Dismantling structural violence against Muslim communities

To understand anti-Muslim racism, we must move beyond individualizing hate crimes and consider the broader culpability of the state and society

Dismantling structural violence against Muslim communities

“I am not a terrorist, nor Islamophobic,” stated Alexandre Bissonnette in a Québec City courtroom on March 28. Bissonnette asked forgiveness for what he referred to as the “senseless act” he had committed over a year prior — on January 29, 2017, he perpetrated a mass shooting against praying Muslims at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Québec City. Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane, and Aboubaker Thabti did not survive the attack. Bissonnette eventually pled guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder.

A panel on anti-Muslim racism was held at the University of Toronto earlier this year, entitled “One Year Later: Islamophobia & the Quebec Mosque Shooting.” The event was hosted at Hart House by the Multi-Faith Centre and the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), and it featured moderator Syed Hussan and panelists Imam Yasin Dwyer, Azeezah Kanji, Gilary Massa, and Lucy El-Sherif, who shed light on anti-Muslim racism as a structural problem that operates through a diversity of state and social institutions.

Bissonnette did hold far-right, white nationalist, and anti-Muslim beliefs that evidently inspired his attack. But to label Bissonnette and other perpetrators of anti-Muslim violence terrorists or Islamophobes, however fitting, makes for simplistic individualized narratives that overlook the bigger picture. Engaging in critical analysis of the structures that rationalize violence against Muslim communities is essential to fully understanding anti-Muslim racism.

The national security state

When considered in the broader context of state security legislation, Bissonnette’s violence no longer seems perplexing or isolated, but rather is a rational product of Canadian society and culture. As Kanji argued, by defining terrorism as ‘illegitimate violence,’ the state reaffirms its own legitimacy to create violence. The more we use terrorism to describe individual acts of violence, the more the culpability and terrorism of the state itself is obscured.

Over the past three years, the Canadian state’s anti-Muslim racism has in fact nurtured various forms of violence against Muslim communities. The shooting at Parliament Hill in October 2014, framed as an attack by a homegrown, Muslim-convert terrorist, led to the passing of Bill C-51. The bill, introduced by the Conservative Stephen Harper government and backed by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, expanded the security state’s draconian capacities. In the name of national security, Muslims, journalists, Indigenous activists, and environmentalist protesters became primary surveillance targets of the legislation.

This was followed by another Conservative-led, Liberal-backed piece of legislation: the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. Like MP Kellie Leitch’s obsession with ‘Canadian values,’ the act targets and criminalizes Muslim communities as culturally incompatible with so-called ‘old stock’ Canadians. During the 2015 federal election campaign, the Conservative Party centred the issue of the place of niqab at citizenship ceremonies, given Harper’s view that niqabs are “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

In a critique of colonialism, scholar Gayatri Spivak commented sardonically, “White men are saving brown women from brown men.” El-Sherif echoed this sentiment, arguing that the Canadian state positions itself as a saviour for Muslim women supposedly oppressed by barbaric, Muslim men. This is in spite of the fact that Muslim women have consistently demonstrated agency — after all, it was Zunera Ishaq, a woman, who successfully challenged the Harper government’s niqab ban in citizenship ceremonies in the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal.

Even in the era of Trudeau, popular rhetoric about strength through diversity falls apart as his government continues to support many of the Conservatives’ previous anti-Muslim legislation. The Liberals have approved Harper’s multi-billion-dollar deal with Saudi Arabia that was recently revealed to include heavy assault vehicles, not just the innocuous “trucks” or “jeeps” the government had advertised. This deal strengthens a Saudi regime that continues to perpetrate violence against civilians in the Yemeni civil war, among other human rights abuses.

The singular Muslim image

The security state also shapes and supports public opinion. Muslim communities, especially women, have been subject to a skyrocket of hate crimes in recent years. A recent University of Waterloo study showed that Muslims are the most negatively perceived minority group in Canada.

M-103, a non-binding motion to condemn Islamophobia and study “systemic racism and religious discrimination,” passed in March 2017 but faced fierce opposition from conservatives and far-right groups because it was erroneously seen to be ‘promoting Sharia.’ New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh’s infamous heckler last year was motivated by Singh’s support for M-103 — and, given that Singh is Sikh, also exemplified how Sikhs are frequently confused for and targeted as Muslims.

Kanji noted that Canadian security agencies such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Public Safety Canada disproportionately identify Muslim terror as the primary threat. Even though the Islamic Cultural Centre in Québec City was the site of a white nationalist attack, the Québec government passed an anti-niqab law the same year, echoing the federal government’s attitude in 2015 and suggesting that the securitization of Muslim women is somehow essential to public safety. All this despite the threat posed by the increased visibility of far-right and white nationalist movements in recent years, evidenced by the protest at a Masjid Toronto mosque in February 2017 and frequent demonstrations at Nathan Phillips Square.

