Islamophobia in Canada isn’t new. Experts say it’s time we face the problem

WATCH: Shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand left 49 people dead, many others injured.

Following shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that left 49 people dead and many others injured, some experts urge Canadians to recognize Islamophobia continues to be an ongoing problem at home.

On Jan. 29, 2017, terrorist Alexandre Bissonnette killed six men at a Quebec City mosque and injured two others.

“The fact that the attack was on a mosque strongly suggests that this was a hate crime and an act of terrorism,” said Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslim (NCCM) in 2017.

“This is the nightmare scenario that Canadian Muslims have been dreading.”

Gardee added there is a “growing and documented climate” of Islamophobia in Canada.

READ MORE: Christchurch shooting — 49 killed at 2 mosques, 1 man charged with murder

Looking at the numbers

For years, the NCCM has been tracking anti-Muslim incidents, from threats to online hate, to hate propaganda to vandalism to verbal and physical attacks.

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In 2019, the council noted nine anti-Muslim incidents, including hate propaganda in Hamilton, Ont., Ottawa and Cranbrook, B.C., all involving the yellow vest movement.

On Jan. 26, the Edmonton police said their hate crimes unit was called to investigate after a popular mosque in the city’s northwest end was visited by a group known to police. The NCCM reported other incidents including hateful letters, robberies and online threats.

Haroon Siddiqui, distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, told Global News that even with reported crimes of hate, some still find it hard to believe Islamophobia is widespread.

“Any time six people are murdered in cold blood in a mosque, we have a problem,” he said. “We don’t need statistics to tell us anything else.”

But statistics also back up this problem.

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Police-reported hate crimes targeting Muslims in Canada tripled between 2012 and 2015, according to a Statistics Canada report in 2017, despite the overall numbers of such crimes decreased over the same period.

In 2015, police across the country recorded 159 hate crimes targeted at Muslims, up from 45 in 2012, representing an increase of 253 per cent.

A floral tribute is seen on Linwood Avenue near the Linwood Masjid on March 15 in Christchurch, New Zealand. Credit: Getty

Another Statistics Canada report released in 2018 (with data from 2017) found Jewish people in Canada were the biggest targets for hate crimes (360 hate crime incidents last year), while hate crimes against Muslims topped 349 incidents.  But Muslims were a more prominent target when it came to violent crimes.

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“Uttering threats” was the most common offence, followed by assault and assault with a weapon, assault causing bodily harm or aggravated assault. Many of these hate crimes happened in Quebec.

A push to recognize Islamophobia

On Friday, the Canadian Muslim Alliance released a statement following New Zealand’s mosque attacks, adding this act is a clear display of Islamophobia.

“We commend the various levels of government that have recognized that Islamophobia is a very real problem, and we urge them to start taking practical steps to prevent it,” the statement read.

“Islamophobia is a direct result of the anti-Muslim rhetoric conveyed in the media, through which individuals like these are radicalized. We appeal to the Canadian, Quebec and municipal governments to stand against this type of hate speech. Words matter.”

On Jan. 29, Quebec premier François Legault told reporters there was “no Islamophobia in Quebec,” adding the province would not have a national day to combat the problem. The next day, after significant criticism, Legault backtracked on his comments.

“Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism and hate exist, but not an Islamophobic current,” an aide to Legault told reporters. “Quebec is not Islamophobic or racist.”

READ MORE: New Zealand police search home in Dunedin after mosque shooting

In Ottawa, the Commons heritage committee recommended Jan. 29 as a “national day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia and other forms of religious discrimination.,” while Toronto Mayor John Tory announced the same week that the city was proclaiming Jan. 29 a day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia.

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But following Thursday’s attacks in New Zealand (and other ant-Muslim attacks before it), Siddiqui said another problem is how people of influence talk about anti-Muslim crimes.

