Tackling Islamophobia in Toronto

By Amer Aghyourli Zalat

        Hello and welcome to today’s podcast. My name is Amer and I’m going to ask you to slowly close your eyes right now. It’s a beautiful, sunny day in Toronto. Look at the beautiful Toronto skyline, towering over every street. Now listen to the noises of the traffic in the crowded entertainment district. The smell of fresh poutine is strong in the air as you take a sip of your morning Double Double. Suddenly, you look at the big TVs portraying a breaking news distress call. A nuclear bomb is headed towards Toronto within half an hour, and you need to find the nearest bomb shelter. You head for the shelters prepared by the city for this horrible disaster, only being able to hear the horrifying noises outside of those who could not make it. You open your eyes now. You’ve waken up from your coma. Your long, repetitive nightmare during those 10 years have passed, and there are some survivors, roaming the streets filled with radiation. Quarantine zones have been placed in few places but luckily for you, your shelter is placed right in the centre of Dundas and Yonge quarantine zone. Now I would like you to assume that your favourite colour is green. Imagine yourself walking in that nuclear, post-apocalyptic version of the streets, and the colour green is commonly believed to spread radiation in the quarantine zones. This would stop you from wearing green, right? But what if you took a minute to consider that that common belief is in fact a myth, and only used as propaganda by the media against those who wore green as long as it suited their agenda. What would you do? How would you feel? This is the modern day media-influenced indoctrination that is going on in our world today, and more specifically in Toronto against those who bear the Islamic faith.

       Islamophobia is a big problem in our society, and it is only going to stop being a problem when people learn to accept others of different faiths and values. Organizations like OCASI, otherwise known as the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants are trying to tackle this epidemic that is slowly, unfortunately growing in Toronto. After the sad story that is the Orlando shooting in the summer of 2016, some uninformed people took to trying to avoid visibly Muslims at all costs. Would you not be scared of those fear-mongering survivors antagonizing you for wearing green? A terrorist is what one would call someone who terrorizes a people, right? Unfortunately, that term seems to be limited solely to Muslims, Arabs and Muslim-appearing people like Sikhs. In a Ted Talk hosted by Suzanne Barakat, a friend, sister and sister-in-law of victims of Islamophobia, she brings up a point by stating “…if roles were reversed, and an Arab, Muslim or Muslim-appearing person had killed three white American college students execution-style, in their home, what would we have called it? A terrorist attack. When white men commit acts of violence in the US, they're branded lone wolves, mentally ill” (Barakat, 7:12). Hate crimes are only taken seriously when the criminal fits the stereotype of a terrorist in society. Nosheen Chowdhury, a Muslim student at University of Toronto at Mississauga, conducted a research on how Muslims are treated worldwide post-9/11. She emphasizes that the tragic, unfortunate event did not only affect those who lost their love ones, but also affected how Muslims are portrayed worldwide. In Toronto, discrimination against Muslim women does not only take place during the work place, but also during the hiring process (Chowdhury, 23, 24). This is especially worse for the Muslim woman when she is wearing a Hijab, or a form of covering up the body excluding the face, hands and legs to maintain modesty. Some women even take a step further and cover their face, which is purely cultural. That is also known as a Niqab. This discrimination is usually based on how the employees may look and it contradicting the workplace’s policy. This discrimination is also against Muslim men who decide to grow their beards long. The men growing their beards is only recommended as a way of preserving the identity as a visibly appearing Muslim, but it is purely optional. Regardless of the optionality, it is discriminatory and quite offensive of a company to go against someone for wearing their identity the way they want to proudly. It is an act of hate, regardless of the intentions of the company.

Interview 1

It’s unfortunate that situations like these still happen in Toronto, discrimination against people of different faiths and values. Here I have with me a special guest, Tarek, my brother.

Me: Hey Tarek, how are you?

Tarek: Good, how are you Amer?

Me: I’m good, thank you. Tarek, please tell us your story, and your experiences with Islamophobia.

Tarek: This situation happened last November after the Paris attacks, and I was at work in a work party. This was supposed to be a send-off for one of the employees, (because) she found another job. She had a trip planned to Paris, and this was supposed to happen within a couple days after leaving the company. So usually we have this cake-type party where we just discuss her contributions to the company and everything is (going) great. Mind you, nobody has ever mentioned or brought up anything remotely close to racism previously. I was on really good times with the CEO as well as that particular manager. So what ended up happening was we asked her “we’re going to miss you but let’s talk about your vacation I guess. How is your planning going and are you excited to go to Paris?” and she said “yeah I am excited about it but I think we may have to cancel it because of the terrorist events that took place.” Now I was just, mind you, sitting there enjoying my cake but there was this awkward silence when she said that. The entire boardroom which was filled with employees all somewhat looked at me, glanced at me until I looked back at them when they awkwardly turned away. In the beginning I didn’t make much of it but then I realized it was right after the use of the word terrorist. Mind you, we obviously don’t condone any of those actions and terrorism. Just the fact that everyone looked at me and assumed Islam = Terrorism is probably one of those moments I would consider being Islamophobia happening in Toronto.

Me: That’s quite unfair, I’m really sorry to hear that. I just wanted to know how that situation made you feel, and would you have done anything differently in hindsight?

