Toronto mayor urges ‘pragmatic’ action to combat Islamophobia

NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Mayor John Tory rally with the Muslim community for action against Islamophobia in light of 2017 Quebec mosque attacks

february 6, 2019

Some politicians and members of the Muslim community are mobilizing for more specific and direct measures to eliminate Islamophobia in Ontario.

Torontonians were called to action against Islamophobia on Tuesday, where several gathered at Queen’s Park to commemorate the two-year anniversary of a shooting that took place at a Quebec mosque in 2017.

As a part of the commemoration, the mayor proclaimed Tuesday, Jan. 29 as a Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia in Toronto.

While this day is not yet recognized within the wider Ontario legislature, Beaches East-York MPP Rima Berns-McGown has taken the first step in that direction, proposing a private member’s motion to make it official.

Community organizer Samiya Abdi poses with the proclamation declaring a Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia, issued by Toronto mayor John Tory on Jan. 29, 2019. (RSJ/Dhriti Gupta)

Tory encouraged individuals to go out and educate themselves firsthand, stating that direct, “pragmatic” action is what’s needed to combat misunderstanding and polarization.

“I think people have to be educated and informed. I certainly learned, not through a classroom or a book, but by spending time with the Muslim community, and going to Friday prayers, and going to Ramadan events,” he said. “Once you learn about any faith, it is actually a faith that is based basically on the same values.”

Tory also spoke to the City Hall fellowship program, which had about 25 or 30 young members of the Islamic faith as of last year.

The Muslim Youth Fellowship is a non-partisan program that provides Muslim youth with the opportunity to work with an elected government representative. The program consists of a training course developing civic engagement skills and a paid part-time placement in a municipal official’s office.

One of these fellows is student activist Naeema Hassan, who is trying to make a difference on the grassroots level.

Hassan was attacked on a bus in 2016 because of her faith, and has since taken to publishing her writing online to create a community for other Muslims to talk about what they’re going through.

She’s also a member of a group called Rivers of Hope, which goes into high schools to talk about Islamophobia, hoping to “create change one by one”.

Faiths have same values

changing public perception

Hassan stressed the importance of using the correct language in the media when discussing terrorism. She said she can’t help but feel anxious any time she sees the word “Muslim” in a headline.

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“The way we phrase attacks that happen could literally be why a Muslim girl, who’s visibly Muslim, could be attacked,” she said. “I am unable to mourn the tragedy of somebody else simply because I’m the one now who could possibly be attacked.”

Nearly half of Canadians feel that Islam has a damaging presence within Canadian public life, according to a 2017 poll from the Angus Reid Institute.

In an effort to challenge this perception, the NDP helped to celebrate and highlight Islamic heritage month last October.

“Some people have this assumption that the Muslim community are literally newcomers to Ontario, when they’ve been here for decades and decades and decades,” said Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath. “What Islamic heritage month does is give us a month of celebrating the accomplishments, the achievements, the contributions, that Muslims have made to Ontario.”

Andrea Horwath addresses a gathering at Queen’s Park on Jan. 29, 2019 in remembrance of the lives lost in the Quebec mosque shooting in 2017. (RSJ/Dhriti Gupta)

Tariq Syed, the producer for the film Your Last Walk in the Mosque, thinks more people need to talk about the specifics of Islamophobia to change the narrative. His documentary covers the aftermath of the Quebec shooting and features interviews with the survivors and family members of the deceased.

“I think the community and the public need to start talking about it,” he said. “Something terrible happens, we all get hyped up, start wanting to do something about it, and then hashtagging, raising money and stuff like that, and once it’s done, nobody cares. Nobody remembers what happened or what needs to be done.”

In the wake of controversy surrounding the definition of Islamophobia itself, Mohammed Hashim, a senior organizer for Toronto Labour reiterated the need for clarity at the most basic level.

 “Our political leaders and institutions need to convey where they stand on Islamophobia, and they need to be really clear about it. This is not a conversation about definitions,” said Hashim. “To all of us, Islamophobia means hate to Muslims. That’s where it starts and that’s where it ends.”

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© 2020 by Dhriti Gupta.

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