Closer to home than you think

Published July 8, 2016 on the London Free Press | By Clare Church

NEW YORK – Living in the land of Donald Trump, I’ve almost become numb to the unrelenting onslaught of Islamophobia. It’s in politics, it’s in the news, and it’s on the streets.

But I never thought it would be in my Canadian hometown.

After growing up in London, I moved to New York last year for my master’s degree (studying politics, no less). With Trump promising to build a wall at the Mexican-U.S. border one day and threatening to ban all Muslims another, the past year has been a learning experience rife with racial prejudice and bigotry.

Although the American political arena is worrisome, I’ll admit I was not fully absorbing the tragedy that is Islamophobia. I would falsely console myself, using my Canadian heritage as an excuse not to toss and turn at night. “This is America,” I thought to myself, “Canada is different.”

Much to my surprise, a news report last month shocked me out of my sleepwalking. A 25-year old Muslim woman was attacked, surrounded by silent bystanders, in a grocery store, in my hometown. The Muslim woman was spat on and punched until she was black-eyed and chip-toothed.

This happened in London: the tight-knit, warm and welcoming town I grew up in. This couldn’t possibly be true. Could it?

But as I rack my brain, I realize my own naiveté. This grocery store attack was unfortunate, but it should not have been a surprise.

Gina Kayssi, community engagement facilitator at the Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration, voiced a similar sentiment. “There is a reluctance, or unwillingness, to understand that there is a lot of racism and Islamophobia on the ground, here in London,” she said.

Kayssi was born and raised in Canada and wears a hijab. She has not personally faced a blatant, physical confrontation for being Muslim. However, she recounts that after the Paris attacks in November, one of her close friends, who is also Muslim, was stalked by a man in a London Public Library. To evade the man, the woman had to hide in the bathroom until a family member could drive across town to pick her up.

Islamophobia wears many different faces. It can be anything from a deliberate assault to making another human being feel uncomfortable because of their religious associations.

Although Western graduate Dalal Atta does not wear a hijab, her mother does. Atta notices Islamophobia most obviously when she is with her mother.

“You do see everybody stare,” Atta said, “There are little nuances I’ve picked up. It’s in people’s voices. There is a shift in their tone.”

Both Atta and her mother were born and raised in London. Atta’s grandparents moved to Canada in the early 1950s. This is the same time, if not earlier than, when my own grandparents moved to Canada. And yet my grandparents, due to their European ancestry, have been fully accepted into Canadian society, while Atta’s are still sometimes met with anti-immigrant sentiment.

Islamophobia doesn’t even seem like the right word to describe what’s going on. A phobia indicates a fear. We are usually fearful of things we don’t know, but we know Muslim Canadians. They are our neighbours, friends and classmates. They are a part of the diversity that makes our country so great.

It bewilders me to learn that there were so many bystanders during the grocery store attack. But I understand now that I too have been a bystander to anti-Muslim sentiment for the past decade. As Atta puts it, racism and anti-Muslim sentiment is “way closer to home than you think.”

It should not rest solely on the Muslim community to defend themselves. Anyone who is targeted, regardless of their religious affiliations, should not have to stand alone.

As a student of politics, I can’t help but think of Martin Niemöller when I reflect on the current anti-Muslim rhetoric that pervades the airwaves. In 1946, the German pastor wrote:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

It is time for all of us to speak up for the marginalized members of our community. It is time to speak up for Muslims.

The voices of hate are loud. We will have to speak louder.

This article was originally published July 8, 2016 on the London Free Press.

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