Muslims and Canadians get a wake-up call

Muslims and Canadians get a wake-up call

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

It was an emotional roller coaster. The brutal massacre of six Muslims in a mosque in Quebec and the wounding of several others traumatized Canadian Muslims. But the overwhelming solidarity they received from Canadian authorities and from people throughout the country reinforced their faith in Canada and elated them.

Canadians hear about such tragedies in other countries but see their country as a haven that attracts people from all over the world seeking safety, justice, freedom and opportunities. So the attack on innocent worshippers was shocking.

Following 9/11, there was a mass gathering near Parliament that was addressed by the prime minister and the US ambassador. A hundred thousand people attended. A friend who saw me said he was surprised. “Are you not afraid,” my white friend asked. This is Canada, I responded, I feel no fear.

I was perhaps complacent. Polls show that some 10 percent of Canada’s population is racist. Canada has a racist past and the Aboriginal people continue to suffer from its venom. But this also shows that 90 percent of Canadians are not racist.

After 50 years in Canada, I cannot think of any country whose people are as friendly and helpful.

But polls show that a majority of Canadians view Muslims and Islam unfavorably - such people have never met Muslims. They are influenced by Islamophobia in Canada, which is partly fuelled by horrible news from overseas.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper termed “radical Islam” a threat to Canada and said some immigrants were rejecting Canadian values because a few covered their faces and many wore head coverings. Christian nuns also cover their heads and Mormons practise polygamy in British Columbia. Similarly, a thousand Aboriginal women have gone missing or have been murdered in the last few years. Aboriginal women face murders, rape, incest and/or assaults. But Christians are not blamed, while Muslims and Islam are blamed for the actions of a few.

Quebec politicians and parts of the media throughout Canada have fanned Islamophobia. Muslims have been attacked and insulted; mosques have been defaced.

But consider that some 604 murders took place in 2015, and crimes against property are also not rare. One in five Canadians suffers from mental illness or depression.

Canada is not perfect, but is arguably the world’s best country in how it treats its citizens and outsiders. It accepts refugees from all countries where they fear persecution. It provides them allowances and medical coverage. Its refugee and immigration policies make no distinction on grounds of race, religion or ethnicity. It has accepted some 40,000 Syrian refugees though it is thousands of miles from Syria and could have easily ignored their suffering.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has visited mosques and speaks glowingly about Canadian Muslims. He attended the funeral of the murdered Muslims. So did Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, who praised Muslims’ contributions and warned that hateful words are poisonous. Neil MacDonald of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said that most terrorist attacks in Canada have been carried out by white Christians; no Muslim have been involved. Ottawa Citizen wrote an editorial in support, saying: “We are all Muslims.”

Average Canadians flooded Muslim organizations with messages of support, left flowers at mosques, attended vigils and formed huge lines outside mosques with banners portraying the Canadian flag and proclaiming, United We Stand.

The Quebec City killer was one individual who admired right-wing politicians, opposed non-white immigration to Canada, and had himself suffered from bullying. This is cold comfort to the families of the slain Muslims. But it is reassuring that there is no mass movement against immigrants or Muslims and that Canadian authorities and Canadians overwhelmingly reject racism and value Muslims as fellow countrymen.

Still, the murders send a chilling message to Muslims and to Canadian authorities, the media and politicians. Muslims have built mosques but have not paid much attention - except in rare cases - to meeting the community’s needs, especially the youth, some of whom are drifting to crime, alcoholism, drugs and extremism. If one deranged Muslim kills innocent people the entire community will suffer.

Nor are Muslim organizations working together and seriously studying the challenges they face and how to meet them. Each organization goes its own way and feels that praying in mosques and arranging religious lectures are all that the community needs. Never mind the mentally ill, the disturbed youth, the elderly and others in distress.

In many cases these organizations have only made token efforts to build relationships with churches and synagogues. Now they have begun to work together a bit more, but still have a long way to go.

Canadian authorities, the media and politicians must also realize that portraying Muslims as a threat - as some do - is not only unfair to Muslims, and not true, but could seriously harm and divide the country. Some Canadian security laws are pernicious and seem to be directed at Muslims.

Prime Minister Trudeau speaks eloquently about Muslims. But words without effective action are just words. The Quebec tragedy is a wake-up call for Canadian Muslims in particular and for Canadian authorities and all Canadians.

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.