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Muslim students speak out

Islamophobia on and off the McGill campus

Sarah*, an undergraduate student at McGill, was walking down Guy last year with two of her friends when, out of nowhere, a middle-aged man came up to her and struck her hard on the head. “I lost my balance and fell onto my friend. Then he turned and mockingly asked, ‘You okay?’ And it was so unexpected, I barely had time to process anything, so I was like, ‘I would be if you hadn’t hit me so hard.’ Then he shouted, ‘I hope you get hit by a truck.’”

Neither of Sarah’s friends had visible Muslim identifiers, but Sarah wears a headscarf. This was her first encounter with a reality many Muslims face: Islamophobia. Islamophobia is defined by the Runnymede Trust report, which was produced by the independent race equality think tank, as “unfounded hostility toward Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” According to University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender website, Islamophobia is directed at a perceived threat of Muslims that incorporates beliefs of Islam as a monolithic, inferior, barbaric, archaic, violent, terrorist, or oppressive religion.

A national survey conducted by Leger Marketing recently released by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration asked 1,500 Canadians about their attitudes toward various religious, Indigenous, and racial groups. The findings are grim: a majority of respondents hold a negative opinion of Muslims and only 48 per cent reported “approval” of Muslims. A 2013 report from Statistics Canada found that hate crimes against Muslims had increased by 44 per cent since 2012 (an increase of roughly 20 incidents) and were more likely to be violent than hate crimes directed at other religious groups.

Though distressing, these statistics are not surprising for anyone who has been paying attention to the rhetoric about Islam and Muslims in the media. As a form of xenophobia, Islamophobia intersects with other factors, such as race, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Non-Muslim people of colour and certain non-Muslim religious symbols are also seen being “Muslim” due to Islamophia’s intersection with racism, for example. Consequently, Islamophobia has also been directed at non-Muslim people of colour and other religious minorities, such as Sikhs or non-Muslim Haitians.

In practice, Islamophobia manifests itself in a myriad of ways: physical violence, harassment, social exclusion, vandalism, discrimination, profiling, surveillance, and discriminatory laws are some of its most common manifestations. Constant and consistent negative media portrayals and conflations of Muslims and terrorists engender Islamophobic attitudes.

“Some people are in denial. They are [so] convinced about the way they think the veil is oppressive of women that they don’t see that [Islamophobia] is racism.”

Islamophobia has been found to be more prevalent in Quebec than in other Canadian provinces. A 2013 Angus Reid Global poll found that 69 per cent of Quebecers hold an unfavourable opinion of Islam, compared to 54 per cent of Canadians outside of Quebec. A 2015 survey by the Quebec Human Rights Commission (HRC) found that while only 5 per cent of Quebecers said they were bothered by a person wearing a cross around their neck, 48.9 per cent of them were bothered by a woman wearing a veil in comparison. The introduction of the Charter of Values by the Parti Québécois in 2014 – which included a provision against wearing “ostentatious” Muslim signifiers in public domains – resulted in a spike in Islamophobic attacks, particularly against veiled women. There were instances of victims being spat on, their veils being pulled off, or being verbally attacked.

Islamophobia on campus

Reports of Islamophobia are surprisingly common in and around the McGill campus as well. Students have reported hostility from fellow classmates following high-profile terrorist attacks. Zara*, an undergraduate student who is often the only person wearing a headscarf in her classes, was shocked when people did not sit next to her in class. “I thought that it was just me thinking that. But then I was sitting in a row, the only one in the row, in a [packed] class,” she recalled. “I was kind of discouraged to say things in class [but] other hijabis [women wearing a headscarf] told me not to care.” A report published in Convergence, an undergraduate community research journal, in August of last year, surveyed Muslim communities at McGill and Concordia. The report found that 36.6 per cent of respondents said that they may have been discriminated against at their place of education because they were Muslim, while 12.2 per cent were certain that they had been.

Sometimes Islamophobia results from linking a contentious issue on campus, such as the issue of women-only hours at the McGill gym, to a perceived notion of a ‘dangerous’ Islam. A storm of Islamophobic diatribes usually follow online. After the recent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) motion passed in the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) General Assembly (GA) in February, insults were hurled at Arab students, among others – who were also conflated with being Muslim on social media, telling them to go “back home.” Given this, it is no surprise that the HRC found that only 37.6 per cent of Quebecers support assigning prayer spaces in schools.

Islamophobia on campus is not limited to interactions between students. “[Islamophobia] can be illustrated in the relationships between the professors and the students, but also among professors, especially if they are Muslim or even a non-Muslim studying Islam, [they] may be subject to surveillance,” a Montreal university professor, who wished to remain anonymous, asserted. Indeed, the very existence of Islamophobia is sometimes called into question: “Where I did my graduate studies, you could not talk about Islamophobia. […] Some people are in denial. They are [so] convinced about the way they think the veil is oppressive of women that they don’t see that [Islamophobia] is racism.” The professor continued, “It affects who you can read, who you can cite, […] who you can work with.”

