I've spent my life here in Canada in relative average Canadian boringness. My parents are refugees from Somalia, and I grew up in a middle-class household. My dad worked for the federal government for over 20 years. While I've experienced my fair share of Islamophobia and racism, overall I've been surrounded by open-minded people throughout my academic career and work life. The rise of Trump and white supremacy has largely not touched me in my daily interactions—I've viewed it primarily through the lens of the internet. Other than videos of Trump rallies and Richard Spencer speeches, and racists in my Twitter mentions, I haven't directly confronted the extreme right-wing movement that hates my existence. (Though, as I soon learned, these people do not believe they hate Muslims: They just hate Islam, they insist, and they are fighting for their right to hate.)
I've always fantasized about what it would be like to go to a right-wing rally or gathering, in the same way I've fantasized about what it would be like to see a dangerous animal in the wild up close. Yes, I've seen enough National Geographic documentaries to know a bear could rip me to shreds in no time, but could a white supremacist do the same? After learning about the event on Twitter, I decided to go purely for the sake of curiosity (and hopefully a great story).
This week, thus, I found myself attending a rally hosted by Canada's very own Breitbart-esque news source, The Rebel, just over two weeks after six Muslims were killed by a right-wing extremist at a Quebec mosque. The Toronto gathering, which was billed by organizers at Rebel Media as an "URGENT Rally for Free Speech," could more accurately be described as an anti-anti Islamophobia (pro-Islamophobia?) assembly. It had a huge turnout—over 1000 people RSVP'd on Facebook, despite the Rebel having to change locations because the initial hotel gave into public pressure to drop hosting the event.
Read More: How Islamophobia Hurts Muslim Women the Most
To readers of the Rebel, free speech is always an urgent matter; throughout the gathering, the outlet made frequent (and irritatingly incorrect) comparisons between modern-day Canada and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. This particular rally was hastily organized in response to a motion proposed last week by a Liberal member of parliament, Iqra Khalid, in order to combat Islamophobia. The 175-word motion, known as M-103, aims to "develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination, including Islamophobia." The motion also hopes to respond to Islamophobia through "through evidence-based policy-making." Essentially, it hopes to contextualize Islamophobia through analyzing hate crimes.
As a Muslim-Canadian, I applaud the motion for more than one reason. Something like this could have prevented six people from being killed (the mosque shooter had been a known right-wing troll), and for too long the government of Canada has not acknowledged the unique threat Muslims face as a minority.
As the rally attendees saw it, however, the motion is nothing short of a law to deprive people of their right to hate Islam: Its true purpose is to serve as an anti-blasphemy law against patriots, and it goes against Canadian values. The speakers there made it clear that if this motion, which is to be voted on sometime next week passes, Canadians will soon be living under Shariah Law. Almost exactly like George Orwell predicted in Nineteen Eighty Four!
"Are they looking at me?" I asked my companions nervously. "Um, yes," they responded.
The rally took place at the Canada Christian College, an evangelical institution I'd never heard of before. Ten minutes after its scheduled start time, my three colleagues and I entered the building and had our bags and coats searched by security. As we awkwardly struggled to find a place to sit, the organizer and creator of Rebel Media approached us and asked us what our deal was—as a group that included two women of color (myself in a hijab) and a guy with neck tattoos, it was obvious we weren't there to make Canada great again. After we assured him we were journalists and not activists, he welcomed us and we took our seats in the midst of the overwhelmingly white crowd.
Looking around the sea of approximately 1000 people, I wasn't sure what to focus on. The room looked like a small-scale model of a mega church. Feeling overly self aware, I couldn't trust my own judgement. Surrounded by people who likely hated me, I wasn't sure if I was exaggerating the amount of glares I noticed. "Are they looking at me?" I asked my companions nervously. "Um, yes," they responded.
The emcee, a Rebel Media personality, took the stage shortly after, and things were immediately in full swing. The young brunette worked up the crowd, parroting phrases I've seen and heard in videos online. She spoke of the government shutting down patriots and warned that we were at a clash of civilizations. Throughout her speech and the others that followed, I couldn't help re-read the short motion, which I had printed out as a reference. It became clear to me that most people off stage were wholly unfamiliar with the actual text of the motion. It's obvious, if you actually read M-103, that its only goal is to gather data and information about hate crimes directed towards Muslims to find ways to help communities stay safe. If anything, this motion was the best thing to happen to The Rebel in a while — it gave them a new cause to help perpetuate the myth that "Canadian values" are at stake. It was like the meme you send to your crush to trap them into a conversation.
It soon dawned on me that every speaker was going to say more or less the exact same thing, just to arouse the crowd and have them on their feet. It was like the documentary Jesus Camp, but instead of kids it was a bunch of average-looking Canadians who truly couldn't comprehend or didn't want to comprehend a 175-word motion. There were times I couldn't help but giggle. One speaker talked about Justin Trudeau and how he loved visiting mosques in his abaya, which is a women's dress. Who cares, though—it sounded scary to them. At another point, after some Olympic gold medal–worthy mental gymnastics, a speaker said, "I have a daughter, and I don't want to see her covered in a burka," which is when a swath of people turned to look at me in my hijab.
But I soon realized just how serious these people were. They genuinely believed Canada, one of the most democratic countries on the planet, was slowly on its way to having Shariah be the law. Never mind the sheer unlikelihood that a single speaker there had formally studied Islam, or knew how to speak Arabic or—whatever, it doesn't actually matter, because they were there to defend their "right to hate," as one speaker put it.
What struck me the most about the group of people assembled—who have adopted words like "snowflake" to point out how liberals and left-leaning people can't handle criticism or any sort of challenge—was their victim complex. Each speaker made it clear that they had suffered most in the ongoing discourse about Islamophobia, because they were no longer allowed to speak about how much they hated Muslims. Not once were the innocent people who had been killed or injured during the Quebec mosque attack mentioned, even though it has been made abundantly clear the perpetrator of the attack politically aligned with the views espoused at the rally. I couldn't help but wonder what they thought of the fact that the biggest victims of extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Shabab have been overwhelmingly Muslim.
As a Somali-Canadian with family back home, I know the threat of extremism and terrorism all too well. Frequently, my parents will get calls from back home informing them that an acquaintance of theirs has died. The calls have become so routine that sometimes my parents barely react beyond saying a prayer and moving on. Just last year, a man I've been familiar with since I was a child was killed in an attack on a hotel as he was likely resting in his room. One of my first cousins tried making his way to Malta to escape life in Somalia years ago and hasn't been heard from since. Not only that, but every major mosque I have visited in Canada carries anti-extremism literature—of course, none of that matters to any of these people. Their circular logic was and is impenetrable.
Towards the end of the speeches, my coworkers and I decided to stand up and observe the room and hopefully mingle towards the end. Spotting us standing by a wall, the creator of Rebel Media took it as an opportunity to shout of to the crowd from his stage about how VICE News didn't cover a specific story he found important. (Later, a journalist who also was in attendance pointed out on Twitter that VICE did in fact cover the story, in both English and French, but that's besides the point.) In response, the crowd booed at us, gleefully yelling "fake news!" and "cuck!" at a group of four people in their 20s—one containing the only visible Muslim in the room.
After getting booed a couple of more times (the crowd loved us), we made our way out of the room. Sitting at a Tim Hortons to regroup, as Canadians do when really weird shit goes down, we kept looking at each other and asking, "Did this really happen?" Did I sit around while thousands of people rallied around their right to hate me and my family just two weeks after an Islamophobic mass murder? I got home and immediately told my family about my night. "Oh well," my mom replied. "They hate us; they'll always hate us. It's nothing new."