Action needed as Islamophobia in Peel becomes increasingly common
Everyone who was old enough at the time, remembers when the Twin Towers were hit in New York City on September 11, 2001.
The catch of breath, utter shock, minds racing trying to comprehend senseless hate, the overwhelming amount of denial and then grief.
The heartbreak for the families of victims killed in the terrorist attacks that day was felt profoundly around the world.
Actions taken immediately afterward to tighten borders and international travel, crack down on student visa programs, introduce special anti-terrorism laws and allow intelligence gathering in the name of national security were swift and unprecedented.
The scale of the 9/11 attacks and the loss of life shook entire nations which quickly mobilized in response.
Unfortunately, the atrocities also resulted in heightened suspicion of Muslim communities across the western world and the increased “othering” of neighbours, co-workers and fellow Canadians.
Similar emotions as those that swept across North America twenty years ago were felt across Canada three weeks ago when in London a 20-year-old man allegedly ran over a family of five with his vehicle, killing Salman Afzaal, his wife Madiha, their 15-year-old daughter Yumnah and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal, leaving nine-year-old Fayez Afzaal orphaned and in critical condition.
The young boy has since stabilized.
The situation for Muslim communities across Canada has not.
On Friday, news spread of a brutal attack earlier in the week on two sisters in St. Albert, a suburb of Edmonton. Both were wearing hijab and one was knocked unconscious while the other had a knife placed on her throat as the attacker yelled Islamophobic slurs before fleeing.
It was the latest horrifying incident in what has become a flood of constant trauma now devastating more and more in Canada's diverse Muslim communities.
Unlike the response to 9/11, little tangible action has been taken to eradicate rising Islamophobic sentiment across the country, and specifically here in Peel over recent decades.
Memorials for the family and prayers for Fayez were held across the nation. Words of condemnation were expressed by politicians and other leaders. Media was filled with stories about the hate, the increasing trend of Islamophobia and updates on the criminal investigation of Nathaniel Veltman, the 20-year-old charged with four counts of first-degree murder, one of attempted murder and related terrorism charges after he mowed down the family in a pre-meditated truck attack.
Calls for action on a 'National Summit Against Islamophobia' made the news, vows to love one another and protect neighbours were heard at the funerals, and candlelight vigils organized by interfaith groups brought many together.
But will the outpouring of grief and support lead to action?
In Peel, a number of high-profile Islamophobic incidents over the past few years have raised questions about why little is being done to confront hate before it can be weaponized.
At a June 2020 Police Services Board meeting, Detective Feras Ismail, a member of the Equity and Inclusion Bureau, said he believes, “Some leaders that are tweeting out comments and making comments that are starting to create this and fuel fires of this right wing movement, you're starting to see the ripple effects of that kind of [hate] work their way into various segments of our community.”
A slide presented to the Peel Police Board last year. (Image: Peel police)
It was a clear reference to former U.S. president Donald Trump, who, for many, normalized Islamophobia. He fabricated claims that Muslims in the U.S. were videotaped celebrating immediately after the 9/11 attacks, and ran in 2016 on a platform of overt anti-Islamic sentiment, calling for a sweeping Muslim ban to prevent people from arriving into the U.S. from Muslim-majority countries.
While Detective Ismail mentioned such hateful actions by Trump and other right-wing leaders, he and others know Islamophobia in Peel has many dimensions and has been around long before the rise of Trumpism.
The Muslim Council of Peel estimates about 10 percent of the region’s population, approximately 150,000 residents, identify as Muslim, which represents one of the largest and fastest growing Muslim populations in the country.
It’s an incredibly diverse population, represented by communities from almost every corner of the broad Muslim world.
Many have been the focus of hate in Peel for years.
Peel Detective Feras Ismail says online activity and the actions of some right-wing leaders have contributed to rising Islamophobia. (Image: The Pointer files)
Peel District School Board (PDSB) faced a reckoning last year following years of anti-Black racism (against many who identify as Muslim) and Islamophobia within the institution.
A more recent example of its blatant Islamophobia occurred May 2020, when the principal at Central Peel Secondary School in Brampton made a “xenophobic and racist” remark, according to an open letter by the PDSB that was shared with families.
