The horrific terrorist attack that resulted in the murder of an entire family in London, Ontario, on June 6 has left the Muslim community in Canada in deep shock, yet again. For more than two weeks, there were vigils and prayer services all across Canada to express sympathy with the family.
Four members of the same family—Salman Afzaal, 46, his 44-year-old wife Madiha, 15-year-old daughter Yumnah and 74-year-old mother, Talat Afzaal—were killed. Nine-year-old Fayyez, the sole survivor of the attack, was seriously injured. Now an orphan, he has two relatives in Canada: an uncle and an aunt from his father’s side but the scars of this trauma may never be healed.
According to eyewitnesses as well as the police, Nathaniel Veltman, 20, deliberately drove his speeding pick-up truck into the family as it waited to cross an intersection in this medium-sized city in southern Ontario. The police said that Veltman killed the family because of his hatred of Muslims. He has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
“There is evidence that this was a planned, premeditated act and that the family was targeted because of their Muslim faith,” said Detective-Inspector Paul Waight. Veltman was known to harbour anti-Muslim sentiments, according to one of his co-workers. The alleged terrorist had never met the Muslim family that he so mercilessly mowed down that fateful June 6 evening.
So how did he become so filled with anti-Muslim hate to kill an innocent family that was out for an evening walk? The police have said that he did not belong to any group. It is clear he was radicalized through social media where Islamophobic content is widely available. There are white supremacist groups in Canada, the US and Europe that spew venom against Muslims. Some pro-Israeli groups also consort with such hate-spewing groups.
It would, however, be simplistic—and lazy—to assume that only internet platforms are responsible for his demented thoughts. Canadian politicians as well as mainstream media outlets are equally responsible for the alarming rise in Islamophobia. Some politicians have made it a mission to target and vilify Muslims to pander to their racist right-wing base.
Sitting atop this dung heap of racism is former prime minister Stephen Harper who parroted such racist cant as “old stock Canadians” and insisted during the 2015 election campaign that he would ban Muslim women from taking the oath of citizenship if they were wearing the niqab.
Canadian writer Andrew Mitrovica took Harper to task for stoking Islamophobia by “pitting ‘old-stock’ Christian-Canadians against Muslim-Canadians” in an article in Al Jazeera on June 9. He pointed out that “his steadfast admirers in the fourth estate will, no doubt, deem it unbecoming at this ‘difficult time’ to remind audiences of their man’s contemptible, divisive modus operandi, I am going to because decency and the jarring moment demand it.
“I will begin with Harper’s studied use of the combustible phrase ‘old-stock Canadians’ at a leaders’ debate during the 2015 election campaign.
“Harper, a bureaucrat as spontaneous as Rip Van Winkle, invoked the term allegedly to defend his petty government’s callous decision to deny health care to unsuccessful refugee claimants, insisting the move was supported by new immigrants and ‘old-stock Canadians’ alike.
“Despite subsequently denying that the phrase was malicious or insulting, Harper’s cynical, parochial intentions were plain: appeal to his largely white, Christian base while feeding a stubborn, malevolent undercurrent that only ‘old-stock Canadians’ were bona fide Canadians.
“Not done stoking ethnic discord, Harper later dispensed with the calibrated code and vowed to ban public servants from wearing hijabs and set up a tip line so presumably ‘old-stock Canadians’ could snitch to the federal police on ‘new’ but not true Canadians for their ‘barbaric cultural practices,’ including, but not limited to, arranged marriages.”
While Harper was soundly defeated in the 2015 federal elections, to the huge relief of most Canadians, his toxic comments and policies continue to poison the minds of many already harboring suspicion of the “Other”. Racism has a long history in Canada. The discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at an abandoned residential school in Kamloops, BC, and now another 751 remains in Saskatoon are painful reminders of this dreadful past.
It is however, Islamophobia that has now become a respectable form of racism, thanks to Harper and his minions. His successors, Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole, the current Conservative Party leader, have done little to abandon racist policies despite their devastating consequences for Muslims.
Soon after Harper’s departure from the political scene, there was an arson attack on a mosque in Peterborough, ON. on November 14, 2015. The perpetrator or perpetrators have still not been apprehended. Mercifully, nobody was killed although the mosque suffered extensive damage.
A much more devastating attack occurred on January 29, 2017 at the Quebec City Cultural Centre in Quebec City. Alexandre Bissonnette, then a 27-year-old university student, shot and killed six worshippers and injured 19 others with multiple loaded weapons. It was the worst mass shooting on a place of worship in Canadian history. There was outpouring of sympathy from politicians although Quebec premier Francois Legault flatly denied that there was systemic racism in his province.
Two months later, however, when a motion (M-103) to condemn Islamophobia and other forms of racism based on religion was presented by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid in parliament, the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs (86 of them) as well as five Bloc Quebecois voted against it. The motion passed by 201 to 91 but it exposed the Conservatives’ mindset. Their argument was that the motion—and it was merely a motion, not a bill—would prohibit them from criticizing Muslims and it would confer special privilege on Islam. Neither was true.
It was quite interesting to hear O’Toole say at the vigil on June 8 for the murdered Muslim family in London, ON, that “Islamophobia has no place in Canada”. Yet he and his party have been in the forefront of fomenting anti-Muslim hatred. There is ample evidence available. Hate crimes against Muslims grew 253 % between 2012 and 2015.
Further, a December 2016 Forum Research Poll found that 41% of Canadian adults expressed some level of bias against identifiable groups. Muslims had the highest negative rating at 28%. The Forum Research study was titled, “Muslims the target of most racial bias”.
Other surveys have been equally revealing. The Ontario Council of Agencies serving Immigrants’ survey published in 2016 found that only 32% of Ontarians had a “positive impression” of Islam. This is shocking given that Ontario, with Toronto as its main hub, is a predominantly multicultural province in Canada.
Another poll in 2017, commissioned by CBC’s French-language service, Radio-Canada found that while Canadians had a favorable view of immigrants generally, when religion was thrown in, their attitudes were markedly different. Asked if a Donald Trump-style ban on Muslims immigrating to Canada should be imposed, 25% of Canadians were “strongly” or “somewhat” in favour of such a ban, versus 32% of Quebecers.
Even more shocking was the response to a question posed in the aftermath of the deadly Quebec City Mosque shooting. When asked if they would be bothered if events like that attack discouraged Muslims from immigrating here, nearly half said “no”. Further, while 65% of people in Quebec said they would be OK with a new Catholic church in their neighbourhood, only 40% felt the same way about a mosque. In the rest of Canada, those numbers were 76 and 56 per cent, respectively.
Such attitudes do not emerge in a vacuum. There are forces are work that promote hatred against Muslims, some for votes, others for financial gain, yet others because they have a political agenda in which targeting Muslims advances their cause.
The price is paid in life and blood by innocent Muslims, like the one in London, Ontario. Unless there is political will to make Islamophobia a hate crime, regrettably more such attacks will occur. Where will the hate-filled individuals strike next: Muslims in their homes?