I felt like I needed to take a moment today to put aside a project that has become my most research intensive writing project to date and say a few words about recent events. As many of you know by now my country, which I dearly love, was attacked again this week. A young man, Nathan Cirillo, was tragically murdered by a deranged individual. This individual left his home armed in preparation for taking human lives, luckily he wasn’t very good at the task and was himself killed after only taking one life, but that isn’t very lucky for Nathan Cirillo and his loved ones. Nathan Cirillo died a hero standing on guard protecting something he believed was important, his murderer was a coward who died trying to cause widespread, senseless destruction and heartache. There is no clearer way I can put it than that.
I wanted to write this post because certain members of the media immediately latched on to the narrative that the attacker was a recent convert to Islam and conjecture about this being a terrorist plot against Canada. It seems that nowadays it only takes the word Islam to send the media, and resultantly most Canadians, into hysteria about terrorism. Disappointingly, many Canadians, and some of my friends are among them, are insisting that Muslims condemn this extremist neophyte. I could not disagree with this idea more. Only a few short months ago a gun-toting extremist who had an arsenal and an abiding hatred of the Canadian government went on a rampage where he murdered three RCMP officers and wounded two more in Moncton. This individual was labelled a “gunman” or “shooter” by the media, not a terrorist, and no one expected any of the other gun owners, gun enthusiasts, or even gun shop owners of our country to condemn or apologize for that young man’s actions. Oh, and good luck finding any news coverage that even mentions his religious affiliation or outcry calling for explanations from his coreligionists. Why is it so different for Canada’s Muslims?
The fact that whenever an Islamic terrorist attacks we expect every Muslim to get in front of a camera, condemn the attackers, and apologize on behalf of Islam serves as proof that our country harbours an unhealthy bigotry towards Muslims. When the Westboro Baptist Church holds one of their despicable protests we don’t expect every Christian group to apologize; when militant Christian Anders Breivik went on a well planned rampage murdering 77 people, most of them with a rifle one at a time, no one expected all of Christianity to condemn him either (in fact, the news media made careful effort to avoid mentioning and minimize his religious beliefs despite the fact that he saw them as a major motivation for his attacks). We all understand that these and other isolated groups of whackos do not represent Christianity. In fact, large Christian groups speaking out against these types of people would have the opposite of the desired effect: it would bestow upon these despicable people far more legitimacy than they deserve.
So why do we expect Muslims to explain Al Qaeda or ISIL? Because we’re bigots. I’m sorry to say it so directly, but I won’t lie about it and I won’t sugar-coat the issue; Canadian culture has become infused with a variety of ignorant and misleading ideas about Muslims. The Islamaphobia we suffer from, largely bestowed upon us by the media, boils Islam down to a uniform and faceless mass of ideological homogeneity where Osama Bin Laden is just as authentically Muslim as Rumi or Omar Kayyam. It stinks! Let me assure you, at 1.5 Billion in the world there is an extremely wide variety of Muslims to choose from; if even ten percent of the world’s Muslims were as extreme as al quaeda the world would be a parking lot by now. Quite to the contrary, not only are the vast majority of Muslims NOT extremists but the vast majority of the victims of Muslim extremism are Muslims!
We would all be better off to remember that Muslims suffer far worse at the hands of Islamic terrorists than we do. For instance, did you know that a string of well coordinated terrorist attacks last year in predominantly Muslim Iraq claimed the lives of 75 people and injured over 350 others? That’s twice as many people killed in one day than have died in Muslim extremist attacks in North America since 9/11. You didn’t hear that news story? Well, that’s understandable because those attacks happened on the same day as the Boston Marathon bombings, I guess it just wasn’t as newsworthy. Part of me can’t help but think that it doesn’t pay in news media to report attacks that are made on Muslims. Of course, we are all hearing a lot about extremists in Iraq now but again it seems we only hear about it because westerners are being victimized. Our news media tends to give a lot more airtime to the handful of westerners ISIL has executed instead of the droves of Syrians and Iraqis they’ve murdered, brutalized, or enslaved.