Multiple sources told The Pointer the remark was in reaction to instructions issued to the school board by the Ministry of Education. At the time, a provincial investigation into the board issued 27 binding directives PDSB had to implement to stamp out its intolerant, discriminatory culture, which has done particular harm to Black students, but, as the provincial probe found, also cultivated and protected widespread Islamophobia.
One directive ordered an end to streaming in grades 9 and 10. The practice, which sorts children into educational pathways by perceived academic ability, has been shown to disproportionately favour white students in Peel while harming their racialized peers.
According to a half-dozen sources, who did not confirm if they were present at the staff meeting, the principal of Central Peel, which has a large Muslim student body, said the proposed changes would lead to some students being allowed to take science classes where they would learn to make bombs.
The Pointer reached out to PDSB at the time to ask if the principal was removed from her position, but was told such decisions were confidential and it remains unclear if the same person is in charge of one of Peel’s high schools.
This was not the first time PDSB was in a negative spotlight because of Islamophobia. In 2017, a group of anti-Islam protesters, mostly parents whose children attended the schools, tore up a Qur’an and stepped on the pages outside a school board meeting.
They were enraged over the board’s decision to allow Muslim students to gather at school for 15-minute prayers on Fridays. They brought a petition signed by 600 people and shouted obscene comments about Islam. Police intervened and the trustees moved their meeting behind closed doors.
In 2018, Mayoral candidate, Kevin 'Jackal’ Johnston ran on a platform that espoused intolerance against the Muslim community in Mississauga. In a defamation lawsuit, he was ordered by an Ontario court to pay $2.5 million to Mohammad Fakih, the owner of Paramount Fine Foods, after Johnston made a series of videos which spewed “hateful Islamophobic remarks” against the restaurateur.
In 2018, he came second out of eight mayoral candidates, garnering 13.5 percent of the vote, only behind Bonnie Crombie. Johnston rose to prominence a few years earlier when he launched an ugly Islamophobic campaign to fight the construction of an approved Mosque, claiming Canada was being taken over by Muslims.
An incident in 2017 involving current Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh at a meet and greet in Brampton, was another stark reminder that Islamophobia was flourishing in Peel.
Singh, who at the time was an MP for Burnaby South, was confronted at the event by an angry woman who mistook him for a Muslim. Singh is a practising Sikh.
Jagmeet Singh was confronted by an Islamophobic heckler in Brampton a few years ago. (Image: YouTube-Brampton Focus)
She got up in front of the crowd and confronted Singh, claiming he intended to impose Islamic law and supported Muslim extremism.
Singh kept calm the entire time and emphasized love over hate, until the woman eventually left. He later explained the interaction was not the first time he has been mistaken for a Muslim and he emphasized that Islamophobia needs to be confronted with tolerance.
Last year the PDSB was in the news again for another display of ugly Islamophobia.
After Brampton and Mississauga passed resolutions allowing the broadcasting of the Azan, the Islamic call to prayer, during Ramadan last year so members could hear it immediately outside Mosques during the pandemic, a PDSB school council president in Caledon publicly tweeted shocking comments.
"What's next? Separate lanes for camel & goat riders, allowing slaughter of animals at home in the name of sacrifice, bylaw requiring all women to cover themselves from head to toe in tents to appease the piece fools for votes," Ravi Hooda commented.
The PDSB removed him from the position, but it’s unclear if any action was taken to screen school decision makers so those with hateful views are never allowed to influence education policy in the region.
There are many more incidents that have occurred in Peel recently, illustrating the alarming degree of Islamophobia, even among some who are considered to be community leaders.
But almost no action has been taken to confront hateful attitudes with effective policies.
In 2020, Peel Regional Police (PRP) reported 93 hate-motivated crimes, seven were hate crimes against the Muslim community, the same number for 2019; PRP also reported 167 hate-motivated incidents in 2020.
It is important to differentiate between a hate-motivated crime and hate-motivated incident. The former is a criminal act and leads to criminal charges. Incidents like hostile speech (but not defined as hate) will not be considered a criminal act, even though the behaviour may be based on an extreme bias or intolerance against the victim’s race, religion or sexual orientation.
