On Jan. 29, 2017, when six Muslims were murdered in a mass shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, I was at a loss for words. What good is our much-vaunted Canadian ethos of diversity when a whole religion is targeted on account of its mere existence?
Sadly, this tragedy was not the only instance of Islamophobic hatred that Canada has witnessed. A mosque in British Columbia received a bomb threat in 2013; an Ontario mosque was set aflame in 2015; just a few months ago, Quebec’s Bill 62 targeted Muslim women who choose to wear a niqab or a burka. These events, and many others, emphasize that we have an Islamophobia problem in Canada. The question is: what can we do about it?
Here’s one possibility: what if we institute one day a year when students across Canada can learn about the tragedies that have befallen Canadian Muslims, a day when we can teach young people how to stand up if they see a Muslim student or neighbour being bullied or picked on in some way. In doing so, perhaps we could ensure that the next generation of Canadians will be equipped to dispel myths about Muslims, to identify hateful words and actions and to respond to Islamophobia far better than we can today.
Muslim leaders across Canada are calling for a national day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia. One might ask why a rabbi is making the same call. The reason is very simple: Islamophobia has reached a critical stage in Canada. The truth is that the bigotry Canadian Muslims face has been far more tangible and, sadly, fatal than what Canadian Jews have faced in the 21st century. Now is the time to stand in solidarity with Muslims who need our recognition. If a day ever were to come when – God forbid – Jews were to face such physical, verbal and spiritual violence on Canadian soil, I hope and believe that my Muslim neighbours would have my back, just as Canadian Jews ought to have theirs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claims that, “Diversity is Canada’s strength.” There is much to that: our third-largest political party is led by a child of immigrants who wears a turban; our government will soon issue IDs that allow trans people to list their gender as “X”; and many of our public events begin with the acknowledgement that we are gathered on the unceded territories of First Nations peoples. All of this serves as a testament to Canada’s diversity, but diversity alone is not a goal. Diversity is a neutral state of being. A box of eight markers is diverse in colour, but that diversity is useless when the only colour I choose is blue. If I can commit to drawing with each marker, then diversity begins to matter.
As a rabbi, most of my work involves service to the Jewish community. I revel in teaching the timeless tales and wisdom of the Bible, the intellectual back-and-forth of the rabbinic legal tradition, but I am constantly reminded that our history has been painted with the blood of individuals whose only crime was being born Jewish. The stigma of living life as a minority has forever shaped Jewish history and the histories of many other peoples. Therefore, as a rabbi, I am always taken aback when I see any group of people who face discrimination not for their actions, but simply for being alive.
That’s why on Jan. 29, I will be honouring the memory of the six Muslims who were murdered a year ago on Canadian soil. I will take action to put a damper on Islamophobia in Canada. I hope that you will join me.