A candlelight vigil held last month to honour the four members of the Afzaal family killed in London, Ontario, began with a strange declaration.
The organizers of the event, held in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, explained that they champion “secularism and the separation of church and state,” according to several attendees.
Was the group trying to distance itself from the many vigils across the province coordinated by Islamic organizations? I have to wonder.
The organizers also did not accommodate the Muslim ritual prayer, unlike other vigils and marches, which could exclude Muslim mourners who observe certain traditions.
And yet, allyship in crisis is about centering the needs of those most impacted.
As we collectively look for ways to heal and move forward, we must unpack what it really means to challenge anti-Muslim racism in this country. That includes examining the deep ambivalence towards Muslims who express their Muslimness in certain ways, which is really just covert Islamophobia in action.
‘Good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims
Canadian public discourse contains frequent and intense messaging about the alleged dangers of Islam as a religion, and the Muslims who practise it. Research shows that Muslims who actively practise the faith are often framed negatively in the media as villains, misogynists and barbarians. During the Ontario sharia arbitration debates over a decade ago, for example, traditional Islam was presented as an inherently malevolent and alien cultural force.
This underlying discomfort with and exclusion of Muslims who express their Muslimness in certain ways — such as by wearing a hijab, attending a mosque, or choosing to resolve family disputes using faith-based arbitration — demonstrates why “Islamophobia” is an appropriate term.
Islamophobia is “rooted in racism” and “a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” At the same time, it is about more than race, given the incredible ethnic and racial diversity of Muslims in Canada and the world.
Muslim identity is complex and layered, and there is no one way to be Muslim or practise Islam.
Salman Afzaal, 46, and Madiha Salman, 44; their daughter, Yumna Afzaal, 15; and Salman’s mother, Talat Afzaal, 74, were targeted not only because of their skin colour, race, national origin, or ethnicity but because they were identifiable as practising Muslims. A recent family photo shows Madiha Salman wearing a dupatta loosely draped over her head. When they were brutally mowed down, the family was out for a stroll in proximity to their neighbourhood mosque.
Muslim identity is complex and layered, and there is no one way to be Muslim or practise Islam. But to the racist imagination, there are only two kinds of Muslims. “Good Muslims” are those who are willing to adopt the norms of whiteness and secularism whereas “bad Muslims” visibly practise Islam, have a subversive agenda, and thus must be surveilled and scrutinized.
The more overtly Muslim we are, the more closely we are associated with “bad Muslims,” and the more likely we are to experience Islamophobic violence and discrimination.
We see evidence of this in hate crime data, which shows that targets of anti-Muslim violence, especially in public settings, tend to be girls and women, likely because head coverings identify them to attackers. But hate crimes are just the tip of the iceberg. Discrimination occurs on a spectrum, from subtle everyday differential treatment such as quietly excluding Muslim workers from learning and networking opportunities — “death by a thousand cuts”— to more explicit physical violence that has claimed so many lives. It occurs in every institution and setting, including shopping centres, places of worship, workplaces, schools, and health and social services.
Even before they arrive in a space, identifiable Muslims are seen as compromising its neutrality, whether it’s a grant-giving foundation or a classroom. At the heart of this misconception is the idea that whiteness and secularism are neutral and objective — so the further a Muslim is from being white or secular, the more threatening they are deemed to be.
The groups that experience more severe Islamophobia are the same ones I see excluded from countless “anti-racism” and “anti-Islamophobia” spaces: those who are perceived as too Muslim and therefore too threatening, usually those who are outspoken about their Muslimness, visible Muslims, Black Muslims, or socioeconomically marginalized Muslims. Instead, these spaces will privilege the voices and leadership of Muslims who are perceived to be “good Muslims” and therefore safe and palatable to mainstream society.
If we are to move forward together, candlelight vigils, catchy slogans about saying “no to Islamophobia” and “standing with Muslims” alone are no longer enough.
Believing that the answer to Islamophobia lies in making Muslims safer or more palatable to the racists in our society represents an overly simplistic understanding of the problem. It implies there is something wrong with certain expressions of Muslimness and relies on the false dichotomy of the “good” and “bad” Muslim.
It also ignores that interpersonal discrimination is actually rooted in historical systems and institutions that position whiteness, liberalism, and secularism as the gold standard by which the rest of us should be measured.
This is not to say that the fight against Islamophobia should be collapsed to focus only on a select group of Muslims. Instead, this is an invitation to our institutions — even those led by Muslim persons — to challenge the deep biases that lead to the exclusion of those who express their Muslimness in ways that are perceived as less palatable. It is an invitation for us all to be more active in making space for and centering the voices of those Muslims most impacted by Islamophobia and discrimination in our society.
This means that the people given opportunities to lead and direct anti-Islamophobia work must fully understand and challenge the roots of Islamophobia, rather than promote it by positioning whiteness as the norm for us all to aspire to.
If we are to move forward together, candlelight vigils, catchy slogans about saying “no to Islamophobia” and “standing with Muslims” alone are no longer enough. It’s time for us to dig much deeper and put our words into action.