On Friday, following the shooting in New Zealand, Trump faced criticism on Twitter for leaving out the word “Muslim” in his message to followers, while Conservative leader Andrew Scheer received similar backlash by not using the words “Muslim” or “mosques” in his first tweet. He later added both words in a longer statement on Friday.

Siddiqui explained it further adds to a larger narrative that Islamophobia doesn’t exist.

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New Zealand shootings: Pakistani Muslims protest against anti-Muslim violence

“It shows you any attempt to highlight Islamophobia is going to be put down because people want to stay denial or other people want to keep a lot of people in denial,” he told Global News.

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The NCCM also released a statement, calling out politicians not mentioning “Muslim” or “mosque” in their commentary. 

“It is essential that our elected leaders speak out clearly and unequivocally against such attacks and name them for the Islamophobic terrorist attacks that they are,” Gardee said.

READ MORE: Quebec City Muslim community reliving terror, pain after hearing about New Zealand mosque attacks

Faisal Bhabha, an associate professor and human rights expert at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto, said even using the word Islamophobia to describe these acts is concerning to some.

“There are those who are worried that it might mean something that will lead [Canada] to develop public policy and law,” he told Global News. “I think those who are concerned about Islamophobia might be concerned that it’s going to be used in an improper way the way to stifle speech or they might be racists.”

Several hundred people march in solidarity for the victims of the mosque shooting in Quebec City on February 5, 2017. Credit Getty.

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For a majority of Canadians, he added, hate speech is not well understood. “There’s a very narrow definition of hate speech in the criminal code which is the only legal definition we have,” he continued.

“When you examine somebody’s attitudes about what they think about people, you find that they all have deeply discriminatory attitudes towards people. And so there’s a whole lot of unconscious racism that exists.”

Anti-Muslim attacks ‘are not surprising’

Bhabha added while it was inspiring for the country to stand in solitary with Canadian Muslims following the Quebec City mosque shooting or even the attacks in New Zealand, crimes like this don’t surprise him.

“We know that when a terrible act against an identifiable group happens, it creates almost a sort of social permission,” he said. “And even worse [some] don’t see the connection between those extreme acts and the everyday ordinary attitudes and actions that contribute to the conditions that give rise to those extreme acts.”

He said with shooting like this one, as well as Quebec City and several other examples in the U.S., there needs to be larger discussions around the radicalization of young white men in our society.

How do we conquer it?

Siddiqui said conquering something as complex as Islamophobia starts with recognizing it exists, as well as the wrongs we have done as a country.

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Bhabha finds it difficult to believe some Canadians just don’t interact with Muslims on their day-to-day. “I really think that multiculturalism as a policy has failed to the extent that Canadians don’t actually really know each other,” he said. “Because if we did, we wouldn’t have the the scale of these sorts of problems rising.”

Speaking with Global News on Friday, Luqman Ahmed, an Imam with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at of Canada, said acts of anti-Muslim bigotry are a result of misconceptions and hate mongering against Muslims.

“I believe every person has the right to believe as they may choose and there are people who would criticize Islam, disagree with Islamic faith, and i don’t expect everyone to agree with my faith,” he said. “But we have to differentiate between critiquing an ideology in a moral way vs. spreading hatred against people.”

READ MORE:  Montreal, Quebec City police on high alert following New Zealand mosque shootings

Ahmed said anti-Muslim bigotry isn’t rampant in Canada, adding the majority of Canadians stand in solidarity with Muslims when such attacks happen, but there are certain elements in society we need to tackle.

“I’ve seen that a lot of Muslim organizations reach out to people, to help them understand Islamic faith and Muslims,” he continued, adding his mosque has open houses encouraging everyone in the community to meet Muslim neighbours.”

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He added the problem is when people generalize actions from a few members of a faith.

“The majority of Muslims are peaceful and want to live in an open free society like everyone else.”

— With files from Canadian Press, Amy Minsky, Jesse Ferreras, Abigail Bimman

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