Pervasive negative stereotypes about Muslims also encourage structural violence. At the panel, Hussan probed how Orientalism, whereby “the west constructs the Occident, the east, and therefore constructs itself,” creates a singular Muslim image: often the bearded, light-skinned or brown Arab man. This image facilitates the racialization of Muslims as angry, conniving, and dangerous, because discourse and policy surrounding Muslims is frequently informed by conflict in the Arab Middle East. This erases the diversities and nuances that exist among Muslim communities and fails to account for complicated realities. For instance, that a non-Arab country, Indonesia, hosts the world’s largest Muslim population, or that Muslims are targets, not perpetrators, of fundamentalist violence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

Diversity also exists, unfortunately, as conflict between Muslims. In February, an act of anti-Shia vandalism at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology demonstrated the contemporary split between majority Sunni and minority Shia denominations of Islam. Diversity, however, is obscured by an industry that profits off of racism — as Hussan and Massa described, books, media, and movies that rely on a stereotypical, singular Muslim image culminate in an ‘Islamophobia industry’ that is economically lucrative to those in business and in power.

Designing solutions

Confronting anti-Muslim racism requires acknowledging a fundamental fact: there is no such thing as a single form of Muslim people. Muslims exist across nationalities, cultures, denominations, and individual lived experiences, and to say otherwise only serves dominant security narratives.

The language we use to describe anti-Muslim violence also shapes how we design solutions. El-Sherif said that she does not favour the term ‘Islamophobia’ because it implies that anti-Muslimness is an irrational fear based on a lack of awareness. It also suggests that if only Canadians knew how peaceful Muslims really were — if only Canadians just visited a mosque! — then anti-Muslim violence would stop.

But it is not fair for Muslims to have to ‘integrate’ into the Canadian national imagination to prove the goodness of their faith, which also privileges Muslims who can best ‘fit’ prescribed expectations. ‘Anti-Muslim racism,’ on the other hand, is a term that can understand the problem as structural and intersectional in that it is linked to other forms of racism, for example, against Indigenous and Black communities that are also disproportionately affected by the expansion of the security state.

When asked how students can take action against anti-Muslim racism, Massa acknowledged the very real fear of being Muslim on campus. Indeed, Muslim student associations on campuses have reportedly been subject to surveillance from the CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. However, Massa maintained that the MSA should politicize itself: Muslims should openly dedicate themselves to causes of justice against institutions of power.

Hussan recommends that addressing anti-Muslim racism requires stitching together multiple layers of strategies. In this vein, students should challenge the war industry, including U of T’s investment in companies that support violence against Muslims abroad, and organize against the national security-based anti-Muslim legislation and discourses that degrade civil liberties for us all. Acknowledging the diversity within Muslim communities and the widespread impacts of anti-Muslim racism, students should stand in solidarity not just with Muslims but with other minoritized communities. Supporting safe community spaces for discussion, learning, and coping is also essential.

It is too easy to call Bissonnette, and others like him, an Islamophobe, a terrorist, and an isolated perpetrator of senseless acts, no matter how fitting these definitions may be. But the structures of anti-Muslim racism — made up of elements from politics, culture, and the social order — are what rationalize violence against Muslim communities. Only by shifting the dialogue from individuals to structures can we identify the root of the problem and, ideally, overcome it.

Ibnul Chowdhury is a third-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies. He is an Associate Comment Editor for The Varsity.

Twisting the narrative on mass violence

How Stephen Paddock, who killed 59 and injured over 500, managed to avoid being labelled a terrorist

Twisting the narrative on mass violence

A few weeks ago, one of the deadliest shootings in US history occurred in Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old white male from Mesquite, Nevada, opened fire on a group of concert-goers, killing 59 and injuring 546.

Despite the act of terror, there is a reluctance to label this massacre a terrorist attack. This emphasizes a double standard in our society: white killers are labelled as mentally unstable, while Muslim perpetrators are labelled terrorists influenced by radical religious ideology.

In Canada, terrorist acts are legally defined as acts of violence committed for political or ideological reasons. In the US, international terrorism is committed by individuals or groups motivated by “designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations,” while domestic terrorism is committed by individuals or groups inspired by “primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”

However, whether or not perpetrators are legally classified as terrorists rests with prosecuting authorities.

In spite of the massive scale of the attack, Las Vegas Sheriff Joe Lombardo labelled Stephen Paddock as a “lone wolf” and “local individual” before conducting any extensive background investigation. Such statements seem common when perpetrators are white men. Similar language was used to describe James Holmes, perpetrator of the 2012 Colorado movie theatre shooting, and Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015.

The Las Vegas shooting has also revived concerns about bias against Muslim perpetrators perpetuated by politicians and media outlets, who appear to leave white perpetrators like Paddock comparatively unscathed.

