim community, for example, ran full-page newspaper ads in editions for the weekend of Sept. 22 and 23 to strongly condemn the terrorist acts. Nagah Hage, president of the Muslim Council of Calgary, said the move was an attempt to try to counter the stereotypes of Muslims and Islam. “Islam is a religion, a way of life,” said Hage. “What’s happening out there has nothing to do with the teachings of the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”
According to the CMCLA’s Yousef, Muslim women and children across the country have taken the brunt of the discrimination. “Children just don’t understand why they are hated, while Muslim women are easily identifiable because of their head covering,” he said. “What a tragedy that Canadian children of the Muslim faith…are having to feel an additional fear,” said Barbara Hall, former mayor of Toronto.
There are an estimated 600,000 Muslims and 400,000 Arab Christians in Canada.
For more information on the situation, visit the Web site www.islam.ca.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and columnist for iViews.com.
Note: First Published: November 2001
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