Out of the horror and tragedy of Sept. 11th, came a rude awakening for all of us, including Muslims. In an attempt to come to terms with the proclaimed acts of "jihad" Canadian Muslims were forced to engage in jihads (struggles) of our own in a frenzy to establish our identity and alliances.
The acts of a misguided few became a warrant to target an entire community. Muslims and Arabs, and those perceived to be, were subjected to verbal and physical assaults, arson, death threats, bomb threats, harassment, vandalism and venomous e-mails. In fact, a Hindu temple in Hamilton was burned to the ground within days. Police forces across the country reported significant increases in hate crimes and the Toronto Hate Crimes Unit even noted that despite the serious underreporting, 90% of the increase in hate crimes in 2001 was directly attributable to 9-11.
The perpetuation of stereotypes and the growing perception that Muslims represented the 'other' made it easy to indict the community through guilt by association. The climate of distrust resulted in a number people being detained without charges, legitimate money transfer businesses shutting down, established Mosques and charities losing support and a Muslim landlord even having his insurance cancelled for his apartments. And none of them had committed a crime.
However, all was not grim. Many Canadians reached out and expressed their support. For every venomous email received, the Canadian Muslim Civil Liberties Association (CMCLA) received five to six supportive ones. A number of church groups even offered to protect Muslim places of worship. These heart warming gestures made one believe in humanity and feel glad to be Canadian.
Unlike the premature rush to judgment in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, most media outlets did a much better job in distinguishing and reaching out to the community. But some continued to fan the flames of hatred. "[N]ot all the terrorist caves are in Afghanistan...some are in Quebec and Ontario," wrote George Jonas of the National Post. Others in the media even belittled the Muslim experience. "It is hard," the National Post opined, "to get worked up about the occasional slur directed against North American Muslims." And as if she was disappointed, in her column titled "If I jihad a nickel for each 'victim,' National Post columnist Christie Blatchford concluded that the backlash "failed to materialize in any significant way."
Despite the countless reported press conferences and press releases condemning the terrorist attacks, fund raisers and blood donor clinics for the victims organized in Canadian mosques the efforts did not seem to cut it even for the usually sober Globe and Mail. A lofty editorial suggested that Muslims should hold a rally against Bin Ladin. Why should we take ownership over an act we had no part in? Do we really expect the Italian community to rally against the Mafia?
Though the backlash was demoralizing, it was anticipated in the wake of such a horrific crime. However, the fear mongering effect of the government initiatives post 9-11 struck the hardest blow. Although politicians at all levels came out strongly against the backlash, the anti-terrorism legislation, amendments to the Immigration Act, the alarmist pronouncements from CSIS and unwritten profiling policies created a sense of insecurity in many. Clearly, the long term impact of systemic discrimination arising from rush and ill-conceived laws and policies, even if unintended, will be far more devastating. As Neil Bissoondath recently noted: "Public policy, even if based on reasonable fear, must be examined rationally and weighed not just against possible threat but against the ideals we claim to believe in."
There is justifiable fear that Muslims will bear the brunt of the anti-terrorism legislation's provisions with respect to secret evidence, charitable status revocation, greater police powers and preventive detention. Already numerous innocent Muslim residences have been raided. CSIS reliance on intelligence provided by foreign countries -- which may not abide by any democratic norms, are unaccountable to the Canadian public and have their own agenda -- will seriously impact charities and individuals.
During a CBC town hall meeting, the Minister of Transportation David Collenette personally stated to us that profiling would not be adopted as a policy. The facts on the ground belie this. Advocacy groups have documented numerous instances of profiling. Numerous Muslim and Arab employees have also alleged that there are unwritten profiling policies in place.
The chilling effect and stigma of police showing up unannounced at your work is difficult to appreciate. Too many Muslims are afraid to exercise their legitimate political and civil rights for fear of being added to "watch lists". In fact, some of my clients have expressed concern about dealing with me because of my open criticism of the government. What is particularly disturbing are the instances where CSIS and RCMP agents reportedly refused to meet with individuals when they insist that their lawyer be present.
Many have asked whose side we are on? As if there was a dichotomy in being Canadian and Muslim. Canada's unique multicultural mosaic, always seemed to encourage the "strength in diversity," and so being hyphenated Canadian, was a source of pride. Being Canadian and Muslim was never a contradiction, and in fact many came to this land to be able to practice their religion freely and cherished the many Islamic principles Canada put into practice.
The post 9-11 climate has made our society less open as the right to dissent is challenged and even some of our fundamental values are being compromised. As the terrorists hijacked Islam and various legitimate causes held dearly by many peace loving people, let us not allow for our cherished values to be hijacked as well. As Canadians we must ask how much, if any, of our very essence we are willing to sacrifice?
It is imperative that all fair-minded Canadians stand up for our cherished values in the face of increasing pressure from certain quarters, including the U.S. Congress, for selfish reasons, if not out of concern for justice. After all, yesterday it was the Japanese, today its the Arabs and Muslims, but tomorrow it may be you.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and writer. He is also a columnist for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. He serves as legal counsel to a number of leading Muslim organizations and as General Counsel for the Canadian-Muslim Civil Liberties Association (CMCLA). He is also a board member of the Canadian branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN). Bushra Yousuf is a volunteer with the CMCLA.