There are stark differences between how US politicians treat Muslim shooters and white shooters. After the Las Vegas shooting, President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences to the victims and told reporters he thought Paddock was a “sick” and “demented” man. Before autopsies were performed or Paddock’s motives were determined, US House speaker Paul Ryan made a statement calling for mental illness reform — which he said “is often a diagnosis” with shootings like these.

The motivations behind mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas thereby often remain restricted to mental well-being and do not scrutinize white American men as a collective people.

In contrast, after the September 15 London bombing this year — also before any investigation was conducted — Trump tweeted that the attack was carried out by “a loser terrorist.” This was followed by another tweet exploiting the bombing to legitimize Trump’s infamous travel ban against citizens of six majority-Muslim countries.

Labelling Paddock a lone wolf or as mentally unstable individualizes and isolates his actions, hence segregating his behaviour from an ideology or a certain group of people. The motivations behind mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas thereby often remain restricted to mental well-being and do not scrutinize white American men as a collective people.

The media is also guilty of discrepancies when reporting mass shootings by white males as opposed to Muslims. Many media outlets have released articles questioning the mental stability of white shooters, or alternatively, hesitating to speculate on their motives at all. After the Paddock shooting, for instance, The Globe and Mail published an article entitled “Las Vegas Shooter’s motive still elusive after deadly attack.” This willingness to hesitate before jumping to conclusions should also be afforded to cases involving Muslim perpetrators.

Other articles also work to humanize the perpetrator. A Washington Post article described Paddock as someone who liked to gamble and listen to country music, adding that he “was a quiet man.”

Some newspapers deviate from this pattern when reporting Muslim shooters; in these instances, the perpetrator’s religious life is centralized. The two shootings that happened in Fort Hood in 2009 and 2014 are great examples: one shooter was Nidal Hasan, a Muslim man, and the other was Ivan Lopez, a non-Muslim man. Hasan and Lopez had similar histories: both were mentally unstable and held grievances against their fellow soldiers. Still, though the two atrocities were characterized as terrorism by law enforcement, headlines from CNN, NBC, and CBS were keen to hail mental illness and depression as the root cause of Lopez’s actions.

In covering the Hasan shooting, however, the media labelled him a terrorist and reiterated his religiosity. Hasan made the cover of Time magazine, in which the cover story was called “The Fort Hood Killer: Terrified … Or Terrorist?” The story opened with, “What a surprise it must have been when Major Nidal Malik Hasan woke up from his coma to find himself not in paradise but in Brooke Army Medical Center,” pinpointing the presumed ‘Islamic logic’ behind the shooting. Articles published by CNN and the Los Angeles Times also emphasized that religion was very important to Hasan.

Evidence exists of systemic bias in news coverage as well. One study of 170 news articles found that the word ‘terrorist’ was used for Muslim perpetrators more than twice as many times as for white perpetrators, while ‘mentally ill’ was ascribed to white male shooters 80 per cent of the time, an astounding 20 times more often than Muslim perpetrators.

The ultimate question that surfaces from irregularities in representation of shooters is why those irregularities exist in the first place.

At the outset, it could be blatant Islamophobia. From having to watch a copy of the Quran being burned and left outside a Sacramento Mosque to an innocent woman having her hijab pulled off in a London, Ontario supermarket, antagonism against Muslims has developed in both Canada and the US. Post-9/11, the world at large saw the whole of Islam as a religious ideology entrenched in violence and destruction. This fear contributes to our lack of hesitance when labelling Muslim perpetrators as terrorists.

In the same way, the War on Terror — which has hitherto been against a foreign radical Islamist enemy — invigorates the notion that terrorism is a foreign threat. Ergo, the terrorist label is reserved for Muslims because it serves as an ascription to foreigners who do not represent ‘American values’ — whereas Americans, particularly white Americans, are immune to such labels.

The fact of the matter is that Muslims are not responsible for more mass shootings than white men in America. A great deal of violence can be attributed to white supremacy and racism, especially following Trump’s election. As Las Vegas leaves millions reeling, it is important for us as students to educate ourselves on these issues and to seek the truth behind what we hear and see. As the audiences of politicians and media outlets learn to dismantle and challenge the assumptions underlying these messages, we can work toward annihilating the prejudices that infect our society.

Abdul Ali is a first-year student at St. Michael’s College studying International Relations.

Hart House debate committee hosts Omar Khadr’s lawyer

Speech touches on Guantanamo Bay, nationalist politics, Islamophobia

Hart House debate committee hosts Omar Khadr’s lawyer

The Hart House Debates and Dialogues Committee held an event called “The Rule of Law in an Age of Fear” on October 18. It featured the lawyer of Omar Khadr, Dennis Edney. Khadr is a Canadian, born in Toronto, who was sent to Afghanistan by his Al-Qaeda-affiliated father. He was captured at age 15 by US soldiers after allegedly throwing a grenade that killed US Army Sergeant Christopher Speer. At age 16, Khadr was taken to Guantanamo Bay and held there for 10 years. Khadr sued the Canadian government, claiming that his rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had been infringed upon. He received a $10.5 million settlement in 2017.