“[He] accused me of poisoning society because of my backwards ways and not blending into society” –Maha*, McGill Science student

Similarly, professors and teachers may make negative assumptions about visibly Muslim students. Laila*, a Dietetics student at McGill, remembers her high school teacher commenting after she stopped wearing her headscarf. “She made a remark on how I took off my [headscarf] and then, while smiling with satisfaction and approval, smirking, said, ‘You’re better this way. At least, I think so.’” In 2013, a McGill professor was found guilty by the McGill Committee on Student Grievances of “religious, cultural, and personal offences” for issuing death threats to his Egyptian graduate student (the professor has since appealed the decision).

Islamophobia can often be hard to identify. Subtle, perhaps even subconscious prejudice can lead to discrimination and structural barriers for Muslims. Laila was surprised after her teacher commented on her headscarf. “I didn’t think it was anything people felt negatively about until then. I started thinking perhaps people aren’t as accepting as I think them to be, and maybe other strong personal feelings and opinions are just hidden behind a smile.” Rabeea, a McGill alum, echoed Laila’s observations. On looking for a job after graduation, Rabeea noted, “I wondered whether or not there was hidden, latent Islamophobia within certain people’s decisions to not hire me because the Charter of Values was happening at that time.”

However, it is often clear to Muslims when they are discriminated against that it is because of Islamophobia. Given that research has shown that having an ‘ethnic-sounding’ name on resumes reduces hiring opportunities, this is not surprising. In the aforementioend Convergence report, the author, who wishes to remain anonymous, reports that approximately 20 per cent of Muslim respondents were certain, and 18.6 per cent were very certain, that their religious beliefs have impacted their job opportunities. One anonymous respondent said, “When I was searching for a job at a certain point I was told the positions were filled when they clearly weren’t.”

Increased scrutiny also affects Muslims in other public spaces. International students, particularly men, may find that they are subjected to “random” searches when crossing the border. Adam*, a bearded Muslim Engineering student at McGill, felt targeted after being cross-examined at the US-Canada border. According to Sharif, 34.1 per cent of Muslims surveyed felt that their beliefs have impacted their experience crossing borders. Harris*, another Engineering student at McGill, was interning in another province when he and his friends were harassed by two drunk men. “I think it was prompted by [my friend] who has a big beard. We [were] just sitting [in McDonald’s]. They asked us where we were from and told us, ‘Go back to where you’re from’ and rants like those. We ignored them but they followed us outside and sat on our car. We called the police.”

Students have also found themselves victims of shocking Islamophobic incidents in downtown Montreal, usually an area presumed to be more ‘multicultural.’ Fateemah*, a McGill graduate student, reports being followed and harassed by a man near Parc Avenue – following the Paris attack – for wearing a headscarf. “[He] accused me of poisoning society because of my backwards ways and not blending into society,” she said. Maha*, a Science student at McGill, describes a similar experience of being assailed by a woman near Concordia: “She was outraged at my headscarf.”

Living with Islamophobia

Students respond to Islamophobia in different ways. Many are taken aback when it occurs: “It was something I didn’t see happening in Canada. It made me feel unsafe,” Harris said. Although some laugh it off or minimize it, others, like Fateemah, reluctantly choose not to wear overtly Islamic symbols in order to feel safer “[I felt] threatened and very unwelcome despite being a Canadian citizen who’s done her best to be inclusive and respect everybody else. I do wish […] that I could wear [the headscarf] again and not be judged for it,” Fateemah said. Some Muslims will consider alternatives similar to the hijab, like a turban, hat, or hoodie, to reduce their visibility. Although Rabeeea continues to wear the headscarf, frightening Islamophobic encounters in the metro and a shopping mall left her feeling apprehensive about going back to these locations for the next few months. Zara, realizing her classmates were avoiding her due to her religion as well as her race, felt alienated, saying, “I spent my first semester very sad, crying.”

Even the threat of Islamophobia will force Muslims to preemptively change their behaviour. Some, like Laila, are told explicitly by their Muslim peers or family to avoid appearing Muslim. “My mother, because she had experienced Islamophobia, was paranoid and skeptical of my decision [to wear the headscarf].” Others avoid political activism or refrain from attending Muslim events due to fear of government surveillance and being put on a terrorist watchlist.
Students may also be discouraged from practicing their faith to avoid becoming “radicalized,” wherein society pressures them to choose between being Muslim and being a ‘good person.’ After the Charter of Values was released, some Muslims began considering leaving Quebec due to the increase in Islamophobia and reduced job opportunities for women wearing headscarves. Bochra Manai, an assistant professor of Geography at Université de Montréal (UDeM) who is conducting her postdoctoral research on deconstructing radicalization, explains, “What is really insidious about Islamophobia is the way we [Muslims] internalize some adaptations. […] Not only people who are visible or seem to be visible [Muslims] do this. Sometimes, in an airport, if I am listening to Arabic music, I think, ‘Oh God, people will see my YouTube video written in Arabic. So I just listen to Beyonce.’ It becomes a day-to-day way of adapting to the suspicion.”

