The killing of a Muslim family in London, Ontario exposes an alternative Canadian reality that includes violence, hatred and discrimination against minority groups
On Sunday 6 June, while out for an evening stroll in London, Ontario, the Afzaal family, Salman Afzaal (aged 46), his wife Madiha Salman (44), their 15-year-old daughter Yumna, nine-year-old son Fayez and Mr. Afzaal's 74-year-old mother Talat were run over by a 20-year-old male driving a pickup truck.
The whole family was killed except for Fayez. The driver has been charged with terrorism and four counts of first-degree murder. Police have said that the attack is likely deliberate and the family were targeted because they were Muslim.
This attack is not an isolated incident in Canada.
Last year, on the evening of 12 September, 58-year-old Mohamed-Aslim Zafis was stabbed to death outside the International Muslim Organization mosque in Toronto. On 29 January 2017, a shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City left six men dead. After the province of Quebec passed Bill 21 in 2019, banning the wearing of religious symbols by public school teachers and civil servants, among others, incidents of harassment and discrimination against Muslim women increased.
Despite a pervasive image of Canada and Canadians as inclusive, diverse and multicultural, there is an alternative Canadian reality that includes violence, hatred and discrimination against minority groups, including Muslims.
Multiculturalism is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as is religious freedom and protection from discrimination based on religion and ethnicity. Thus, there are structural legal protections in place that help promote inclusion and diversity, which are currently at the core of Canadian domestic and foreign policy.
‘Currently’ because only a few years ago the federal government under then prime minister Stephen Harper went to court in an attempt to ban Zunera Ishaq from wearing her niqab during the ceremony to become a Canadian citizen (the government lost).
The same Conservative government promised during the 2015 election to establish a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline. The question is why, despite the Charter and strong programmes of multiculturalism, inclusion and diversity, does Islamophobia in Canada persist and even seem to be growing? The short answer is that the social imaginary, or the way people think about the collective ‘us’, has not been redefined in inclusive ways.
Who is ‘us’?
In her response to the murders of 51 Muslims during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on 15 March 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted that many of those who were affected “may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.”
Ardern’s comment gets to the heart of the matter: Who is ‘us’? In addition to legal and policy promises of inclusion, acknowledgement of diversity and recognition of multiculturalism, an inclusive conceptualisation of ‘us’ in civil society is essential.
In contrast, there is ample evidence that a significant number of Canadians hold a narrower view of who belongs to ‘us’. A 2017 poll into religious trends in the country revealed that Islam is viewed unfavourably by almost half of all Canadians (46%), and that less than 35% of respondents (32% in Quebec, 34% in the rest of Canada) view Islam favourably.
In 2017, when Bill M-103, a non-binding motion to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination”, was introduced to parliament by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, a poll found that a third of Canadians believed that the bill was a “threat to Canadians’ freedom of speech”.
Some 42% of respondents said they would vote against the bill, while 55% believed that anti-Muslim attitudes and discrimination were “overblown” by politicians and the media. The motion was passed by a significant margin, 201-91.
In my recent book ‘The Transition of Religion to Culture in Law and Public Discourse’, I explore through legal cases the transformation of majoritarian Christian religious practices and symbols into ‘culture’ in Canada, France and the United States.
For example, the use of prayers and religious symbols such as crosses and crucifixes in government and public spaces are generally seen as being integral to ‘our’ culture and heritage. Narratives of ‘universality’ (‘this is important or relevant to all of us’), minimization of harm (‘this doesn’t really hurt anyone’), and invocation of ‘our values’ are all part of the process by which religion is reconfigured as culture.
I argue in the book that this phenomenon is a strategy aimed at preserving a narrow conceptualisation of 'us' that excludes minority groups, who are ‘imagined’ out of Canada’s history and culture. The defence of potentially alienating practices and symbols traps us in a hierarchical holding pattern.
If we Canadians are to live well together, these must be renegotiated in a manner that recognises all parties to the conversation as equals, and in some instances as being in need of redress for past wrongs. And ‘they’ must be included in the social imaginary of ‘us’.
“Islamophobia will continue to exist until Canada dismantles its other oppressive systems. While there is still anti-Blackness, there will still be Islamophobia. While there is still anti-Indigenous racism, there will still be Islamophobia. Under white supremacy, there will always be Islamophobia,” said Maryam Azzam, a Muslim student at Ryerson ('X') University in Toronto. She was speaking after the attack on the Afzaal family.
While it is important to name Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism as distinct phenomena, it is also important to contextualise them within broader patterns of inequality, discrimination and violence against a wide range of groups, including Indigenous people, Black people and other people of colour.
Hateful acts impact those immediately involved, their communities and all of us. They result in fear, powerlessness and alienation. They undermine civil society, create hierarchies of belonging (‘us’ versus ‘them’) and impact the exercise of freedoms.
It is vital that in the new diversity that is emerging in Canada and in a complex future, equality must be conceptualised not only as a legal principle, but as something that people enact in day to day life – as ‘deep equality’. This is not mere tolerance or accommodation, but a robust understanding of the inherent dignity and worth of each of us in the project of living well together.