Edney spoke on topics including the 2016 US election, fear mongering, Islamophobia, and his experiences at Guantanamo Bay. The intention of his speech, he stated, was to “[challenge] you to question whether the concept and practice of justice is being carried out in your name.”

Edney described Guantanamo as a microcosm to the breakdown of the rule of law. He pointed out the rarely talked about secret prisons in Guantanamo Bay, designed for enhanced interrogation techniques. “It doesn’t take much imagination to understand what that means,” said Edney. “Omar Khadr spent most of his life in one of those places.”

“I decided to write to my government, the Liberal government of the day, to inquire as to the status of Omar Khadr and to remind them of their international obligation to assist a Canadian citizen, under international law and under international humanitarian law,” said Edney. He received no response and went on to defend Khadr. He said he sacrificed a great deal in doing so, spending life savings, missing both of his children’s graduations, and giving up “a huge part” his business.

In his first meeting with Khadr, Edney found the young man shackled to the floor, “his whole body suffering from extensive shrapnel injuries.” Edney said that he had trouble controlling his emotions. “I didn’t know whether to shout, to scream, to cry, I didn’t know what to do. I was not prepared for what I was witnessing.” A particularly horrific experience, he said, was witnessing the sexual abuse of every single detainee “because there is no greater way to get to a Muslim, who prides in his body.”

The Liberal government, Edney stressed, did not do enough to repent for “the horror that they created, assisted in,” saying the party gave only “half an apology.”

Edney broadened his remarks, speaking about the current geopolitical state of the world: “The political temperature has been dominated by populists such as Trump, and European nationalists who want to tighten borders and restrict the flow of refugees from war-torn countries, especially Muslims.” He went on to describe the entire Trump campaign as based on fear and bigotry, comparing the security measures proposed during the Republican presidential campaign to those of Nazi Germany.

In his closing words, Edney spoke on how an individual can make change in their own society. “We may not have control of world events, but we do have control over how we respond to the world. We do have control [over] how we treat each other. So in the end it’s not about policies that work, it’s about forging consensus, fighting cynicism, fighting the critical will to make change, and to find the character to open our hearts to one another.”

Where is our Iraqi flag filter?

Disproportionate media and public attention granted to certain tragedies reflects the valuing and humanization of some lives over others

Where is our Iraqi flag filter?

As June turned to July this year, in the span of six days, three capital cities – Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad – were targeted by deadly terrorist attacks. The attacks were among the worst to hit the countries. Over 200 people died in Baghdad alone, making it the deadliest attack in that city since 2003.

Yet, despite their magnitude, these attacks have received the bare minimum in terms of coverage from major news sources, social media attention, and public vigils. The few Facebook posts I saw about the attacks linked to a handful of New York Times or BBC articles, often captioned with a statement expressing disbelief that the story hadn’t received more media attention. Perhaps even more lacking than mainstream media coverage of the attacks was the social media response. There were no Facebook flag filters or trending hashtags for Turkey, Bangladesh, and Iraq.

It is clear where in the world the media’s gaze tends to fall, and this is by no means a new phenomenon. There have been countless instances of ‘Western’ countries receiving weeks of media coverage following terrorist attacks, while countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa barely get a day’s worth of mourning.

[pullquote-default]There have been countless instances of ‘Western’ countries receiving weeks of media coverage following terrorist attacks, while countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa barely get a day’s worth of mourning.[/pullquote-default]

Paris, for example, received an outpouring of support from the media and the international community after the November 2015 ‘Charlie Hebdo’ attacks. Well-publicized public vigils were held in dozens of cities internationally, and websites such as Skype allowed users to make free calls to France to connect to their loved ones following the attacks. Even Saturday Night Live started its show with a somber opening, something that has only ever been done after the 9/11 and Sandy Hook attacks, both of which took place in the United States. Landmarks around the world were lit up in the colours of the French flag when, only days earlier, they had remained dark while Beirut was mourning the worst terrorist attack to hit the city since the end of the Lebanese Civil War.

Similarly, after the Brussels bombings in 2016, London’s National Gallery, the One World Trade Center, and the Toronto sign were all lit with the colours of the Belgian flag. Yet more recently, not one of these landmarks lit up in honour of Turkey, Bangladesh, or Iraq.

[pullquote-features]The public have had an undeniable hand in the disproportionate attention given to certain tragedies over others through social media channels.[/pullquote-features]

In fact, the extensive media attention given to terrorist attacks in cities like Paris and Brussels have prompted the creation of Wikipedia pages dedicated solely to reactions to the bombings in both cities. While it is too early to tell whether Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad will have similarly detailed pages, the small section dedicated to “Reactions” on the general 2015 Beirut Bombings Wikipedia page tells a different story.

