Workshop helps Muslims push back against Islamophobia

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SHAFAQNA – With a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes and divisive rhetoric in Canada and the United States, the National Council of Canadian Muslims is training youth to be more media-savvy — and thinks Winnipeg can teach the rest of the country a thing or two.

Today, the non-profit human rights and advocacy group is holding a workshop in Winnipeg, the last stop on a four city tour that includes Montreal, Ottawa and Calgary.

The plan is to help young people identify stereotypes in popular culture related to Islam and Muslims and to learn how to counter them by sharing their own stories, said organizer Amira Elghawaby in Ottawa. She said Winnipeg has fewer anti-Muslim hate crimes reported than most Canadian cities, and the council wants to learn why.

“We’re curious to see what’s happening,” said Elghawaby, the council’s communications director. “We don’t frequently hear complaints coming from Winnipeg.”

However, police in Winnipeg are investigating an incident Dec. 1 involving a piece of meat, thought to be pork — which the Qur’an tells Muslims not to eat — that was left on the windshield of member of the Muslim community.

It’s being treated as mischief rather than a hate crime but the president of the Manitoba Islamic Association isn’t taking it lightly. Idris Elbakri said he is concerned there may be a pattern emerging after the association received a strip of bacon in the mail earlier this fall. He wants to nip in the bud negative behaviour toward Muslims that’s on the rise in Canada.

In April, Statistics Canada reported that the number of police-reported hate crimes targeting Muslim-Canadians more than doubled over a three-year period — even as the total number of hate crimes nationally dropped.

Police departments across the country in 2014 recorded 99 religiously-motivated hate crimes against Muslims — up from 45 in 2012, StatsCan said.

There are fewer Islamaphobic incidents in places where Muslims are reflected in the media and seen contributing to their community and not just as stereotypes, said Elghawaby, whose organization tracks them. At the workshops in Canadian cities, they’re surveying participants’ perceptions of media outlets and how they portray Muslims. At the workshop in Calgary, they had 19 people take part, ranging in age from 17 to their 40s.

“Generally, people (in Calgary) did feel the media could be quite negative,” Elghawaby said. There, in February, there were media reports after “Syrians go home and die” was spray-painted on a Calgary school.

Last month in Edmonton, a man at an LRT station allegedly made a noose out of rope and told two women wearing Muslim head scarves nearby that it was for them. When that incident made headlines, a non-Muslim woman in Edmonton started handing out white carnations to hijab-wearing women — a positive news story that Elghawaby hopes will get equal attention.

She wants to see what’s different in Winnipeg and will be at today’s workshop with Winnipeg-based filmmaker Nilufer Rahman, spoken-word artist Jamaal Jackson Rogers and Zarqa Nawaz, a creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie. Elghawaby said the council wants to learn what the young Muslim community’s relationship with the media is like.

“Winnipeg, we know, is strong,” she said. “We’re taking away best practices. We’d like to learn about them.”

Winnipeg is strong because it’s becoming a “hub” for inclusion, said Rahman, the filmmaker who has worked across the country sharing people’s stories.

“There’s a lot of solidarity-building going on in Winnipeg,” she said, pointing to Muslim and Indigenous groups getting to know and support each other as one example.

“I feel like Winnipeg is a hub for all this,” said Rahman, who grew up in the Manitoba capital.

“There are some progressive things happening here that I didn’t hear echoes of in other cities as much. I’m really proud of being in Winnipeg. It’s really special and maybe we should share that more with the rest of Canada.” At the workshop, Rahman said she wants to introduce film and video-making as a way to share stories and connect with people on a personal level.

“It’s a powerful way to encourage people to see past their fears and prejudices and make a connection emotionally as human beings,” she said.

On a personal level, people don’t have a lot of opportuinities to get to know people from other faiths and cultures, she said.

“If we can get to know each other personally it really helps. Through storytelling, filmmaking, writing, music and theatre we can really share our experiences and that’s what will ultimately help everyone connect at a deeper level,” Rahman said.

“If we can tell our stories on our own terms and not in response to something negative we can create an opportunity for relationship building.”

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