October 7 altered the realities of Muslims around the world, including at the University of Toronto. Older generations say that the current situation is reminiscent of post-9/11 Islamophobia, if not more detrimental. 

In February, U of T cut ties with Muslim chaplain, Imam Omar Patel, over social media posts about Israel and Palestine that he claims are falsely attributed to him. Western University also fired its chaplain, Imam Aarij Anwer, for using “divisive language” about Israel and Palestine. But in both instances, we believe the universities failed to urgently address the dire need for mental health and spiritual support for Muslim students, as both universities’ Muslim chaplaincy remains unfilled.

Mosques across Canada are being targeted, as seen in the Ottawa Muslim Centre, and worshippers are being assaulted, as seen in the Toronto Islamic Centre. With a staggering 1,300 per cent increase in reported cases of Islamophobia in Canada, we stress that U of T must stand with Muslim students as they face heightened fear and discrimination. 

Incidents on campus

On January 26, the Muslim Students’ Associations (MSAs) from UTSG, UTM, and UTSC met with President Meric Gertler to discuss rising Islamophobia on campus and implementing proactive measures to uphold students’ safety. We urged him to release a statement on January 29 to acknowledge the National Day of Remembrance of the Québec City Mosque Attack and Action against Islamophobia. The President failed to release anything. 

Furthermore, we have reached a point where U of T staff attempted to publicly intimidate and ‘Otherize’ Muslim students at MSA events creating a divide between the supposed inferior East, ‘us,’ from the supposed superior West, ‘them.’ 

Islam Awareness Week (IAW) is the MSA’s annual initiative on campus. Volunteers set up booths and activities to educate people about Islam, answer questions, and clarify misconceptions. On February 27, a security guard harassed an IAW volunteer outside the Robarts Library food court. The volunteer chose to remain anonymous in this article due to safety concerns.

The volunteer informed Maria Saqqur, the MSA’s VP external, that the security guard shared her support for Israel without any prompting. At no point in their conversation did they talk about politics or Palestine, but the security guard felt the need to share that. A comment like this at a time of genocide in the Gaza Strip made the volunteer “feel frustrated and targeted.” 

The volunteer added that as the IAW group packed up, the security guard yelled at them to stay quiet. She proceeded to shout until other students at the library intervened to tell her she was the one being disruptive, not the volunteers. 

Our MSA executive members raised these concerns during our meeting with the administration, who informed us that the security guard had been removed from her position. However, we emphasize that this incident should not have occurred to start with. 

Additionally, on March 5, the building manager of the Bahen Centre for Information Technology called Campus Safety on the MSA members in the Bahen lobby — a location that the MSA has used for many years for IAW. 

A few hours into the event, our MSA President, Basmah Ramadan, observed a Campus Safety officer aggressively telling a volunteer, “I need to talk to you!” The officer wanted to check if we booked the lobby after Bahen’s building manager reported us for alleged unauthorized tabling. 

Rather than directly approaching the volunteers to inquire about the booking, which would simply require them to show an email confirmation, the building manager seemed to have felt that Campus Safety was better suited to handle the situation. The intimidation we experienced at the MSA event speaks volumes: if these displays of aggression can be publicly made toward a student club, surely there must be many unreported incidents on campus. 

When the administration fails to address Islamophobia on campus, incidents like this are allowed to happen with little to no repercussions. How can the Muslim community be reassured that they are welcomed and respected at this university?

Moving forward: institutional change

The MSA is engaging with the university administration to re-establish the Anti-Islamophobia Working Group. This working group would be pivotal in bringing about institutional changes.

When responding to a letter sent by Members of Parliament in February 2024 to address Islamophobia on campus, President Gertler implied that the Anti-Islamophobia Group is well and running with an expanding focus on “anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian discrimination.” However, due to scarce information on the working group’s website, we believe this is far from the truth. To us, the working group remains in its early developmental stages and the process has been painstakingly slow at a time of immense grief and fear. 

The administration hired co-chairs for the working group in the 2020–2021 academic year, but no report was produced and hence no working group was officially formed except in name. 

Now, we find the MSA compensating for U of T’s inaction. MSA has set up a nationwide reporting tool with the National Council of Canadian Muslims to document Islamophobic incidents on university campuses. However, as student leaders, we can only do so much to address matters at an institutional level and achieve effective change. 

President Gertler, you have failed to support students amidst unprecedented waves of discrimination. How many more law students, doctors, and student leaders need to be doxxed and harassed? We are students. We are exhausted. It is absurd that we have to fill the gaps for administration as we navigate these tense times. 

Substantial action needs to be taken, and it needs to be taken now.

If you or anyone you know is facing any forms of discomfort, hostility, and discrimination, ranging from remarks, insults, and changed behaviour, to violence, please report it to the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). 

NCCM respects your privacy and confidentiality and will ensure that the information you share with us will not be shared with others without your consent. 

Basmah Ramadan is a second-year Masters student of Global Affairs and the President of the MSA. 

Maria Saqqur is a second-year student studying peace, conflict, and justice and the Vice-President (VP) External of the MSA. 

Kynzee Sethi is a third-year student studying global health and the VP Student Life of the MSA. 

Madiha Syed is a fourth-year student studying architecture and the Secretary of the MSA. 

Ismael Gharbi is a third-year student studying mathematics and VP Internal of the MSA. 

Nawal Dabbagh is a fourth-year student studying architecture and the VP Communications of the MSA. 

Editor’s note (June 7, 1:01 pm): This story has been updated to reflect that U of T cut ties with Imam Omar Patel. The previous version of the story noted that he was fired.