Cover photo: People pray at a funeral service for three of the six victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting (by CP/Paul Chiasson)

It Shouldn't Take a Massacre to Humanize Muslims

We don’t need to be your doctors and lawyers for our lives to matter.

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Feb 3 2017, 8:36pm

Cover photo: People pray at a funeral service for three of the six victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting (by CP/Paul Chiasson)

Growing up Muslim in Ottawa, so many of my childhood memories are centred around visiting the mosque. The Ottawa Mosque seemed gigantic to me as a child, the brown building complete with a traditional minaret and dome had three main areas: the top floor for women, the main floor for men, and a basement reserved for classes, community events, and extra prayer space on busy nights. On Sundays, my three siblings and I would go to Sunday school not unlike kids of other faiths we knew.

The difference between mosques and other places of worship, from what I gathered, is that mosques aren't really formal settings. We're shoeless, sitting crosslegged on a carpeted floor where it's not uncommon for the person beside you to be taking a nap between prayers. Most mosques I've been to are also littered with children running around and playing while getting scolded by elders to keep it down. Growing up Muslim in a predominantly white city was weird. I always felt like I was explaining myself and my customs, but at the mosque everything kids in my class saw as exotic was normal.

Growing up meant going to the mosque less frequently. Not because I was averse to it in any way, but because going was never an obligation, and I grew out of the Sunday classes. Still, during the month of Ramadan and other religious holidays, the same feeling of safety stayed with me.

Now, mosques are still a safe and familiar space no matter where I am. On a trip to Vietnam last summer, my family and I were wandering around Hanoi when we noticed a hole-in-the-wall mosque where we greeted and talked to Muslims we didn't share a language with—it felt like being home.

Despite all mosques feeling familiar and welcoming, the feelings of safety changed. I felt safe with my Muslim brothers and sisters, but felt an underlying threat as being Muslim became politically charged after 9/11. Islamophobia made us all hyper-aware of how we presented ourselves and existed in our surroundings. As a pre-teen, my eldest sister began wearing a hijab at 22 and told me about how her coworkers began treating her like an alien.

As Islamophobia became a real threat to me as a Canadian, an attack like the one on the Ste. Foy mosque felt almost inevitable. According to a Statistics Canada report from April 2016, hate crimes against Muslims have more than doubled in the last three years. A mosque my brother frequents for Friday prayer, which also doubles as a community hub, has been vandalized multiple times, once even as people prayed.

While Muslims in Canada became almost expectant of attacks, we also became used to silence from our politicians when it came to Islamophobia. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been criticized for staying silent on the growing threat of Islamophobia, while at times also stoking fires to create it. In an excerpt from his book The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada, author Haroon Siddiqi went so far to say, "Going well beyond being tough on terrorists, he not only made anti-Muslim talk respectable but also initiated a range of policies and legislation that constituted cultural warfare on Muslims."

Despite evidence that Islamophobia is very much a growing problem in Canada, I haven't heard many frame the issue in a way that feels urgent. Which is why the shock and horror at the Quebec attack only showed me the gulf that exists between me and my fellow Canadians. It takes six deaths and five people in critical condition for most to clue into the uneasiness most Muslims carry around with them. "Even before this, I sometimes imagine someone firing at us praying from behind," a friend told me. Now we all know how possible this is.

Toronto City Councillor Michael Layton embraces Toronto District School Board trustee Ausma Malik after speaking in front of community members gathered for a vigil in support of the victims of the shooting in a Quebec City mosque. Photo by CP/Chris Young

This all plays into the wider context of how Muslims constantly need to be humanized and contextualized by the media when tragedy strikes. A common feelings among Muslims, one that feels almost too cliché to mention, is that we're only represented in media when it's to push a "dangerous" Muslim narrative. In a series of tweets, CTV producer Rosa Hwang chronicled her visit to the Ste. Foy mosque and mentioned, the mosque "is completely non-threatening." While Hwang explained the tweets were not meant to imply mosques are inherently threatening and her guide wanted her to mention the mosque was not scary, I still couldn't help get a bad taste in my mouth. Her guide felt the need to ask her to relay that a small place of worship that was likely also a community hub was not a scary place.

The Syrian refugee crisis has many defending refugees by showing examples of how Muslims bring capitalist value to Canada. In good-natured defenses, we see scores of immigrant success stories. One of the most famous widely shared "valuable refugee" story popularized after the death of child Aylan Kurdi who was found on a beach, is the one of Steve Jobs. Although Jobs wasn't a Syrian migrant or refugee, his birth parents were leaving many to share variations of this tweet, which essentially tells us we wouldn't have iPhones if his family wasn't allowed into America. But it doesn't end with Steve Jobs. Frequently we're reminded of stories about how Ahmed is actually a doctor who saves lives, or a teacher, or some kind of lawyer. Not to mention cutesy stories of how Syrians are, once again, super-harmless neighbours who just want to help us out!

One of the major tenets of Islam is to view other Muslims as your brethren. We all refer to each other as brothers and sisters, even when we don't know each other. A phrase we all grow up hearing is "Love for your brother or sister what you love for yourself," something that goes beyond trying to be literally wishing your luck on others, but to empathize with the pain and suffering of those around you. As I sit here writing this, on the television in front of me I am watching the funeral of three of the men who were killed in Ste. Foy—men and women who look much like my family openly weep at the loss of their brothers. The victims look as familiar to me as the faces I've been used to seeing my entire life. And I can't help but wonder what their inherent value is to non-Muslims if they don't amount to whatever successful immigrant narrative is being pushed at the moment. I wonder whether if we stopped equating the value of Muslims to their potential contributions, something like the Ste. Foy attack could have been avoided in the first place.

Follow Sarah Hagi on Twitter.

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