SIMS: Can national summit on Islamophobia turn tragedy into change?

On Monday evening, Ali Chahbar and his wife put on brave faces for their three young children while still trying to make sense of what happened to the Afzaal family, who were killed by a speeding pickup truck because of their faith.

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On Monday evening, Ali Chahbar and his wife put on brave faces for their three young children while still trying to make sense of what happened to the Afzaal family, who police say were killed by a speeding pickup truck because of their faith.

They tucked the kids into beds, but instinctively checked on them several times. While the little ones slept soundly, they didn’t.

“There were a lot of sleepless nights last night right across the region, a lot of members of the Muslim community who were lying (awake) up in bed,” Chahbar said.

Some were calling the deaths “unthinkable.” That gnawed at the London-born lawyer, a first-generation Canadian. “While it may be unthinkable to certain segments of our community, to the Muslim community, it’s quite the opposite,” he said.

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There are constant reminders of Islamophobia, including the perception and depictions of Muslims as terrorists, the targeting of Muslim women who choose to wear head scarves, the slurs, the vitriol and the suspicion aimed at them.

And the violence. Every time Chahbar walks into the mosque to pray, he thinks about how he may not walk out alive. “I used to take some measure and solace in the fact that these types of incidents, these attacks took place elsewhere,” like the deadly attacks at mosques in New Zealand two years ago or Quebec City in 2017.

“These things happened there and never here,” he said. “For the first time in my lifetime … I, my wife, my family, my community have been forced to come to grips with the fact that ‘there’ has become ‘here’ and hate and death and destruction knows no borders.”

“If it could happen in London, Ont., then respectfully, it can happen anywhere.”

But it can stop here. The terrible events of Sunday have prompted the London Muslim Mosque, the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario and other Muslim organizations to repeat a call for a national action summit on Islamophobia, wanting federal, provincial and municipal leaders to come together and root out the causes of systemic discrimination against our Muslim community.

This was one of the 30 recommendations laid out by the federal heritage committee on systemic racism, discrimination and Islamophobia three years ago, said lawyer Faisal Joseph. “We’ve been calling for it for a very long time. We’ve been calling for it in the aftermath of 9/11,” after anti-terrorism legislation was brought in, and Islamophobia went on the rise.

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Munir El-Kassem, the Islamic Centre’s imam, said the summit should have happened long before the London tragedy.  “We want to make sure now that it will never happen again,” he said. “That’s why we are calling for a task force to get to that root cause of why Islamophobia is increasing and why the impact is causing ripple effects both globally and internationally.”

Tuesday’s vigil at the mosque attracted politicians of all stripes, including Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. El-Kassem said their hope is London’s tragedy has grabbed their long-term attention, is a catalyst for change and won’t fade away with the changing of the news cycle.

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“We want to make sure that judging people by their ethnicity, by their skin colour, by their language, their faith affiliation should never be a consideration to propagate hate. This is what we are hoping will happen and we are looking at visits by the prime minister and the premier as the way to start something going outside political affiliations.”

Jasmin Zine, a professor of sociology, religion, culture and and Muslim studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the summit should have been called after the Quebec City mosque massacre. “For yet another violent incidence of Islamophobia to go without real concrete action would be another tragedy to come out of this,” she said.

“I’m glad there is a lot of action at the grassroots level to hold government accountable and to have the concrete actions they want taken.”

Zine said the London police immediately calling what happened on Hyde Park Road a hate crime was “remarkable.” The work now must delve deeply into what the root cause is of the targeted violence and what is stoking the rise of ultra-right white nationalist groups.

Chahbar said the summit “is long overdue” and this could be our moment to open up a much larger conversation, similar to how the murder of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis began a far-reaching movement to fight systemic racism.

“I think there is no better way to honour the deceased than if you have this be a catalyst for change.”

jsims@postmedia.com

twitter.com/JaneatLFPress

IF YOU NEED HELP

  • Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration, 519-672-6000
  • London Muslim Mosque, 519-439-9451
  • Muslim Association of Canada (Westmount Centre), 519-936-2304

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