Many Muslims hold the media accountable for common Islamophobic attitudes. A recent study found that the New York Times portrays Islam worse than cocaine, cancer, and alcohol. Only 8 per cent of its headlines related to Islam were positive from 1984 to 2014. One respondent in Sharif’s report suggested: “[The] media [should] stop looking for stories that demonize Muslims as a whole community and use the proper language when reporting. Subtle changes in the way the media reports certain stories have strong implications on what the message of the story is.” Muslims often feel that they lack a unified voice and presence in the media. However, as Manai points out, this is tricky because Muslims may receive death threats after appearing on television defending Islam.

Moving beyond Islamophobia

Islamophobia can also drive its victims to combat prejudice. “Islamophobia, as a stigma, becomes a way to involve women to share new narratives. […] In Quebec, some women try to turn the stigma into something positive,” Manai says. Within Quebec, the Charter of Values debate instigated the creation of several Muslim women’s groups for support, legal aid, and working toward better media representation, such as Association des musulmans et des arabes pour la laïcité au Québec (AMAL Quebec), Paroles de femmes, Justice Femme and Lavoiedesfemmes. These groups offer legal assistance for victims of Islamophobia, hold conferences about the issue, and record statistics of hate crimes.

Many Muslims will try to counter the misinformation about them that they encounter. After being stopped at the border, Adam said, “I felt after that incident that we need to do more […] to spread the right message of Islam.” Majdi, an Engineering student at McGill, agrees, “In a way we are all speaking out by just being good people and good Samaritans and good Muslims, we are giving a good name to Islam. But it is a fact that we should be talking about these issues,” Majdi said.

“What is really insidious about Islamophobia is the way we [Muslims] internalize some adaptations. […] Not only people who are visible or seem to be visible [Muslims] do this.” –Bochra Manai, assistant professor of Geography at Université de Montréal

Many Muslims try to foster dialogue and counter the Islamophobic rhetoric that dehumanizes them. Following the 2015 Paris attacks, Majdi was shocked to see Islamophobic posts by his Facebook friends. He decided to stand blindfolded at Roddick Gates with a sign saying, “I’m a Muslim, Syrian & Canadian, but I’m told I’m a terrorist. I trust you. If you trust me… hug me, sing with me, dance with me or b-ball with me.”

“I was very nervous at the beginning [but] there was overwhelming support. [I] had conversations about Islam. A lot of people told me, ‘You know, we know you’re not a terrorist.’ But what I learned from that experiment was that everybody knows somebody who is a bit prejudiced. More often than not, most people said to me, ‘I have a friend who thinks like that, I know what you’re talking about.’”

However, it is not all bad news. A Pew research poll conducted in 2013 suggests that younger people are more likely to reject the idea that Islam encourages violence among its believers.

On campus, the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) aims to raise awareness and spread knowledge about Islam, as well as provide a supportive community for Muslim students. The president of the student group, said, “In trying to combat Islamophobia, [the MSA’s] vision is that of mutual understanding, knowledge, and seeing the bigger picture.” He emphasized the importance of understanding where Islamophobia stems from: “From the Muslim point-of-view, we have to understand that while there is no place for Islamophobia, and all this bigotry is unacceptable, it is understandable. This is the goal of the terrorists [who are] trying to usher this in. Safety is the dearest thing to a person’s heart. […] Being susceptible to fear is normal.”

One initiative started by the MSA to respond to Islamophobia is “Discover Islam,” a week of events where students, faculty, and staff can learn more about Islam in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. “Knowledge and exposure to Muslims, I think that is the best way to combat Islamophobia,” the MSA president said. “Discover Islam” received positive feedback last year from both Muslims and non-Muslims who benefited from the discussion-based nature of the events. Many Muslims believe that there should be spaces to question and criticize Islam, without resorting to hatred of a Muslim’s choices and beliefs. “When we approach people who might be Islamophobic not from a point of view of ‘you’re a bigot!’, but rather ‘we understand this feeling, but let us show you the truth, let us work together,’ I think this will change a lot of the discussion. It becomes a dialogue of compassion and understanding from the beginning,” the MSA President explained. With a larger event and a series of talks being planned for the week of April 4, the MSA hopes to garner more positive discussions and dispel misconceptions this year.

Ultimately, however, combating Islamophobia is not just about countering myths about Islam. It is about creating an environment where Muslims and other marginalized people can flourish, find their identity, and practice their faith on campus and in Canada without fear of backlash and hate.

Though Sarah was scared after her attack, she says, “I haven’t considered taking my headscarf off simply because it’s been a part of my identity since I was 12 years old. It makes me who I am and it hasn’t hindered me from achieving anything in life so far. Rather than me changing my choices to accommodate their ignorance, I think it’s a matter of educating people to be more accepting of Muslims and to nurture a safe environment for everyone to live in harmony.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the students. Syed Zain is a member of the Muslim Students’ Association.

If you have experienced Islamophobia, you can call the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline at 604-343-3828 for support.