On Creating Environments Where Islamophobia Cannot Grow

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Spaces of light

Today, six humans, six Muslims, were killed in a mosque in Quebec while praying their evening prayers. Many more were injured.

And in learning that news, my heart broke.

It broke thinking of families losing loved ones, thinking of people leaving their home to peacefully pray, and then never coming home again. It broke knowing that for those who lost loved ones tonight, and for Canadian Muslims who heard about these murders tonight,  Islamophobia is a part of their lives. Islamophobia has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve been visibly Muslim. In the seventeen years of wearing a headscarf, there have been countless unwelcome conversations about my background, countless questions laced with gender stereotyping and assumptions of oppression, many incidents of being called a terrorist at random.

I am lucky.

When I was fifteen, our local mosque burned to the ground through an arson attack. Yesterday, a mosque burned down in Southern Texas. Today, lives were cut short in Quebec. In the US, people from predominately Muslim countries are being banned from entering the country, and across the country, people are organizing.

Organizing, because Islamophobia is enabled by everyday environments, by government policy, by unchallenged moments. Islamophobia is emboldened by moments when harassment takes place, and nobody stands up to challenge aggression. Islamophobia is emboldened by organizational environments and workplaces in which faith is tolerated, but no resources are devoted to making the workplace a faith friendly place. Islamophobia festers when Islam is treated as a dirty word and faith is a solely private affair that holds no relation to the overall operations of an organization, neighbourhood or city. Organizational and institutional indifference and/or Islamophobia sends a message that faith, and those who hold faith identities do not matter. In such a context, hate is allowed to grow.

In one of my favourite books, “Post-secular cities: Space, Theory and Practice”, Habermas describes the traditional secular model of the public sphere as follows:

“The traditional secular model of the public sphere, whereby the role of ‘community member’ (for example a religious community) is differentiated from ‘member of society’ is unsustainable… This differentiation lies in the tension between a cognitive level of belief (ie-the beliefs generated by the transcendental view of his or her religion) and the legal norms of the host community, whereby a secular society ‘tells’ the religious citizen that certain beliefs or practices are unacceptable or illegal. This therefore raises for Habermas the question of whether this differentiation (which is not required of secular citizens) and the cognitive dissonance it produces, creates an unfair and therefore unequal pressure (what he calls paying ‘an unfair price’) on religious citizens. These citizens, he argues, have to undergo an act of reflection or relativization whereby any cognitive dissonance is made bearable.” (Baker and Beaumont, 2011, p.46)

On a political level, this “unequal pressure” manifests as political statements that certain beliefs are unacceptable and contributes to environments of hatred. Today for instance, Kellie Leitch, a Canadian MP and Conservative Party leadership candidate, tweeted condolences for the Quebec City tragedy. The tweet immediately below on her Twitter page however, refers to her campaign that immigrants and refugees to Canada must be screened before entry for whether or not they agree with Canadian values.

Organizationally, the message that certain beliefs or practices are unacceptable is transmitted for instance, when prayer space is something that must be figured out independently, in a stairwell, in a space beside someone’s desk, in a corner of a room, anywhere where you can semi-concentrate despite the noise around you. When religious holidays are ignored, when faith is something that is excluded in plans for employee wellbeing and health. In cities, this message is transmitted when planning applications

“…by both Christian and Muslim faith groups [are treated] with suspicion, as likely to be linked to  ‘fundamentalism’ and therefore to be dismissed as socially divisive, when in reality, faith based groups (and buildings) often provide inclusive social, economic and community facilities and contribute to urban regeneration.” (CAG, 2008, quoted by Greed, 2011,112, in Post Secular Cities)

Islamophobia is challenged however, when difference is met with material resources. As a planner, my Masters thesis was about how planners challenge Islamophobia in the public consultation process around new developments. As a student, the nine prayer spaces and halal food in the cafeterias at the University of Toronto made me feel seen and respected. Encountering research around faith in the public sphere and student programs about understanding religious identities at the University of Toronto, SFU and NYU have always made me feel that at those institutions, my identity matters.  As an employee, I felt most whole when I worked at United Way Toronto and at the Auwal Socio-Economic Institute in Johannesburg, two organizations that had meditation and prayer spaces that were not explicitly Muslim, but were orientated so that the direction of Islamic prayer was clear.

Today lives were lost. But in the process of healing, turning to each other and spreading love and support, we must not forget this critical question: how does Islamophobia spread? And how do the everyday environments in which we are situated challenge or embolden the spread of hatred? There is much work to be done.

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One thought on “On Creating Environments Where Islamophobia Cannot Grow

  1. Thank you for sharing this beautiful and emotional post. I’m in complete shock and rage over the current state of affairs. As a Muslim girl who already suffers from agoraphobia, I feel so much more terrified just going to the grocery store. My mosque used to be an exceptionally diverse place–Muslims of all ethnicities and skin colours–but in light of recent development a lot of people are scared to reach out or attend. It makes me so sad.

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