Do you remember what you were doing on January 29, 2017? I only remember the next morning. I woke up to the news that a man entered the Grande Mosque de Québec and launched a violent attack that became known as the worst mass shooting in Canada in two decades. Accused shooter Alexandre Bissonnette was charged for the killings of six men, and another five people were seriously injured in the shooting. My heart broke for the victims, their families and friends. As a new resident of Montréal, and a Muslim-identifying woman, I felt particularly anxious. Now, as we embark upon the one-year anniversary of the attack I am realizing that this feeling has never really left me.
The Mosque shooting is only one of a number Islamophobic incidents. In the last year alone we have seen numerous cases of vandalism at Canadian mosques, threats against Muslim clerics, protests against Muslim-designated cemetery space, verbal and physical attacks on Muslim women, bomb threats directed towards Muslims, even legislation banning what Muslim women wear in public service spaces, just to name a few. There were over 125 hate crimes against Muslims in Canada in 2016. Despite this, Muslims are consistently placed in a negative light by some far-right, sensationalist media sources, designed to stoke division and anti-Muslim sentiment, like this false news story published by TVA. As a community, we are constantly on edge.
But in the last two weeks, we have seen just how insidious and pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment is in our society. Two weeks ago, an 11-year-old girl told a rather large, rather public, lie—saying a man cut her hijab off, when no such attack took place.
This story hit uncomfortably close to home for me. The school she goes to was my school. I walked that path to school every morning for six years. I see myself in that little girl. The Toronto suburb she lives in—Scarborough—is known for its large population of immigrants and visible minorities. The people of Scarborough are used to being stereotyped; they are accustomed to dismissal. But when we learned of this alleged attack on a little girl, Canada, and many around the world, paid attention.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I learned it wasn’t true. I was also saddened by what happened next. Many commenters chalked the incident up to a childhood mistake (albeit a rather large one); who among us hasn’t lied in our youth? But I knew this story would be used to downplay the occurrence of anti-Muslim acts. Even before the allegations were proven to be false, Twitter trolls were discrediting her story.
Even after the family released a public apology, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim far-right actors in Canada galvanized around the false report, viciously attacking the girl and her family, and Muslims in general. #HijabHoax was started on social media, trolls called on the child and her family to be fined, jailed, deported, or all three, without any regard for legal precedence or due process, rendering Muslims generally disposable because of a child’s lie. Rebel Media even launched a petition calling for the girl's mother to be investigated, claiming the story was a smear campaign to “[whip] up divisions amongst” Canadians, a laughable claim considering Rebel has, itself, been accused of the same, particularly after its sympathetic coverage of the alt-right at the Charlottesville riots.
Although this story was false, this vitriolic response points to the very real fears Canadian Muslims hold. Here is the truth: Islamophobia is a real and imminent problem in Canada. A recent Angus Reid poll indicates that almost half of Canadians view Islam negatively. Statistics Canada reported a steady rise in verbal and physical assaults on Muslims in Canada. I have heard, in the news or in personal conversations, countless stories of women who have experienced both verbal and physical assault because they wear hijab. One University of Toronto study indicates that these assaults happen as often as once a week in the Toronto region alone and are rarely reported. Reporting becomes even more challenging when we see members of the police perpetuating anti-Muslim sentiment online. It’s such a problem that there are self-defence classes targeted to women and girls who wear hijab. In this climate, what’s surprising is that the girl’s story wasn’t true.
Unwittingly, perhaps, this child zeroed-in on the very real fears Muslim Canadians hold. Instead of focusing on the lie, and the potential impact on our credibility, we should be thinking about what compelled this girl to make up a story of a faith-driven hate-crime. What has this little girl learned about being a hijab-wearing Muslim girl in Canada that she thought this a worthwhile story to imagine? We should be thinking about how precarious Muslim lives are, how fearful we are, and the fact that this fear is rooted in reality. Particularly as we embark upon the one-year anniversary of the attack on Québec’s Grande Mosque, we owe it to ourselves to consider existing prejudices in our society and how we can truly and effectively address them.
Follow Shazma on Twitter.