Though this level of neglect for non-‘Western’ tragedies is troubling, it is also not something we can chalk up to being the responsibility of politicians or the media alone. The public have had an undeniable hand in the disproportionate attention given to certain tragedies over others through social media channels. Hashtags expressing worldwide support for victims do not gain “trending” status because of media conglomerates, but rather because of the use of the hashtag by everyday Twitter users. Public demand for official Facebook filters in support of Turkey, Bangladesh, or Iraq would undoubtedly yield results.

But a perceived lack of public interest in either of the above tragedies, reflected in a real absence of social media attention, has given mainstream media the fuel they need to justify their minimal coverage of these tragedies. Regardless of whether or not one believes social media has any real credence, it cannot be denied that Twitter and Facebook can be used to gauge interest. As the reaction to recent tragedies – or the lack thereof – has shown, our interests are very specific, and our sympathies, selective.

So what is it about France and Belgium that makes them easier to empathize with, compared to countries like Turkey, Bangladesh, and Iraq? Two things stand out: both countries are described as ‘Western’ in terms of culture, and their inhabitants are mostly white. When attacks in predominantly white Western cities get more media attention and support from the international community than attacks elsewhere – in essence, when the world is so brazen about valuing of certain lives over others – readers are presented with two harmful narratives.

The first of these narratives involves the normalization of terrorist attacks in “non-Western” cities. When criticism of disproportionate media attention arises, it is not uncommon to hear it dismissed by respondents claiming that “it happens all the time there.” These comments are not only unrelated to the issue at hand, as patterned terrorist attacks in certain areas provide all the more reason for the issue to get more media attention; they also spawn the idea that the death of people living in cities that regularly experience violence is not worth the time of readers and viewers.

But, as the targeted audience of ‘Western’ media, we know that this is not necessarily true. Mass shootings are on the rise in the United States, and we hear about them both frequently and extensively in the form of cover page stories, opinion pieces, and even the life stories of victims. While it is true that gun violence is pertinent to us as North American media consumers, terrorist attacks are by no means irrelevant to ‘Western’ media, given the often fear-mongering rhetoric employed by various governments and the “War on Terror.” Why is the same level of attention not paid to terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world?

This ties into the second narrative presented by the media, which paints terrorist attacks as tragedies that should only be mourned if those affected are white, or more specifically, non-Muslim. By releasing feature articles and profiles on white victims of violence while remaining silent about a predominantly Muslim city that has been attacked – and during Ramadan, no less – the media humanizes white victims, while simultaneously dehumanizing Muslim victims.

[pullquote-default]By painting Muslims as the enemy, this rhetoric allows governments to garner public support for foreign policy decisions that spit in the face of human rights.[/pullquote-default]

The perception that Muslim victims don’t make good news stories also contributes to the minimal coverage given to terrorist attacks in Muslim cities, and it perpetuates the idea that Muslim victims of terrorist attacks are irrelevant to Western media. Furthermore, a study published in the American Sociological Review has found that negative portrayals of Muslims in the media get more attention than positive ones, a finding that sheds light on the potential purposes behind the media’s manipulation of Muslim lives and suffering.

Much of this also comes as a result of the ‘Muslims killing non-Muslims’ rhetoric that has risen in the wake of the recent wave of terrorism. By painting Muslims as the enemy, this rhetoric allows governments to garner public support for foreign policy decisions that spit in the face of human rights. It takes the focus away from the violence faced by people hailing from countries all over the world and places it instead on religion by using Islamophobia to push a political agenda.

Any publicity gained by terrorist attacks in Muslim cities therefore dismantles this “Muslims killing non-Muslims” narrative, and threatens the culture of fear that allows governments to get away with drone attacks and the like. And whether knowingly or unknowingly, the media has latched onto this Islamophobic rhetoric.

As consumers of this media, we have had a hand in this demonization and dehumanization of Muslims. While the perceived interest of readers does not write the headlines, it shapes them. Our likes, shares, and use of hashtags reflect what we consider to be newsworthy, and when we ignore the few stories that are published by mainstream media about these attacks, we only prove these harmful narratives to be true. The media wields the power to disperse these narratives on a wide scale, but it is people like us who perpetuate them in smaller and more pervasive ways.

The fact remains that the issue at hand is much bigger than a seemingly trivial Facebook flag filter — but meaningful discourse starts with questioning why Paris got one, but Beirut did not. We must therefore start paying attention to the stories we don’t hear about, and learn to challenge what mainstream media presents us with. But more importantly, we need to start questioning our own sympathies, and why our hearts break for one city, and not for another.

Saambavi Mano is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Peace, Conflict, and Justice studies.

