Three words packed with an avalanche of emotion. Of anger and ignorance. Racism. Anti-Muslim innuendo. And deep, complicated misunderstanding.
The collateral damage it causes grows and spreads. The emotional wounds fester long after the spirit is cut. And even though Muslims understand it is not a sentiment held by the majority of Canadians, it none-the-less causes them to question their own identity.
And so, one sunny Friday afternoon a couple months ago, Bilkis Al-haddad and Mahabba Ahmed were in a car, headed to the Masjid An-Noor, the “mosque of light” at the intersection of Geneva St. and Welland Ave. in St. Catharines for the Jumu’ah, a congregational prayer held every Friday just after noon.
The two women were each wearing a hijab, a head scarf that covers the hair and neck.
They were close to the mosque when they watched a 20-something female driver next to them roll down her window, turn in their direction and shout: “Go back home”.
Mahabba, a Canadian-born Muslim, was instantly furious. It’s not the first time she’s been on the receiving end of hateful words. “The superiority you think you must have,” she thought.
Bilkis cautioned her to stay calm.
“We’re not taking in that negative energy,” she told Mahabba.
What the woman driver and her female passengers could not have known is that Bilkis has already experienced unimaginable pain in her life. Three of her four children — Qamer, Ahmed and Nabil — died in a fire at their home in July 2002. Her only surviving son, Mohammed, who was 12 years old at the time, escaped by climbing out a window and onto a roof. He is now a political science student at Brock University.
Bilkis is a single mother who works shifts as a personal support worker, helping the sick and elderly. And during her time off, she throws her heart into a charitable organization she started in honour of her three children. The mission of the Qamer Foundation is to keep youth on the right path in life.
Yet on that day, visibly Muslim, all her good work could not protect her from racist remarks.
Biliks doesn’t get angry anymore. It’s ignorance, she says.
“They don’t know me. It’s just the scarf on my head,” she says.
And so Bilkis and Mahabba did what most Muslims are advised to do. Ignore the remarks. Walk away. And confront ignorance with education.
Last Friday, she spearheaded an event designed to promote peace and clear up misconceptions about Islam and Muslims. The name of the event – Je Suis Moi – was taken from the Je Suis Charlie slogan that spread around the world as a message of freedom of speech after 12 people died in a shooting at the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, this January. The two gunmen were identified as French Muslim brothers.
Je Suis Moi – I am Me – is a message of universal peace, says Bilkis.
“I am who I am,” she says. “Don’t blame me for what others do.”
And yet, any time there is violence in the world or at home in Canada in the name of Islam, Muslims here are presumed guilty by association. The shootings in Paris. The shooting death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the war memorial in Ottawa, by a Muslim convert. And just days before, the death of a Canadian Forces member near Montreal, run down by a car driven by a Muslim man known by counter-terrorism authorities. And, of course, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York City and the Washington, D.C.,
“The actions of a few tarnish everyone,” says Ezedin Ebadalla, president of the Islamic Society of St. Catharines.
Mosque members are cautioned to be especially vigilant around the anniversaries of 9-11. Over the years, the windows and sidewalk in front of the mosque have been spray painted with racist slurs: Go home, and Muslims are terrorists. The glass on the main door has been smashed.
Yet, instead of closing doors, the Muslim community opens them wider.
Indeed, their own mosque was built on a promise of diversity and acceptance, and the community represents people from 25 nationalities.
And so, they respond with education. They hold open houses during the Folk Arts Festival. They offer school tours and visit churches and other faith groups. During Ramadan, they invited community leaders to breakfast at sunset. And after a teenage Muslim girl was attacked while walking from the mosque in September 2013, they responded by mailing out 120,000 pamphlets across Niagara, dispelling myths and explaining Islam and its similarities with other religions.
It’s not about converting the masses, says Ezedin. It’s about creating a bridge of understanding.
“We have to be able to live together,” he says.
Over in Niagara Falls, Lisa Stevens is vice principal and a teacher at the Niagara Islamic School. Its 85 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 8 come from all parts of Niagara.
