In Canada, where one gets only a few months of relief from wintery weather, the Islamophobes don’t take time off even in summer.
On June 16, a masjid in Edson, Alberta was set on fire, even though the arsonist was aware that the evening prayers had just finished and three people were still in the parking lot.
Less than a month later, on July 13, a 66-year-old Muslim in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, dressed in a traditional robe, was strolling home after morning prayers at the masjid. As Abu Sheikh arrived home, he saw a half-ton truck suddenly climb onto the sidewalk and accelerate toward him. He managed to escape and get inside his house, only to have two bricks fly in through his front window, shattering the glass.
And on July 18, a Mississauga man, Muhammad Abu Marzouk, was leaving a park where he had attended a picnic with his family when two men passing behind his car on foot yelled, “F--king Arab people, terrorists!” Abu Marzouk got out to speak to them, possibly thinking that he may have hit them while reversing his car. One of them immediately punched him in the face.
The assault continued for quite some time, as Abu Marzouk’s wife, Diana Attar, rushed to a nearby police car to seek help as his two young daughters watched from inside the car. A friend of the family who had also been at the picnic saw what was happening and came to help, but he was also assaulted and suffered minor injuries.
By the time Attar returned to the scene, Abu Marzouk was on the ground, blood spilling from his ear and pooling around his head. He soon lost consciousness, and as Attar kneeled down to hold him, she was kicked as well. Police arrived shortly afterward, and Abu Marzouk was rushed to hospital with multiple fractures to his face and a brain hemorrhage. Part of his skull had to be removed to ease pressure on his brain. He is still fighting for his life.
The rise in Islamophobic crimes in Canada in recent years has been traced to many causes, such as Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric in the United States. This may be true, but it should not divert attention from the work done by homegrown stalwarts of Canada’s Islamophobia industry, both individuals and organizations. Though these organizations may have no direct connection with the incidents described above, they collectively serve to enable ignorant people to feel justified in their prejudice, bigotry, and even violence toward Muslims.
One such organization that has recently been in the spotlight (in an article published by The Canadian Jewish News) is Never Again Canada (NAC). During the annual al-Quds Day rally in Toronto in 2014, a Jewish man named Avi Shomer attended his first ever protest―in support of Israel, that is. By his own admission, Shomer, the owner of a marketing company, was not very politically active prior to that, and he had never personally experienced any anti-Jewish bigotry.
After seeing the 5,000-strong pro-Palestine rally and taking part in the flimsy pro-Israel counter-protest, Shomer decided to create a platform for people to “contribute their own voices in protest against all those horrible things that are being said today about Jews and Israel.” In this way, Never Again Canada was born, an organization “dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, propaganda, terror, and Jew hatred in Canada.”
NAC’s Facebook page has grown quickly. It had 20,000 followers in 2016 and currently has more than 220,000. The page published hundreds of posts every week, bringing in an average of 45,000 engagements (that is, users’ interactions with posts, such as sharing, commenting, etc). No other Canadian Jewish page of Facebook can match NAC’s reach or growth. And given the Pew Research Center’s estimate that 42% of Canadians get their news from social media, the type of content NAC chooses to post can―and does―have serious consequences.
To further complicate matters, NAC is not a transparent organization and, as a result, is difficult to hold accountable. The 20 or so administrators of the page, including Shomer (who “fears” for his and his family’s safety), prefer to remain secretive. There are some exceptions, such as Sandra Solomon, a virulently anti-Muslim bigot, and Meir Weinstein, leader of the Jewish Defence League’s Canadian chapter.
However, what really makes NAC so problematic is the content it puts out. It is routinely used as a front to promote Islamophobic content that is produced by far-right extremist groups such as the JDL or Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media. One user has even used it to issue thinly-veiled death threats against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Omar Alghabra, a Muslim MP from Mississauga. A typical post describes Muslims as “a useless, diseased race of subhumans who are bent on destroying Western society.”
Shomer insists that NAC is not Islamophobic, and says that “the overwhelming majority of Muslim-Canadians are peaceful, law-abiding, and concerned about elements of extremism originating from within their ranks.” With respect to the Islamophobic messages that are brazenly posted to the page, Shomer says administrators are not capable of monitoring every post or comment, nor is that their responsibility. Legal experts disagree.
The hate spewed by or through NAC online can spill over into real-life hate crimes. Earlier this year, NAC administrator Sandra Solomon harassed Muslims at multiple masjids in Mississauga and tore up pages of the Qur’an — actions that even Tarek Fatah, a full-time Islamophobe himself, was compelled to say were “derisive, uncouth, ill-mannered” if not “hateful.”
In 2017, Solomon posted a video on NAC in which she suggested that “1.5 billion Muslims” do no good and are merely interested in a global jihad” (Shomer says that Solomon does not speak for NAC, but he continues to give her the opportunity to solicit donations through NAC’s online store).
There are other examples. On May 6, one administrator posted a link to a video along with a caption that suggested that Muslim refugees in Europe were refusing to eat the food provided for them because its packaging was marked by a red cross (that is, the Red Cross’ logo). The video was actually about migrants protesting against Macedonian police after being locked in place for three days. Nevertheless, it was the page’s third-most popular post that week, and was shared over 450 times. The comments from NAC’s followers were clear: “Let them starve.”
Later that month, another popular NAC post (670 shares) suggested that the May 24 bombing at a restaurant in Mississauga was carried out by “Muslim terrorists.” The post included an article that was later deleted, and NAC delayed deleting the post itself. By the time they did, the damage was done. It is not impossible to surmise that the assailants of Muhammad Abu Marzouk and his family were exposed to, and inspired by, such rhetoric.
Islamophobic incidents are referred to this way only for the sake of convenience; in reality, they are not “incidental,” and must not be seen that way by Muslims and those who are truly committed to taking apart hatred and bigotry, not just expediently offering thoughts and prayers after every hate crime. The effort to dismantle the Islamophobia industry requires us to identify its key players, such as Never Again Canada, and understand how they work and the ways in which they influence society.
Future articles in this series will, insha’allah, focus on doing exactly that.