Malicious is the message

Racialized narratives surrounding the Orlando shooting should make us wary of media bias

Malicious is the message

When I heard about the shooting at Pulse nightclub on Sunday, June 12, the first thing I did was turn on the news to learn all the details of what had happened. Yet, things were different for a Muslim friend of mine; he had little interest in going on social media, or anywhere else, for information about the shooting — because he knew people would be talking negatively about Islam.

He wasn’t wrong. On Sunday, within minutes of reporting that the shooter’s name was Omar Mateen, CNN also told its viewers that he was raised in a Muslim family, supported ISIS, and had Afghani heritage.

This comes in stark contrast with other news reports; on the same day as the Orlando shooting, a white man was arrested on route to the Los Angeles Pride Parade with multiple guns and explosive materials on him. Yet the media did not report on his race, religion, heritage, or family beyond that. Donald Trump did not jump on the chance to tweet hateful things about white people, and Hillary Clinton did not blame the man’s religion for his actions. On the other hand, both politicians used Orlando to further their Islamophobic agendas and rhetoric, with Trump reiterating that the USA needs to suspend Muslim immigration, and Clinton blaming ‘radical Islamism’for the day’s events.

[pullquote-default]For years now, whenever there has been a shooting or bombing in which the perpetrator has had anything to do with Islam, or has been a person of colour from another community, stories about the individual have dominated news cycles for days.[/pullquote-default]

This is clearly not a new phenomenon; the same thing happened after the attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Boston. For years now, whenever there has been a shooting or bombing in which the perpetrator has had anything to do with Islam, or has been a person of colour from another community, stories about the individual have dominated news cycles for days.

It takes both liberal and conservative news channels and political figures no time at all to blame violence on Islam, overshadowing what is arguably much more important — in this case, the fact that the Orlando shooting was clearly a hate crime against the LGBTQ+ community, and disproportionately targeted racialized persons.

The mainstream media’s greatest mistake when it comes to the Orlando shootings was using the deaths of queer people of colour, specifically the Latinx LGBTQ+ community, to vilify another marginalized group. Instead of deliberating on why it is that queer and trans people of colour face disproportionate amounts of violence compared to white queer and trans people, the media focused on painting Muslims in broad strokes as inherently homophobic people, neglecting to recognize how this might affect queer Muslims.

Instead of drawing attention to hypermasculinity and easy access to firearms as contributors to the attacks, much of the media fostered more hate following the deaths in Orlando by playing into the East/West dividing rhetoric — which ultimately helps radical terrorists to carry out their motives.

We expect the news that we consume to be objective. However, this is problematic, because people of colour and racialized religions are talked about disproportionately after events like the Orlando shooting. Even though research shows that the people who commit the highest number of mass murders in America are young white men, we continue to associate brown men with terror. The media is partially to blame.

[pullquote-default]The way that Islam and men of colour are talked about on the news feeds into an active discourse that condemns Islam and people of colour simply for existing. [/pullquote-default]

The way that Islam and men of colour are talked about on the news feeds into an active discourse that condemns Islam and people of colour simply for existing. When we hear so much negative information about certain groups of people — particularly in times of crisis, when emotions and tensions are high — this information only serves to reinforce other stereotypes and channels of discrimination against these groups. As a result, individuals begin to believe hateful messages about these groups. We become angry at Muslims, and afraid of people of colour.

Furthermore, these marginalized communities then have to bear the consequences of sensationalist news reporting. After Islamophobic rhetoric rose to the surface following the Paris attacks, many Muslims all over the world reported being harassed — a mosque in Peterborough was set on fire, several mosques in the States were vandalized, and harassment against Muslims in London, England tripled.

Every religion has extremists, yet every day people who have racialized faiths are held responsible for crimes they would never commit and do not condone. In the case of Orlando, while the media focused on Islam, we heard much less about other oppressive actions against LGBTQ+ people, including those who had been victimized in the shooting.

We heard little, for example, about the Westboro Baptist Church — a radical religious group — who viciously protested homosexuality outside a funeral for a victim of the Orlando shooting. We heard about all the politicians who were supposedly saddened by the shooting, but the media neglected to mention the names of the many politicians that voted against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, which makes homophobic hate crimes illegal under US federal law.

The way that we are given information in times of crisis should be something we are constantly analyzing and deliberating for ourselves. The Orlando shooting was a horrible tragedy, but the media has prioritized Islamophobia over paying respect to those 49 lives lost on June 12. Do not take what is given to us by major news outlets as absolute, and do not let rhetoric distract you from what is truly important.

In memory of the victims, here are their names.

Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old

Amanda Alvear, 25 years old

Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26 years old

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33 years old

Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old

Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old

Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28 years old

Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25 years old

Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old

Cory James Connell, 21 years old

Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old

Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old

Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31 years old

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old

Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22 years old

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old

Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old

Frank Hernandez, 27 years old

Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old

Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40 years old

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old

Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25 years old

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old

Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49 years old

Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25 years old

Kimberly Morris, 37 years old

Akyra Monet Murray, 18 years old

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20 years old

Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25 years old

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old

Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old

Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27 years old

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35 years old

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old

Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24 years old

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old

Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old

Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24 years old

Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37 years old

Luis S. Vielma, 22 years old

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50 years old

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old

Jerald Arthur Wright, 31 years old


Shailee Koranne is a third-year equity studies student at Victoria College.

U of T student falsely accused of mass school stabbing

The Gateway Pundit misidentifies Zahra Vaid in Islamophobic article

U of T student falsely accused of mass school stabbing

On February 23, a 14-year-old student injured nine staff with a knife at a high school in Pickering, Ontario. University of Toronto student Zahra Vaid was one of many interviewed by the Globe and Mail for their coverage of the incident.   

Vaid later received a Facebook message from a stranger containing a link to an article on The Gateway Pundit, a right wing news blog based in the US. The article was entitled “Canadian Muslim girl goes on Mass Stabbing Spree” and 21-year-old Vaid was profiled and misidentified as the teenage perpetrator of the stabbing incident. 

“An innocent mistake? I think not,” Vaid said of the misidentification in a Facebook post that has since gone viral.

“[The] Globe and Mail article had nothing to do with the fact that I was Muslim. It didn’t even mention that,” Vaid told The Varsity

“And the fact that a very… right-wing supporter extracted that information related directly to my religious identity is just beyond me, and I think that what this did… was bring up the fact that Islamophobia is real,” she said.

Vaid shared her thoughts about being named in the blog over social media. She also expressed sympathy for the 14-year-old student accused of the stabbing, who had a history of being bullied and suffered from mental health issues. The minor is being charged with 15 offences and cannot be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice act.

The Huffington Post,  CBC, and several other news outlets covered the story of The Gateway Pundit’s accusation and Vaid’s reaction to the personal attack. The Gateway Pundit later altered their article, which now appears four short sentences shorter, followed by a long quote from Fox News. To date, The Gateway Pundit has released no statement of apology, informational sources, reasoning for the changes, or transcript of changes made.

“The author of The Gateway Pundit’s article targeting me did not reach out to anyone, myself, my family who has [tried to] contact them, media, twitter… there has been no contact,” says Vaid.

“Social media, while it could be something dangerous, in that you can be targeted and violently accused of things that you didn’t do, it’s also a place for community, and for people to mobilize for your cause, and that’s something that I really saw, in a very profound and heart-warming way,” Vaid said of the reaction she received online from those who left comments supporting her.

In her interview with The Varsity, Vaid expressed deep gratitude to her extended community for supporting her, as well as to the many people who expressed solidarity and understanding, adding that they have also been profiled and marginalized.

While Vaid believes that the incident speaks to a prevailing anti-Muslim narrative, she thinks that the focus should be the mental health of youth.

“While this incident has so many different messages… I really do still want to hold true to the fact that this incident could have been prevented, and that it has to do with mental health and bullying, and those are still issues that are so pervasive and real in our education system that need to be dealt with,” Vaid said.

Vaid said that she wants an apology from both The Gateway Pundit and The Globe and Mail, and that she may consider taking legal action against the news blog. 

The Varsity did not approach The Gateway Pundit for comment.

Canadian identity and the refugee crisis

Rhetoric of “relative tolerance” hinders meaningful dialogue on racism

Canadian identity and the refugee crisis

The Canadian media has emphasized our country’s warm welcome of Syrian refugees, as well as our rejection of the fear and bigotry that characterize conversations about refugees elsewhere in the world. In a similar vein, after the pepper spray attack on Syrian refugees during a welcome event in Vancouver earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded on social media: “This isn’t who we are – and doesn’t reflect the warm welcome Canadians have offered.” His remarks show the way in which the discussion of refugees has been dominated, sometimes unhelpfully, by the language of Canadian patriotism.

This rhetoric does have value, especially in affirming newcomers’ sense of safety and belonging as they start their lives in Canada. A man who was hit in the pepper spray attack, Youssef Ahmad Al-Suleiman, told The Globe and Mail that, to refugees leaving behind political instability in their home countries, Trudeau’s clear and immediate condemnation of the violence is a meaningful gesture. Still, the public response to the Vancouver attack, which mirrors Trudeau’s comments leaves little room for exploring nuanced approaches to racism and Islamophobia in Canada.

It is comforting but not entirely accurate to claim that exclusionary violence “isn’t who we are” as a nation. Compassion and respect cannot be called inherently Canadian qualities any more than intolerance can. While Canada ha stated a commitment to advancing human rights, Canada’s history is marred by the legacies of Japanese internment camps, immigrant exclusion acts, and the residential school system, among other institutions of racial discrimination.

