“To God we belong and to God we shall return”: Muslims are encouraged in the Koran to use this mantra as their instinctive reaction at the onset of calamity. When I first heard about the killings of six in an attack on a Quebec mosque Sunday night, I was in utter disbelief. I could not fathom how someone could enter a mosque and shoot at people engaged in prayer, bowing and prostrating themselves before God. Was nothing sacred anymore?
Clarity set in as I reflected about the importance of this mantra. We are asked to remember God at the onslaught of calamity so that we react with a divinely infused response, as opposed to our raw human emotion. Our Muslim faith requires us to believe that God is ultimately in control and that there is a divine hand in even the most senseless and barbaric of tragedies. My role as an imam is to now inspire this conviction to all that are willing to listen — even in the wake of an attack like this.
Part of my work centers on trying to guide Muslim youths who may be at risk for radicalization away from violent ideologies. In trying to protect youths from having their vulnerability exploited by recruiters or appeals from dangerous sects, I have spent hours counseling and talking with young men from across my community. I have found a reoccurring theme of wanting to belong, wanting to be part of a greater community. Yet when discrimination becomes acceptable and senseless attacks like this happen, feelings of marginalization and alienation only intensify — making youths more vulnerable to all those who are trying to take advantage of them and lead them down dangerous paths. To keep our youth, communities and countries safe, we need to harbor a sense of mutual respect and love where everyone is welcome as they are.
Any time a terrorist attack happens in the name of Islam, the entire Muslim community is regularly asked to condemn it. Now that it is the Muslims who are being attacked, whom should they ask to issue a condemnation? When a terrorist attack happens in the name of Islam, Muslims are often all painted with the same brush. What brush shall we paint the non-Muslim world with? After last year’s despicable terrorist attacks in Paris, there were vigils on a global scale, and declarations of solidarity from political leadership. For Quebec, can we expect the same?
These are legitimate questions I will be asked by Muslims in my spiritual care in the coming weeks and months. And this is how I want to answer.
As I write this, the motives of the killers have not been made clear. Initial reports maintain that the one suspect under arrest was known to have nationalist politics, though these reports have not been confirmed. To see Canadian neighbors drifting into this kind of nationalist, anti-Muslim behavior is disturbing and foreign to me. I believe this recent shift is a result of Islamophobia that has been trickling up since the presidential election campaigns in the United States took an Islamophobic turn last year. It is important to understand that Islamophobia is not just a style of rhetoric or personal prejudice, but a clear political message — one that shouts “Muslims are not welcome and should not feel safe.” This is a very different message than what the Canadian Muslim community is accustomed to hearing from most Canadians, whose attitude of openness and inclusion was exemplified in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau labeling the mosque shooting a “terrorist attack.” I am proud of Trudeau’s courage in confronting this crime. I hope we Canadians are not on the verge of losing that courage.
As North Americans, we pride ourselves on our belief in equality and freedom for all. While we may believe this, we don’t necessarily act on it: Disturbingly, there are many today who would prefer to conceal the fact that Muslims are the ones who suffer most from Muslim extremist terrorism. Indeed, the numbers of Muslim deaths vs. non-Muslim deaths caused by Muslim extremist terrorism are not even close. So we must be clear: Extremist terrorism isn’t a Muslim threat against the non-Muslim world, but an extremist threat against the rest of the world. There is more common to us than that which separates us, and our belief in equality demands that we value all lives the same in theory and in practice. If we believe in something we should act upon it, and if we are unable to act upon something, then we shouldn’t preach it. No one life is more sacred than another. And we need to show this in word and deed.
It is imperative to understand that hatred breeds hatred and violence breeds violence. To break this vicious cycle we — not just someone, but those of us facing this particular political moment — need to take a stand against prejudice and hatred. My call is for my brothers and sisters in humanity to make a conscious decision today to oppose all hatred and discrimination regardless of faith, ethnicity, color, gender or orientation, and to reach out personally to those around them. We have to get to know one another: to visit each other’s places of worship, to see each other’s communities, to spend time together as people. When hatred and fear are normalized, we all lose. Groups such as Daesh and neo-Nazi offshoots feed off hate-infused rhetoric and commit acts of violence that fuel further acts of violence. Understanding that we Muslims and non-Muslims share common ground and a mutual interest in safety and security is critical.
I urge my Muslim brothers and sisters specifically to hold on to their public religious identity by first putting their faith in God and then in the knowledge that the ones who hate us are a minority. We must try harder, even as conditions darken, to open the doors of our mosques and our homes to break bread and show that there is nothing to fear and a lot to embrace and appreciate. We are supposed to be known for our generosity above all — and who doesn’t appreciate some free baklava or hummus and chips?
To everyone out there who has stood by the Muslim community in this dark hour for us, I thank you from the bottom of my heart and hope my community and I can one day reciprocate your love. I know that I will continue reaching out to troubled youths and non-Muslim neighbors alike, even as I pray for mercy and forgiveness for our dead, even as I pray for healing, love and peace for those they have left behind.