This is part of a growing trend since the 9/11 attacks where our public discourse has become very insular and ethnocentric. We style Muslims as outsiders, or worse, the enemy. It is one of the most shameful things I can tell you about my beloved country that we are quite Islamaphobic. A recent Gallup poll found that 54% of Canadians are Islamaphobic with gusts of up to 69% of people in Quebec and the Maritime provinces having a negative view of Muslims. Many, if not most, of these people have never even had a single five minute conversation with a Muslim in their lives. Canadians have behaved very disappointingly in respect to Islam because we’ve allowed ourselves at the level of our cultural discourse to be manipulated by our fear.
I am quite passionately against Islamaphobia because I have seen its effects close up in my own life. You see, I happen to be deeply in love with a woman who, among the many other amazing things I could tell you about her, is also a lovely shade of brown. This has always meant that she encounters a certain level of racism and ignorance in her everyday life; mostly the racism she encounters is fairly muted and motivated by simple ignorance but some of her stories are completely shocking. For instance, one of her elementary school teachers was really quite racist toward her and she had to deal with that for a whole school year. Then there was the time my own grandmother took us out for dinner and her and her boyfriend proceeded to explain to my wife that, and I quote: “all the people who come here from India are murderers and criminals”. The thing that amazes me the most is the grace with which my wife handles racism like this. I doubt I could be as calm; I know that over dinner with my grandmother I certainly wasn’t.
However, no stories could prepare me, or indeed her, for the new reality of being a brown person in Canada on september eleventh, 2001. Previous to this my wife’s experiences with racism were isolated experiences from a relative minority of individuals. On september eleventh she went to the University as usual to find herself getting nasty looks from people in the halls and several people who actually said really inappropriate things to her, like “what are you even doing here?”. Of course, it was worse other places; a man was arrested when he showed up, armed, at a Muslim elementary school in Calgary because he “just wanted to talk to them”. Believe me when I tell you that the september eleventh terrorist attack effected me deeply too but I understand in a way most white people don’t that it effected the brown people of Canada very differently.
This heinous level of bigotry died down eventually but has never gone away. Today in North America hate crimes against Muslims, and anyone that looks particularly Muslim like Sikhs, are ten times higher than before the September eleventh attack, and they’re more likely to be violent than before. Of course, there remains the fact that the amount of people who hold a negative view of Muslims in North America is over half across the board, which means if you are a Muslim every person you meet is statistically more likely to dislike and distrust you for it than they are to like you or be indifferent. There are a lot of things I can say about this reality. I could tell you it’s not right, that it’s sad, that it’s stupid, that it isn’t based on the facts, that it’s bigoted, that it’s offensive, or that it disgusts me and insults my intelligence personally; all of those things are true but they are not the most important thing I can tell you about this sad new reality. The most important thing I can tell you about the way our culture has been saturated with this skewed, bigoted view of the relationship between Islam and terrorism is that it is exactly what the terrorists want.
When people use terror tactics to fight their battles it is because they are small and marginalized and therefore must depend on the vast majority of people to fight amongst each other and generally make bad decisions trying to fight an enemy that they can’t find, Islamic terrorism is no different. In fact, I’m done calling these people Islamic anymore, I know enough about Islam to know that terror attacks are unconditionally condemned in both the Qu’ran and the Hadith so, from here on, I will call these people murderous scumbag extremists. Murderous scumbag extremist is a better descriptor anyway, and it can be used across all religio-political lines. When murderous scumbag extremists use terror tactics they do it because it inspires fear and large groups of scared people have not been known, historically, to make prudent and wise decisions about what to do to handle the problems they face. When the murderous scumbag extremists can connect their brand of extremist garbage with Islam and successfully make large swaths of people afraid of, not just the scumbags, but all Muslims that works tremendously in their favour. Basically, this means that the scumbags can count on Islamaphobes to do most of their heavy lifting.
