When will Canada take Islamophobia seriously?

Published in Toronto Star on January 25, 2022

By Steven Zhou

It hasn’t been an easy five years for Muslim communities across Canada. Not since a mass murderer rampaged through a Quebec City mosque five years ago, killing six worshippers and injuring many more.

Since then, Muslims across the country have engaged in surreal discussions around self-protection, such as how to duck for cover or file out safely should another shooter barge through the front door.

These conversations are reminders of how hate has captured Canada. Some may not have noticed, many have probably forgotten.

But Muslims in Canada are forced to remember because we live in a new normal. This was made clear last summer with the shocking murder of the Afzaal family in London, Ontario.

We don’t have to accept this status quo.

The struggle for a more resilient future continues and all Canadians should be on board. The first step is to remember. The green carpet of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City was stained with blood on the night of Jan. 29, 2017. Later this month, many will pin a green square on their lapels and chests in solidarity with those who lost, and with those who continue to repair their lives, families, and neighbourhoods in hopes of a future without hate.

It’s these people and communities spearheading the resiliency that all Canadians should learn from. Yet, it takes a much larger collective to build a country that takes Islamophobia seriously. And there has been some progress.

Today’s troubling climate is made largely possible by hate peddled and organized in online spaces that do little to stem the venom. We need to look no further than the Quebec City attacker himself who frequented online hate groups. The federal government has since stepped up and, despite wrangling over language and debates over free speech, showed a willingness to at least address the systemic nature of online hate speech and harm.

Others who leverage this free-flowing cyber reality are ideologues and hate-mongers who take their online organizing into real life. This clear danger and threat includes a number of explicitly white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups that engage in active recruitment, weapons training, and overall planning. It’s a step forward that Canada has put some of these entities on the official list of banned terrorist entities, like The Base and Atomwoffen Division. But it shouldn’t have taken death and destruction for it to happen.

Those affiliated with or inspired by such hateful groups are who Muslims have in mind when forced to discuss the urgent issue of mosque security. Three years after the Quebec City mosque shooting, a Toronto mosque caretaker was killed by a man with alleged links to a neo-Nazi cult. These seemingly unpredictable yet targeted attacks have made many mosques realize how unprepared they are, often because they don’t have the money to secure their premises.

This means changes to the federal government’s Security Infrastructure Program (SIP), as spelled out in the list of recommendations to combat Islamophobia made by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), are of particular importance.

COVID-19 and Omicron have made things worse, as mosques close their doors in compliance with public health measures and lose out on fundraising opportunities. The federal government needs to help fund mosque securitization projects by providing a partial refund or rebate after facilities have been finished. This process will allow mosques to urgently fill in their security gaps.

While ad hoc steps have been taken to address Islamophobia along all these lines, much more needs to be done, and in a more cohesive manner. Perhaps the most important reminder as we approach the fifth anniversary of the Quebec City mosque attack, is that no real traction can be made if our habit is to forget the lessons of the past which, for so many, are as painfully present as they are past.

This is why there’s an annual campaign designed first and foremost to remember. It’s the goal for those who will don green squares leading up to this Jan. 29 which will also for the first time be enshrined as the “National Day of Remembrance of the Québec City Mosque Attack and Action against Islamophobia.”

Monuments across the country will also be lit green for the same reasons.

Friday sermons and vigils will be held to orient people’s hearts and memories back to what happened.

Committed educators will be talking to their classrooms about the challenges of hate and violence.

Here’s to hoping all that makes a difference.