At a quick glance, the numbers may seem insignificant. But research shows the vast majority of victims of hate crimes or hateful behaviour do not report incidents for a number of reasons, including doubts over what will be done by authorities, being re-victimized or concerns they will not be taken seriously. The Canadian Department of Justice says this is known as “the Dark Figure.”
“It is likely that hate crimes are among the most under-reported forms of criminality,” reads a memo from the department.
Lack of education on Islam has also led to a rise in hate crimes against Sikhs in Peel. In 2019, there were eight hate crimes reported in the community, some of which targeted a Sikh mistaken as being a Muslim, which suggests there are specific elements of the faith and cultural groups associated with it that are being singled out by some who commit hate crimes.
“Some of those incidents that were targeting the Sikh community were in fact meant to originally target the Muslim community,” Detective Ismail said at the Police Services Board meeting last year, explaining that further investigation found details of hateful commentary that involved specific anti-Muslim bigotry.
Peel Police say Islamophobia within the region is being confronted and charges are more frequently being brought forward against those who continue to act on their hate.
“The uniform officers called the Divisional Mobilization Unit (DMU) officers have been in touch personally with the various Mosques, Islamic centres, and places of worship in the region to check in with them, let them know about the support and the resources that the Service has and will continue to offer and build upon in the future,” a spokesperson for the force told The Pointer.
The Pointer reached out to the City of Brampton, the City of Mississauga and the Region of Peel to ask what tangible action they have taken to combat Islamophobia. The City of Brampton did not respond ahead of publication.
The Region has various services and committees aimed at fighting racism within the community. Its Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism Committee (DEAR) focuses on anti-Black racism, inclusion and equity training. The provincially mandated Community Safety and Well-being Plan brought together numerous partners within the Region to put together a strategy moving forward to create a safer, more inclusive society. It mentions ideas to combat anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism but nothing on other communities.
No specific policies or funding initiatives were mentioned.
Mississauga along with its Mayor, Bonnie Crombie, passed a motion condemning Islamophobia in 2020 in response to the repeated vandalization of GTA Mosques. After the London attack, the City also released statements describing the crime as an act of terrorism.
It also referenced its Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee, which the Pointer reported on after questions were raised about its lack of action in confronting religious, racial and cultural intolerance in Mississauga.
The United Way Greater Toronto said it has worked closely with the City of Brampton’s Experience Ramadan event and Interfaith Council of Peel. Providing funding and research for various issues that disproportionately affect the region’s Muslim communities is another way they are trying to combat Islamophobia.
“In Peel and beyond we have supported various Muslim community centres, Mosques and groups, providing culturally responsive emergency relief, including food, technology, essentials, and mental health services,” Daniele Zanotti, President and CEO of United Way Greater Toronto said in an email to The Pointer.
He did not detail what specifically is being done to counter Islamophobia, or what specific research has been conducted so evidence can be used as a tool to combat the problem.
Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, who represents Mississauga—Erin Mills, has taken legislative action, successfully introducing a non-binding motion that she moved to recognize and condemn Islamophobia, systematic racism and religious discrimnation, in 2016. The motion, which passed the following year, called for sweeping data collection on hate crimes and the use of this information to introduce new policy approaches to counter hate.
Mississauga MP Iqra Khalid has taken legislative action to combat Islamophobia. (Photo: The Pointer files)
The motion will push “a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, in Canada, while ensuring a community-centered focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making.”
Khalid used Statistics Canada data that showed hate crimes against Muslims more than doubled in the three years prior to her introduction of the motion in 2016.
Khalid said she received death threats because of her motion, and highlighted threats against Mosques across the country as evidence that Parliament needed to act immediately to confront rising Islamophobia.
She chairs the standing committee on Justice and Human Rights and has been credited along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for being instrumental in the recent nomination of Justice Mahmud Jamal to the Supreme Court of Canada. If he is confirmed, which is expected, Jamal would be the first person with a Muslim background to sit on the bench of the country’s highest court.
"I was raised at school as a Christian, reciting the Lord's Prayer and absorbing the values of the Church of England, and at home as a Muslim, memorizing Arabic prayers from the Quran and living as part of the Ismaili community," he wrote in the public survey required of Supreme Court nominees.