Tarek: I mean there is not much I could’ve done in hindsight, because I was literally just sitting there eating… so in hindsight I probably would’ve just grabbed my cake and left the boardroom to go back to work. The way I felt when it actually happened… I felt pretty small actually. I was the only Arab, let alone Muslim in the company and it was just one of those situations where you feel like you’re being discriminated against, you know? You’re singled out because of your faith or race, or whatever it may be. I grew up in Canada and then to have that sort of feeling is not a great feeling. That feeling makes you feel different.

Me: Well I would just like to let you know that there are some organizations that are trying to take actions and steps against discrimination because of different faiths and different beliefs. I just wanted to let you know that it’s going to be okay you know? Just trying to reassure you. Thanks a lot for letting us have you on the show Tarek.

Tarek: Absolutely, and good luck to you. It’s great to hear about those organizations that are out there to support the cause because it’s one of those things like we live in a multicultural country, and we always say Canada is different than The States because in The States it’s more or less a melting pot of different cultures but in Canada we pride ourselves of being more like a mosaic so we’re encouraged to celebrate our cultures to uphold our values and not feel any different and that stuff is celebrated as opposed to discouraged. So to have organizations supporting that cause, it’s truly Canadian and it makes us all proud to live in this great country.

OCASI has been working hard to fight Islamophobia and fear-mongering by being more welcoming to people like Syrian refugees. Canada accepts around 20,000 refugees per year, and some of those make Toronto their home (OCASI). According to OCASI, there have been many instances of discrimination and attacks against Muslims and people who appear to be Muslims (OCASI). The unfair, negative feedback is purely driven straight by Islamophobia because some Torontonians believe that Syrian Refugees may damage the country. The campaign had a poster where it showed a white male telling a person of colour in a hijab to go back home. In response, she asks “Where, North York?” This has caused some controversy because some believed that it is Anti-White. However, this is not the point because it is meant to ask Torontonians to check their privilege in contrast of Syrian Refugees (OCASI). Young Canadian Muslims have been interviewed and gotten asked questions like “How Canadian do you really feel?” (Nasser, CBCNews). Environics surveyed many Muslim Canadians through phone calls and more than eight out of 10 respondents would claim that they are truly proud to be Canadian (Nasser, CBCNews). However, according to a survey conducted by the CBC, 62% are worried about discrimination against Muslims, 35% have experienced discrimination or unfair treatment in the past 5 years, and 35% believe the next generation will face more discrimination. (Nasser, CBCNews).

Interview 2

Me: So here I have with me a dear friend of mine Nadia, who comes from a Muslim Iraqi background but is also a Canadian citizen. Hey Nadia, how are you doing today?

Nadia: I’m good and thank you. How are you?

Me: I’m fine, thank you. Nadia, I just wanted to know: have you ever experienced Islamophobia here in Toronto, as a Muslim yourself?

Nadia: Well I haven’t experienced it directly towards me, but I have heard conversations next to me and it really affected how I felt.

Me: Oh, could you tell us where and how this happened?

Nadia: This was over a year ago in Promenade Mall, and I was in the gym locker room. As I was getting changed, I just heard three women around 40-50 years old just talking about Muslims saying- something serious happened that specific day and they were saying “it’s those vile Muslims, of course it’s those Muslims that do it all” and saying even more foul language that I don’t wish to use today. It really affected me and I’m not really a confrontational person but just because I got a bit emotional, I had to butt in and talk to them and say that we shouldn’t blame people (based) on religions and they looked at me in a funny way like why am I interrupting them? I just wanted to point out that bad and good is not (based) on religion, it’s based on a person’s character and they looked at me and said “if only that existed in a perfect world, where characteristics determined that and not religion” and I just feel that that completely contradicts what they were saying earlier.

Me: I completely agree with you and I’m really sorry you had to hear that but quite frankly this is the ongoing situation here in Ontario, in Toronto as well but hopefully one day this podcast could shed light on these matters and hopefully fix these problems from ever happening again. Thank you for sharing your story with us Nadia.

Nadia: Of course, thanks for having me

After listening to both interviews and extensive research conducted, I believe that we not only as Torontonians but also Canadians should take initiative in welcoming our Muslim brothers and sisters rather than shunning them away. To prevent hurting the many people out there like Tarek and Nadia have been, we will only lessen the many damages there are in this country. Hate only breeds more hate, and regardless of whether or not you may agree with the beliefs and values of Muslims, you shall accept them as they shall accept you. Together, we can fight this through and make Canada a greater place to live in, as well as an ideal image and role model for other countries to follow.

 Works Cited

Barakat, Suzanne. " Islamophobia killed my brother. Let's end the hate." TED. Oct. 2016. Lecture.

Chowdhury, Nosheen. "Muslim Teachers’ Experiences and Responses to Islamophobia in Schools within the Greater Toronto Area, and the Impact on Their

Professional Identity." (n.d.): n. pag. Web. April 2016.

Nasser, Shanifa. "How Islamophobia Is Driving Young Canadian Muslims to Reclaim Their Identity." CBC News. CBC/Radio Canada, 28 Apr. 2016. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

"OCASI’s Anti-Islamophobia, Xenophobia, and Racism Campaign Pushes Torontonians to Examine Their Beliefs." OCASI: Ontario Council of Agencies Serving

Immigrants. N.p., 20 June 2016. Web. 24 Nov. 2016.


 "A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian." - Justin Trudeau  Illustration done by Amer Aghyourli Zalat

"A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian." - Justin Trudeau

Illustration done by Amer Aghyourli Zalat