When people expect other Muslims to explain, defend, or apologize for the actions of a few scumbags who claim to share a religion with them it is an insult to their dignity. It works so beautifully well for the scumbags because it creates a false dichotomy where decent Muslims are somehow responsible for the scumbags in their midst and they must either condemn them or they are considered implicit. In my mind no notion could more clearly spell out to Canadian Muslims that we think they are a “them” instead of part of us. Perhaps take a moment to consider how that situation must look from the perspective of the Muslim community: you are told you have to apologize for the actions of people you don’t like to get the approval of people who don’t like you. I can’t imagine why more Muslims wouldn’t be lining up for that deal. Terror groups love this type of alienation because not only does it help them accomplish their goals but they also largely depend on disaffected, disenfranchised youth to grow their numbers. It’s like the most depressing Chinese finger trap you can imagine: the more we fear Muslims the better it gets for the scumbags, the better it gets for the scumbags the more terror they can create, the more terror the scumbags can create the more we fear Muslims. If you’re anything like me this crazy cycle can get a bit depressing. It is okay because I want to share the one truly radical act we can all participate in that can break this cycle of craziness, and it’s possibly the most “Made In Canada” solution I could think of.
Those of us in Canada, and anywhere else for that matter, who are not Muslims need to find and hang out with some Muslims!
The best thing we can do at an individual level to fight extremist scumbags around the world is to be invested in the lives of Muslims in our communities. Find a Muslim, or better yet a Muslim family, grab a coffee with them and just get to know them. Challenge yourself to not even bring up Islam, they’re probably tired of explaining themselves anyway. Find out what they’re like, where their kids go to school, if they like sports, maybe you like the same TV shows, you’ll never know until you ask. For your own sake more than theirs simply take some time to connect with any Muslim human being so that next time the media or someone on Facebook tries to paint Islam as some faceless, homogenous mass of scariness you can put a human face on the religion and stop the bigotry in its tracks. The more Muslims you can do this with, the more you’ll grow as a person and the more your life will be enriched by the experience. The more Canadians can do this and the more we will grow as a country and possibly the best side effect of this whole process: life will get better for brown Canadians.
This may sound simplistic, or worse, naive! *gasp* But friendship and understanding will fight extremism better than a bullet any day. The extremists love it when we kill them anyway, in their mind it gives their cause more legitimacy, reinforces their rhetoric that we’re evil, and creates a martyr for them to idolize. When we associate Islam and all Muslims with extremism the better it is for the scumbags because they want Muslims to feel isolated and be reviled by the rest of the world and they also want Muslims to resent the people who treat them this way. Most of all, the scumbags want Muslims and non-Muslims to fear and hate each other because people who fear and hate each other don’t come together to fight their common enemies; in fact they spend most of their energy fighting each other. Thus far we have allowed the extremists agenda to control our public and media discourse on terrorism, but we need to stop that. It is the nature of extremism to always benefit from the fear and hatred of others, this is why terror tactics work so well for these scumbags. No sane person can effectively fight that level of insanity.
So, what should we do? We should fight extremism the Canadian way: Muslims and non-Muslims should get together and have some coffee. Let’s face it, the responsibility here is mostly in the court of non-Muslims because most Muslims in Canada already have some non-Muslim friends; we’re going to have to pick up some of our slack if we want to meet Muslim Canadians half-way. Every cup of coffee we share is a blow to extremism, every new friendship forged between Muslims Canadians and other Canadians is a victory for us. Extremism can only gain by keeping us apart and it is a win-win if we can bring ourselves together. Let’s start fighting extremism where we have the advantage, at the hockey rinks, playgrounds, and Tim Hortons of our country. You might actually make a life-long friendship out of the deal, but at the very least you’ll get some coffee and a donut and that can’t be a bad thing.
Fight terrorism! Go make a friend on purpose!