"Like many others, I experienced discrimination as a fact of daily life. As a child and youth, I was taunted and harassed because of my name, religion, or the colour of my skin."
He said he converted faiths after meeting his wife.
"After we married, I became a Bahá'í, attracted by the faith's message of the spiritual unity of humankind, and we raised our two children in Toronto's multi-ethnic Bahá'í community."
It’s unclear if Jamal’s possible inclusion on the Supreme Court might lead to new constitutional interpretations of hate crimes and how cases are handled in the future, but his nomination is being viewed as a tangible signal that many legislators are serious about confronting intolerance in the country.
If Mahmud Jamal is confirmed to the Supreme Court of Canada his presence could impact the way courts deal with hate crimes in the future. (Image: The Advocates' Society)
Khalid is hopeful that Islamophobia can be eradicated.
“I see the work we have done since my motion, whether it is the $23 million in our 2018 budget to provide supports for needs-based communities, the security infrastructure funding to make sure religious institutions across the country have stronger security, or our Anti-Racism Strategy and Anti-Racism Secretariat and that is real progress,” Khalid wrote in an email to The Pointer. “Those programs have seen real impacts here in Mississauga as vulnerable places of worship, across multiple faiths, have received funds to better protect themselves from harm.”
At the time, opposition parties weren’t even using the word Islamophobia, Khalid said. Unfortunately, high-profile incidents such as the London mass terrorism attack, have provided overwhelming evidence of Islamophobia in its most violent form.
Providing funds to places of worship for increased security and help to protect against hate-fuelled attacks should not be the sole approach to combat Islamophobia. It’s a Band-Aid solution that does not address the causes of hate. While it’s a start, what Muslim organizations and communities in Peel want are solutions to prevent systemic hate in the first place.
Massa Mohamed Ali, vice-predicent of the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Muslim Students’ Association (UTMMSA) says ignorance is a huge factor behind hate.
“From the patterns that we've seen, people are not educated enough,” she told The Pointer.
The Mississauga resident attended Port Credit Secondary School where she and some fellow Muslim students tried to start the first Muslim Students’ Assocation (MSA) at the school. But a range of policy issues prevented the MSA from coming about before Mohamed Ali graduated in 2019.
For her and the rest of her team at UTM MSA, Peel is a good example of how Muslims are integrated into the community, but there also needs to be a model for how to combat attitudes and online activity that leads to Islamophobia.
“It is by just our very own existence, that people around us are less Islamophobic, because they're more familiar with us,” she said. “If they're more familiar with our Mosques, our prayers, Eid, or Ramadan, they'll be less Islamophobic, because they'll just automatically know us more and understand us more.”
Federal legislators including Prime Minister Trudeau are facing renewed pressure following the London attack to clamp down on online entities that allow Islamophobia to flourish.
While Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said, "The events that took place (in London) were clearly hate-motivated; They were clearly racist; and they were clearly an act of terror," his Liberal government has not moved to create new legislation around the criminal code that would address hateful motivation and actions that can lead to crimes.
Online speech also remains a complicated issue as Muslim communities are disproportionately impacted by the lack of laws to prevent content creators, server hosts, and internet service providers, along with social media platforms and search engines from allowing Islamophobic material to flourish.
Addressing the London attack, police Inspector Paul Waight, confirmed “there is evidence that this was a planned, premeditated act and that the family was targeted because of their Muslim faith.” The statement suggests there is evidence that Veltman harboured Islamophobic views and that the alleged attacker was somehow motivated to act on them.
Mr. Veltman reportedly wore swastikas when officers arrested him. If he was influenced by any sort of online activity, which has not been suggested by officials, it would be another example of the rising trend of online-based hate.
Yet, the Liberal government, despite offering strong words about the need to eradicate hate, has done little to introduce new laws that would treat online platforms as publishers that can be sued for promoting hate. Going after these platforms criminally would also be easier with new laws that specifically address the spread of online content that leads to acts such as what happened in London, and previously in Quebec City.
Education is another key and the PDSB says it is taking action to confront various forms of hate in Peel.
In an email to The Pointer, the school board outlined a number of initiatives to combat Islamophobia in schools.