If the majority of Canadians today value compassion toward and acceptance of refugees, it is not because of the example of our national history, but in spite of it. Recent violence motivated by racism and Islamophobia, although committed by a minority of Canadians, shows that bigotry is still alive and well in Canada, often very close to home, whether or not we represent bigoted acts as Canadian, or acknowledge their place in Canadian history.

In the last few months alone, a mosque was set on fire in Peterborough; several incidents were reported in the Greater Toronto Area of Muslim women being harassed or assaulted in public places; Muslims were asked whether they were sorry for the Paris attacks; and a Muslim U of T student was spat on and harassed outside Robarts. This is to say nothing of smaller-scale acts of bigotry that often go unnoticed or are trivialized in classrooms, online comment sections, and other daily interactions, which Iris Robin noted in The Varsity last week. 

Characterizing inclusion and compassion as essentially and even uniquely Canadian qualities is of limited value in uncovering the roots of racism in Canada and reducing violence and bigotry in the future. We have no hope of addressing the problem if we cannot acknowledge it first.

By writing off violence against refugees and racialized people as isolated incidents, and not representative of Canada as a whole, we risk minimizing the real threat of violence many Canadians face on a daily basis. If we are committed to making our campus and our wider communities safe and welcoming to everyone, refugees or otherwise, then we must commit to conversations about racism and bigotry that move beyond simple characterizations of Canada as an almost universally accepting place. 

Language matters; let us be clear, direct, and honest in articulating the values and commitments we hold above all else. We welcome refugees into our communities today not because it is the Canadian thing to do, but because it is right. In the same way, we must condemn attacks against refugees not because these acts are un-Canadian, but because they harm real people, reduce refugees’ humanity, and violate our shared commitment to building a just and equitable world.

Rusaba Alam is a third-year student at Victoria College studying English.

Student groups condemn Islamophobia

Rise in Islamophobic acts prompt statements of solidarity

Student groups condemn Islamophobia

In the aftermath of the recent Paris terrorism attacks, Toronto has seen an influx of Islamophobic activity. Osama Omar, a University of Toronto student, wrote a Facebook post on November 17, claiming that a stranger insulted him and spat on him at the intersection of College and Spadina. Omar believes the assault was an act of Islamophobia.

According to a CBC News interview with Omar, he stated that the attack occurred while he was waiting for a streetcar at the intersection.

“[While] waiting for the streetcar home, a man approached me and straight up SPAT on me. He proceeded to verbally abuse me with swear words and attempted to swing at me, twice. I was quite caught off guard with such an unexpected incident, I didn’t know what to do. There was no one around except for a couple of people at the other end of the platform. I decided to walk away. The whole time, the man swore under his breath and stared me down,” Omar wrote on Facebook.

Abdullah Shihipar, president of the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), told The Varsity that Islamophobia has always been prevalent on campus, and that while it may ‘spike’ after such events, it doesn’t “necessarily go down.”

Shihipar referenced the public Facebook page, UofT Confessions, as a site where Islamophobia manifests. “At one point, every week, there was a post on Muslims, Muslim women, ‘why do Muslim women wear hijabs’ and stuff like that… those are U of T students and their opinions,” Shihipar said.

When Shihipar heard about what happened to Omar, his reaction was mixed.

“Surprise in a sense that you’re always surprised when an incident like that happens on campus, a university campus… but at the same time, not surprising because we’ve been hearing about this string of Islamophobic attacks, in the city,” he explained. “I think we have to get over the surprise aspect, because we have to realize that this type of racism, Islamophobia does manifest itself in a city that we think is inclusive, and in a campus that we think is inclusive,” Shihipar said.

Other groups have echoed Shihipar’s sentiments, many choosing to release public statements condemning the incident. “[It seems like everyday, there is yet another story of a racist hate crime. This time it hits home even further, with an attack on our campus, on a fellow student,” read a portion of the ASSU’s statement.

“For a student to be made a target of a hate crime like this is unacceptable,” said the U of T Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) in an online statement. “Islamophobia and racism are real and when it hits this close to home on campus, it is cause for concern.” Since then, the MSA has promoted a series of events and resources, such as a workshop focusing on self-defence for Muslim women.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) published a statement, in which they expressed disgust at the attack and other Islamophobic incidents, and offered support for Muslim students. “To all Muslim-identifying students on campus: you have nothing to be apologetic for. Instead, you have every right to prioritize your mental, emotional and physical health above everything else,” read part of the UTSU’s statement.

U of T president Meric Gertler also released a statement, stating that discrimination is “intolerable” and against the principles of the university. “Such actions are reprehensible and antithetical to the fundamental values of our academic community. Instead, our institution reaffirms its commitment to be a safe and welcoming place for the widest breadth of communities –— and their perspectives, ideas, and debates.”