Letter from the Editor: Intolerance Lives Here Too
Last Monday evening, I had the pleasure of visiting the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, British Columbia. Invited by a colleague, I attended a lecture by esteemed former CNN and current MSNBC journalist, Ali Velshi, on the role the media plays in the dissemination of information, whether fact or fiction – a fitting topic considering the Chief Strategist to the President of the United States told the press last week to “keep its mouth shut.” The discussion could not have been timelier.
Walking into the Ismaili Jamatkhana, I was in awe of the attention to detail poured into to the Centre and its beautiful grounds. Ironic, considering we were attending a lecture that discussed the lack of detail paid by consumers of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts.’ As we proceeded through the impressive courtyard, I was told that the sheer length of the space was meant to allow the faithful to shed their earthly problems as they entered into a place of spirituality. However, I did not feel any newfound sense of peace. In the corner of my eye I could spot the bulletproof vest and uniform of an RCMP officer – a symbol of one such worldly problem difficult to ignore.
One night prior, at the exact same time, six men were fatally gunned down while in their spiritual house, Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec in the Sainte-Foy neighbourhood of Quebec City. Abdelkrim Hassan, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Ibrahima Barry, Azzeddine Soufiane, Khaled Belkacemi, and Aboubaker Thabti were gunned down by prejudice, discrimination, and hate. Six lives lost and 19 injured – because of their faith – at the hand of gunman Alexandre Bissonette.
As the RCMP officer watched on, I couldn’t help but think of the vulnerability, unease, and anxiety of the warm, gracious Ismaili folks I had just met inside. A sense of fear no doubt shared by other practitioners of Islam across Canada. In a country whose own patriotism is sometimes premised on the principles of multiculturalism and our strength in diversity, the illusion was shattered (for some). Radical violence is not exclusive to ISIS or Islamic extremism. Alexandre Bissonnette was a White, non-Muslim (it is still unknown if he had religious affiliations), home-grown, Canadian who targeted and terrorized a religious minority group. Bissonette’s alignment to the racist and xenophobic rhetoric of far right leaders, such as the National Front’s Le Pen and Trump to the south, illustrates that Canada’s borders are not impermeable to hate. It lives here. It grew up here.
As Canadians, we all too often look outward. We give thanks that we are more peaceful, less divided, more tolerant. However, xenophobia, racism, white supremacy, and the like, have a long history in our nation and live in our communities. Following the Quebec City mosque attack, Montreal police reported an increase of hate crimes with 14 instances occurring in a two-day span. On a broader scale, instances of anti-Muslim hate crimes are on the rise in Canada, discriminatory graffiti is popping up seemingly more and more on places of worship, and Klu Klux Klan literature is being left on doorsteps of several BC Lower Mainland communities. Further back, we have had head taxes on Sikhs & Chinese, segregation, Japanese and Ukrainian internment, the Indian Act (and its grim, ongoing legacy). Narratives of prejudice, discrimination, and hate are consistently omitted when we discuss “Canadian values.”
As I listened to discussion on the proliferation of fake news and far-right populist rhetoric in the United States, it became woefully evident that Canada is no exception. The rise in popularity of Conservative Party candidates like Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary, known for their nativist political leanings (some might say downright xenophobic), should not come as a surprise. Right-wing anti-immigrant, islamophobic rhetoric is obviously striking a chord with a number of Canadians. The coals of an us vs. them fire are being stoked, only emboldened by the success seen in the United States and Europe. As the old adage goes, when America sneezes Canada catches a cold, now further amplified by our increasing connectivity to online information.
We live in a digital age where all ideas, from peaceful to nefarious, have an international platform to exist. Our access to information, whether true or false, is literally at our fingertips. Individuals are able to validate assumptions, which are often guided out of misunderstanding and fear, by the click of a button. For many, the sources of such information no longer matter. Ali Velshi rightfully pointed out that there is a squeezing out of intellectual debate and people now look for information that will validate their own personal bias. Le Pen, Trump, Leitch – their rhetoric reduces complex socio-economic issues into simplistic cause and effect scenarios with very few variables. It doesn’t require critical thought; it’s easily consumable and gives a direct origin for a perceived ill. Coupled with outright fake news, we have a recipe that gives strength, power, and –most importantly – a global voice, to bigotry and hate. Now, here we are in the aftermath of an attack on a Canadian mosque.
In this time of mourning and confusion it’s difficult to find resolve. To comprehend how someone’s faith and cultural background could motivate such ugliness. However, in the aftermath of such a gruesome act we must be cognisant of our communication with others and how public figures and media communicate with us. Messages of prejudice, discrimination and hate, will only create another Alexandre Bissonette. Make no mistake, the Canadian, far-right populists are waiting in the wings, knowing the rhetoric of their foreign counterparts is successfully capitalizing on insecurity and fear. If we truly are who we think we are we must reject racial, cultural, and religious essentialism. We must reject misrepresentations, alternative facts, and lies. We must reject simple answers for complex issues.
Sitting in the audience at the Ismaili Centre Burnaby, I was reminded of a simple human act that I am too often guilty of forgetting: dialogue. Honest dialogue. Beside me sat a husband and wife who were members of the Burnaby congregation. Typically, I would politely smile and look away, but this time I engaged. We were different in lived experience, but pleasantly united in our instances of sameness. The tool to combat difference, misunderstanding, and fear is dialogue. A willingness to have a back and forth conversation on who we are, what we believe in, our traditions, our strengths, our weaknesses, our dissimilarities, and our resemblance to one another.
So often we tend not to regard the experiences of people who's lives differ from our own. These people become the "other," often with stereotypes and prejudice rooted in ignorance placed upon them. Middle to upper class, white, Christian, Canadians must remember that ignorance is privilege. We ignore because we can. Those in the majority don't talk about race, religion, or culture because they don't have to. Their privilege is at the expense of systemically marginalized groups that everyday fight for acceptance and understanding. No more can we say "but I'm not racist" or "but I don't discriminate against Muslims." The personal refusal to acknowledge the existence of unfair social, economic and political systems only perpetuates inequality and prejudice. In order to have dialogue – honest dialogue – we must know we play a role. There may be discomfort, there may be guilt, but next time sit down next to a fellow Canadian who you do not know, someone who might look different than you, may have different cultural customs, or practice a different religion than you. Have that conversation.