The actions include staffing an equity office, providing the office with educators and school leaders to develop resources for Muslim students, plans for an anti-Islamophobia training program for educators and the development of additional anti-racism policies under the direction of the Ministry of Education. Details of these policies were not provided.
The National Council of Canadian Muslisms (NCCM) is also trying to foster education and conversation by putting together a National Action Summit Against Islamophobia.
“This national action summit will not just be for the Federal government, it will be for the Federal, Provincial and Municipal levels of government, it will be for politicians who are making change throughout the broader scheme of things,” Fatema Abdalla, communications coordinator for NCCM said.
(Screen grab: National Council of Canadian Muslims website)
The summit aims to bring tangible changes to online hate regulations, street harassment laws, and naming white supremacy groups actively operating across Canada.
The NCCM also hopes the summit will continue the discussion around increased incidents of hate crimes while educating audiences about the trends and the reasons behind them.
According to a report released last summer, Canadians are heavily involved in the promotion of right-wing extremism in online conversations. Conducted by a British think tank and funded by Public Safety Canada, the study, titled ‘An Online Environmental Scan of Right-Wing Extremism in Canada’, found 6,660 right-wing extremist channels, groups, accounts, and pages in the country. These included 6,352 Twitter accounts, 130 Facebook groups, and 32 YouTube channels.
Researchers tracked the presence of far-right-subgroups: Anti-Muslim groups; white supremacists; ethnonationalists; militia groups; and those spreading misogynistic views. The most common pattern of interest among these activities on Twitter is “anti-Muslim conversation”, according to the research.
The study says a major driver of the increase in activity is social media, which provides a platform for a wide spectrum of right-wing extremists to mobilize by recruiting new members, broadcasting disinformation and propaganda, harassing opponents, and co-ordinating activity including publicity-seeking events, protests and acts of violence.
Safwan Choudhry of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, one of the largest Muslim communities in Canada, has a list of five actions his organization wants to see.
One of the group’s points of emphasis is ramping up efforts to organize national conferences, events and a national outreach program, to educate and showcase the faith proudly. Working with other faith groups to partner on outreach and anti-hate efforts is another priority, as some corners of the diverse Muslim commununities in the country attempt to spread out and become less insular.
Another focus is partnerships with educational institutions to provide more learning opportunities for young people to engage in a safe and inclusive environment.
“Systemic discrimination or racism or bigotry is typically instilled at a very young age,” Choudhry says. “People don't go be tolerant for their entire life, and then all of a sudden, in their like 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, have become very bigoted. In almost all the cases, bigotries are instilled at some point in their life when they were still very malleable and could be influenced.”
Educating children could also see younger people confronting potentially divisive ideas among older family members, he said, opening up conversations for younger generations to lead.
The organization also wants to engage in meaningful conversations with community leaders, including those in law enforcement. Launching conversations with political leaders to get tangible policies and funding moving is another key goal.
“The reason why elected officials are number five on the list, and not number one, and we've put ourselves number one on the list, is because you can’t have any type of a policy or a law or a bill or a motion that is going to stop someone if they have ill will, or if they have nefarious intentions to attack someone,” Choudhry said.
The best kind of policies in his mind are those that unite everyone against one common enemy—hate.
Peel is home to a melting pot of backgrounds, races, and diverse religions. Fostering community unity and interfaith strategies is how the Muslim Council of Peel (MCP) wants to eradicate Islamophobia. Recognizing past racist or Islamophobic ideologies in insitutions and among past community leaders is a difficult but important step to move forward.
“I've requested that there be a sort of working group right now made up of the school boards, the municipalities, the Region, police, and community (organizations) like MCP [to devise] a Community Action Plan, which would include a local summit on Islamophobia,” Rabia Khedr, board member and spokesperson for MCP said.
Khedr appreciates efforts by Peel’s municipal governments and the two main school boards, but she says it’s clear a lot more needs to be done.
Various organizations, cities and levels of government are aware of Islamophobia, but there has not been enough will to act.
Standing in solidarity beside neighbours, friends and others in the community to share their common values is incredibly important, but it’s time for another dimension, to aggressively attack Islamophobia.
“We need to move beyond condemnation, and supportive sentiments, and photo-ops,” Khedr said.
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