Her students often express confusion between the Islam they live, and the acts of terror. “They’re frustrated because they don’t recognize their religion in those acts,” she says.
Phrases like “Islamic radical” or “Islamic extremist” simply reinforce the stereotype of violence, she says. Islam is not about violence. The two words are contradictory, yet are often portrayed in media as conjoined twins of terrorism.
“Very fringe elements have hijacked the religion,” she says.
“They are the antithesis of our religion.”
Hanan Awadh, 29, was in a high school civics class at St. Catharines Collegiate in September 2001 when the second plane crashed into the twin towers.
“It has nothing to do with Islam. Zero,” she says.
“There’s no place in Islam for terrorism.”
And yet, the paintbrush of hate and ignorance takes broad strokes. She tries to shrug it off because she doesn’t want to paint others with those same sweeping strokes. Yet, it’s not easy.
After 9-11, Hanan and her father were walking in the Fairview Mall when a white man shouted at them: You don’t belong here. Go back to where you came from.
At first, they ignored the remarks.
But the man pushed: “I’m f—ing talking to you,” he said.
Hanan’s father had enough and shot back: “YOU go back to where YOU came from.”
“I am from here,” the man said.
And there it ended. No point in arguing with unyielding ignorance.
Hanan tries to make sense of his words. His actions. “The majority of time people who hate Muslims or Islam, they don’t have any exposure to Muslims or Islam and their source of information is harmful,” she says.
“A whole group of people and a religion was being portrayed as one.”
And the media needs to accept some of the blame.
“They (terrorists) always get the spotlight because hate sells more than peace,” she says.
And so, they try to counter bad with good. Prove themselves. Separate themselves from the actions of few. Respond because silence seems like acceptance. And educate because explaining themselves to non-Muslims helps to strengthen their own faith.
Every Friday this summer, after prayers, a group of Muslims stood in front of the mosque to protest ISIS. They held signs: Islam is against terrorism; ISIS is not Islam; Muslims and non-Muslims against ISIS.
Mustafa Khattab, imam in St. Catharines, reads the headlines. And he points out that on the same day of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, there were bombings and deaths in Yemen, Nigeria and Iraq. None of that was reported by Western media.
He is passionate about bridging the understanding gap between the Muslim community and its non-Muslim neighbours.When he speaks with his congregation after acts of terrorism, he has one resounding message: “Whatever happens, violence is not an option,” he says.
Sarah Halabi is a 27-year-old Candian-born, Muslim woman and soon-to-be PhD student at Brock University. She knows that hate is a weapon of the few. And yet, it’s hard to shake off even one act of racism.
When she was a young girl, a brick was thrown through a window of the family’s St. Catharines home, and the words, Go back to Iraq, spray painted on their driveway.
“It made me feel that I wasn’t welcome here,” she says. “And I felt because of who I was, I’d never be accepted.”
In the fall, she will follow her passions and begin a PhD in education with a focus on social justice and inclusion.
“We should collectively work together against discrimination,” she says.
“We all need to feel that we’re valued.”
And then there was the time Mohammed Abdelgader was in a political science seminar at Brock when class discussion turned to terrorism. Out of the blue, one of the students, had a suggestion: “We should drop a nuke in the Middle East.”
The class fell silent. Mohammed’s eyes widened as he shot a glance at the teacher, then decided to let it pass. He chose to keep his sense of humour. “Wow, man. You know I’m from the Middle East,” he thought.
“My name IS Mohammed.”
So, several days later when the class was discussing the shootings in Paris, Mohammed could sense some residual awkwardness.
“You could tell there was a huge elephant in the room,” he says, smiling.
He decided ease the discomfort in the classroom with humour. “Oh, and don’t forget they were Muslim,” he told the class.
It worked. They laughed. And a healthy discussion followed.
His humour, his openness to discuss difficult issues comes from Bilkis, his mother. In her mind, she’d rather answer questions than allow stereotypes to continue.
“Our identity is at stake,” she says.
Her identity as a Muslim. And as a Canadian.
“We are all Canadians here and we are all equals.
“You are a human being. You are my brother and my sister in humanity, in different faiths.”