Abdullah Shihipar is a writer based in Toronto, and frequently writes about issues of race, class and social justice. His work can be found in Quartz, The Globe and Mail, and Teen Vogue among other places.
To those who don’t reside here, Canada can seem like somewhat of an enigma. In a world where intolerance and hate seem to be spreading and are endorsed by those in power, Canada has served as the Western world’s city upon a hill. Seemingly immune to the forces of right-wing populism, the country boasts about its welcoming of Syrian refugees, and is led by a handsome prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who has openly called himself a feminist. When Donald Trump was elected, Americans flocked to Canada’s immigration website, causing it to crash within a few hours. Lately however, some Canadians have called into question the country’s image of tranquility; raising the alarm about the rising danger of Islamophobia.
The country was shocked recently when, while on her way to school, an 11-year-old girl in Toronto claimed her hijab had been slashed by a stranger. Within hours, the girl and her family were put in front of cameras to give a press conference, police had launched an investigation and politicians offered their swift condemnation. A short time later, the police abruptly closed the investigation; the girl, it appeared, had made up the story . The reaction was predictable, with many pointing to the incident as evidence that Canada does not have an Islamophobia problem.
While it may be tempting to declare claims of Islamophobia as exaggerated, the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. Almost a year ago, Alexandre Bissonnette walked into a Quebec City mosque after evening prayers and fatally shot six congregants. As the anniversary of the killings approaches, the country has found itself debating whether to hold a day of remembrance. The National Council of Canadian Muslims has proposed January 29th to serve as a “National Day of a Remembrance and Action against Islamophobia.” The country already holds a national day of action on violence against women each December, commemorating the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre, during which 14 women were fatally shot at a university in Montreal. Political parties in Quebec have already voiced opposition to the measure, believing that a day of action against Islamophobia would unfairly portray Quebecers in a negative light.
After the mosque massacre, the Trudeau government proposed M-103, a symbolic motion which called on the government to condemn Islamophobia. Far-right groups immediately pounced, and white supremacist groups such as Soldiers of Odin and La Meute rallied in cities across the country. At one of these protests in Toronto, I saw protesters holding signs warning against the “Islamoization of Canada,” while speakers angrily proclaimed that the proposed motion was an attempt to introduce Sharia law into the country. These protests would soon become a regular occurrence in cities across the country. By the time the motion was passed, the member of Parliament who proposed the bill, Iqra Khalid, had received hundreds of death threats .
The National Council of Canadian Muslims listed 70 instances of Islamophobic hate crimes last year; which include graffiti being sprayed on mosques, people shouting slurs on public transit, and a bomb threat at Concordia University in Montreal which was meant to “target Muslims.” These acts are not a recent phenomenon either. According to Statistics Canada, hate crimes against Muslims increased by a staggering 253 percent between 2012 and 2015.
Even if the attack on the 11-year-old girl didn’t happen, Muslim students have been targeted before. In the Peel Region near Toronto, protests erupted over the use of a school facility by Muslim students for Friday prayers. The students had been quietly praying in school for years without major incident. Outraged parents marched to the school board’s headquarters in protest, while other protesters chose to harass Muslim students outside of local schools.
Far from being the view of a fringe minority, Islamophobia has long been aided by politicians. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper based his 2015 reelection campaign on a platform of anti-Muslim dog whistles. His government proposed a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline, prevented Muslim women from wearing a niqab while taking the oath of citizenship, and claimed that ‘Islamicism’ was the biggest threat to Canada. Members of Harper’s government went on to oppose M-103, claiming the law infringes on a Canadian’s freedom of speech. Then late last year, the provincial government in Quebec introduced and passed legislation that prevented anyone wearing a face veil from accessing public services — covering everything from public transit to hospitals. These policies have had a discernible impact on the views of the population at large; in a poll conducted last year by the Angus Reid Institute, 46 percent of Canadians said they viewed Islam in an unfavorable light.
We won’t know for sure why that young girl decided to fabricate this story. Children are perceptive and pick up on the atmosphere around them; the fact that she chose to make up a story about a hate crime says a lot about the present climate. Islamophobia poses a serious threat to Canadian society, and it has killed six people already. Dismissing the threat as overly dramatic hyperbole won’t make it go away.