Op-ed: January 29 — remember and resist

Two years after Québec City, Islamophobia still thrives at U of T and beyond
A vigil held at the University of Toronto shortly following the 2017 mass shooting at the Québec City Islamic Cultural Centre.
A vigil held at the University of Toronto shortly following the 2017 mass shooting at the Québec City Islamic Cultural Centre. NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

Rebellion comes in many different forms. Sometimes, even your identity feels like an act of defiance. That is what it feels like to be a Muslim, two years after a white supremacist opened fire on innocent Muslims as they quietly prayed in a Québec City mosque.

That to be a minority means to be subject to the influence and judgement of the dominant culture is not new. Any marginalized person growing up in the West can attest to the experience. As we mature, we realize that society entices us, both openly and subliminally, to assimilate our culture, values, beliefs and desires, lest we be faced with ostracization. 

Being openly and unapologetically Muslim is increasingly portrayed as antithetical to Western culture, including in Canada. In Ontario, hate crimes against Muslims went up by 207 per cent in 2017. In Québec, the Coalition Avenir Québec majority government that was elected in October aims to ban people working in the public sector from wearing religious symbols, a move openly fuelled by opposition to Muslim religious attire.

Even Toronto, a world-class bastion of multiculturalism, is not an exception to this trend. Last October, white nationalist mayoral candidate and U of T alum Faith Goldy, whom Premier Ford spent three days refusing to denounce, horrifically managed to place third in the municipal elections. She trounced every other ‘long-shot’ candidate by more than 10,000 votes each, even though she did not have access to any of the public debates.

In November, The Varsity reported that members of the U of T Muslim Students’ Association were receiving unexpected visits from law enforcement and national security agencies, including at their homes, who requested to talk to them about confidential matters. While potentially important for security, this practice tends to otherize communities and make them feel unfairly targeted if not exercised tactfully.

And just days ago, the Associated Press reported that researchers working at the Citizen Lab, a U of T-based cybersecurity watchdog group, were approached by suspicious undercover agents masquerading as investors twice in the past two months. In particular, one researcher was asked questions including “Do you pray?” and “Do you hate Israel?” over an upscale breakfast meeting.

The targeted researchers believe that these agents were sent to try to convince them to make statements compromising their neutrality and commitment to fairness and justice. The underlying assumption here is clear: the more one practices Islam, the more malevolent and biased they will appear to intelligence agencies, the public, employers, institutions, or others the potential blackmail would be addressed to.

Then, a false equivalency is drawn by the line of questioning that suggests a more religious Muslim is more likely to “hate Israel” a broad statement that very few people, Muslim or not, will agree with. In the same way that Islam and terrorism are equated, Islam and political hostility are ominously being equated here.

On a more personal scale, macroaggressions targeting individual students are still rampant. Consider U of T News stories describing incidents of hijab pulling, name calling, and unwanted spotlighting. Microaggressions — more subtle, sometimes unintentional acts of marginalization — are also still common. The sad truth of the matter is that, in many ways, nothing is changing. In fact, statistics only show it getting worse.

We would be wise not to miss the underlying disease as we try to keep up with reporting the symptoms. Putting it all together, a wider societal issue becomes clear: a deep-rooted, structurally-reinforced, broad-strokes characterization of an entire religion as one that just “will not mix” with the rest — a characterization that has been shown to be flatly untrue, time and time again.

Nonetheless, whether in Québec, Ontario, or right here at U of T, Islamophobia is thriving. It is a pervasive and persistent stain on the Western psyche, baked in by constant exposure to media, politics, and other influencers of sociocultural norms and values. As a Muslim, it can be dizzying to have your values perpetually interrogated and your identity called into question. The easiest thing to do in this situation would be to give in and join the chorus that claims that the way you live your life is regressive.

But to be Muslim these days is to hold true to the core beliefs of our faith in the face of a society that would rather we didn’t. While most people are accepting, kind, and well-meaning, structural, institutional, and cultural ideologies are beasts that have hardly changed in decades — and we see examples of this daily.

It is these wider structures that we as changemakers aim to address. That is why many equity-seeking communities, including the LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, and Muslim communities, continue to make strides in civic engagement, protesting and demanding their rights to ensure that their perspectives are represented.

This is also why institutions like U of T need to send the message that diversity and inclusion are catalysts for excellence both as a university and as a society. At U of T and beyond, we must continue to support celebrations of culture and minority excellence. Slowly but surely, we can develop new narratives for ourselves and our children. 

Zahra Billoo pointedly referenced multiple descriptions of Islamophobia in her article for HuffPost, describing Islamophobia as a force that seeks to marginalize and exclude Muslims from a country’s “social, political, and civil life.” Its goal, she argues, is to oppress Muslims to the point of disengagement, thereby eliminating them from the narrative of what it means to be a part of this nation.

In my view, then, the ultimate resistance is to simultaneously be a Muslim and a bold, proud Canadian — to assert myself as an integral thread in the fabric of the national identity, without compromising my personal identity. To contribute to social, political, and civic discourse, and not rest until I’ve had a positive impact on the lives of my fellow Canadians — all while catching my prayers, giving to charity, and fasting in Ramadan.

This is how I honour the lives of my fellow Muslim Canadians, who were shot and killed on what still feels like yesterday. 

I resist. 

Imaan Javeed is a student in the Doctor of Medicine program at the Faculty of Medicine (FoM). He is a Diversity Program Assistant for the FoM’s Diversity and Inclusion Office.

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