Growing up in Edmonton in the 1970s and 1980s, lawyer Dany Assaf never saw himself as any different than his friends and neighbours.
His family had a rich history in Canada — his great-grandfather moved to the country from Lebanon in 1927 and helped build the first mosque in Canada. Like many boys his age, Assaf also dreamed of becoming an NHL player.
His family’s Muslim faith never came in the way of their Canadian identity.
“We never imagined, we never even thought that we could ever be portrayed as the ‘other,'” the author of Say Please and Thank You & Stand in Line told Day 6.
But that changed on Sept. 11, 2001, when the militant terrorist group al-Qaeda flew hijacked commercial airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon.
The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, including at least 24 Canadians.
“It’s like living in a nightmare because now you’ve got stereotypes and prejudices that are being attributed to you when you have absolutely nothing to do with this kind of terrorist act,” he said.
According to a 2003 report from the Canadian Islamic Congress, more than 170 anti-Muslim hate crimes were reported to the group in 2002.
This was a nearly 1,600 per cent increase from the 11 such reports that were made in 2000.
“I thought one of [Canada’s] distinguishing features was that we were nice, we were kind, we were polite. But 9/11 just took that veneer right off,” said Sheema Khan, the author of Of Hockey and Hijab who moved to Canada when she was three years old in 1965.
Somehow, you’re being pushed out or that you no longer belong for things that are completely beyond your control and things that you find abhorrent.– Dany Assaf
Shortly after the attacks, Khan started writing a column for the Globe and Mail about Islam and Muslim issues. Though she was warned by the editors about potential hateful comments, Khan said she did not expect some of the replies.
“You get people writing to you telling you to go home, that you should be deported, that you’re a terrorist, terrorist sympathizer, that I should die,” she said.
“I saw the ugliness, the bullying, the hate.”
Assaf’s family also received similar comments — not from anonymous voices online, but from one of their own neighbours.
“My parents’ neighbour literally put up a sign in their front yard saying ‘Osama bin Laden lives closer than you think,’ with a big arrow pointing to my parents’ house,” he said. “That’s how personal it became.”
For Assaf, such comments particularly hurt because of his family’s nearly 75-year history in Canada.
“It’s like almost a betrayal…. That somehow, you’re being pushed out or that you no longer belong for things that are completely beyond your control and things that you find abhorrent,” he said.
Making allies 20 years later
Hate crimes against Muslims are still an issue in Canada. In 2017, there were as many as 349 incidents of police-reported hate crimes against Muslims in a single year — a rise of 151 per cent over 2016.
Assaf says the most effective way to resist the rise of Islamophobia in Canada is “to go back and draw upon the best of our Canadian history” in order to create the most inclusive meritocracy yet.
Khan adds that a universalist approach will help Canadians build on the common ground we all stand on.
“We have to … make allies with all kinds of communities and say we are against hate, period. And I think that’s a much more powerful way to proceed,” she said.
Written and produced by Mouhamad Rachini
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