When the grade school students of the Ahlul-Bayt Islamic Education Centre came to school one recent Monday morning in April, they became the targets of an anti-Islamic hate crime.
A series of Islamophobic messages were scrawled across the Ottawa school's walls, according to CTV Ottawa and CBC News. Several neighbors living near the school in Vanier, said that they called local police early Monday morning to investigate the messages before too many students arrived. The graffiti was spray-painted in black and orange ink, and the messages included thoughtful phrases like "Die Bombers" and "ISIS Go Home," along with some other more salacious statements which definitely aren't appropriate for young students.
School officials covered up the graffiti with black tarps before the students arrived, and the messages were quickly washed away while the young elementary and middle school students were kept inside. Kelly-Anne Maddox, who can see the wall of Ahlul-Bayt from the front window of her home, told CBC News that it's the first time she has seen anti-Islamic messages targeting kids in her community.
"We were horrified, we were absolutely appalled that somebody would do that," Maddox said. "This seems to be a deliberate [targeting] of children because it's facing the playground and this is what kids would have seen as soon as they showed up at school this morning."
And the worst part of it, really, is that this incident just scrapes the surface of anti-Islamic sentiments here in the west. The Ahlul-Bayt story is just one of the many recent hate crimes I could have used, and I could spend another 10,000 words describing the similar attacks I seem to read in the news week after week after week. If there's a silver lining here, it's that Canada has a Prime Minister who seems to share my frustration.
In November, just days after weirdly attractive Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assumed office, someone set an Ontario mosque on fire in another vicious hate crime. Trudeau promised that "[Canada] will not abide innocent and peaceful citizens being targeted by acts of vandalism and intolerance." At the same time, the Trudeau government quickly moved to reassure Canadians that incoming refugees from Syria and Iraq did not pose a security threat.
Peter Goodspeed, who works with Lifeline Syria to resettle refugees in Toronto, assured the public that refugee status will "automatically go to the most vulnerable and least likely to create a security problem." He added, "If you're looking at widows, orphans, older parents, people with Canadian ties already, it's all pretty well reduced risk."
While it would be easy to write off all fears about refugees as Islamophobia, the terrorist attacks in Belgium and Paris are grim reminders of the very real dangers posed by terrorists. ISIS in particular has been weirdly active on social media, boldly promoting gruesome images and videos of executions and threats. In August 2015, the group took to Twitter to show off photos of an alleged 80-ton vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.
And since we’re the ones who have to teach our kids to live in this world, moms know better than anyone just how terrifying this life can be. When you have to live with the knowledge that a stray peanut or loose seat belt can result in tragedy, it’s easy to give into fear. Unfortunately, fear and hate aren't particularly rational emotions, and the children who attend the Ahlul-Bayt Islamic Education Centre have no more connection to ISIS terrorists than do any other children in Canada. And the truth is, the risks of terrorism are crazy exaggerated.
Even if you live in the United States or Europe, where the risk of terrorist activity is higher, you're far more likely to be killed by your iPhone or television than by an ISIS madman. Every day frayed phone charger cables cause fires, and a 2008 study found that electrical fires destroy 53,000 homes, cause 500 deaths, and injure thousands more every year. While you are far, far more likely to be injured in a traffic accident (or even to die in a freak television-related accident), you don't hear about racist vandals breaking into car dealerships and spraypainting "Go back to Japan!" on the side of a Prius.
Of course, common sense is often too much to ask. Even though American soldiers are now more likely to commit suicide than to be killed by terrorists, the U.S. government is increasing its military budget for 2016. In fact, perhaps because it's an election year in the states, the U.S. congress just provided $38 billion more money for the country's war fund than the Pentagon itself actually requested, for an absolutely insane 2016 military budget of $589 billion.
So far this year, it’s felt like good news has been hard to come by (RIP Prince and David Bowie). Even when refugees are fortunate enough to find a new home in Canada or Europe, they are often greeted with a rising wave of Islamophobia.
In March, Vice News profiled a Montreal dojo where Muslim women are learning self-defense techniques to protect themselves from Islamophobic harassment. One woman said that she always carries an extra "emergency headscarf" in case someone comes up to her on the street to yank it off. While it's hard to imagine someone cruel and petty enough to walk up to a total stranger and physically remove their religious garment, Hanadi Saad of Justice Femme says attacks like this are becoming all too common in Canada.
"The incidents we hear about the most are physical attacks on the street or on public transportation," she says. "And most of the assaults are perpetrated by women."
Last year, Vice News also reported about a Muslim advocacy group that created a website that allowed hate crime victims to track and report attacks. The National Council of Canadian Muslims found an increase in Islamophobic vandalism, hate crimes, and hijab pulling between 2012 and 2013, while national crime statistics show there were another 1,167 hate crimes in 2013. While hate crimes were starting to trend downwards, anecdotal evidence suggests the numbers are rising after the attacks in Paris.
You don’t have to believe in healing crystals or chakras to believe that negativity has a, well, negative effect on your life, on your family’s well being. When you hear about another hijab-pulling incident, about another racist slur yelled on a bus, about hate crimes against children, it’s tempting to give into despair. But there’s more than enough despair in the world already. What we could really use is more hope. And there are so many reasons to be hopeful!
Just two weeks after the terrorist attacks in Paris, world leaders gathered for peaceful climate talks, taking an important step towards addressing climate change. New technologies helped improve water quality for 90% of the planet in 2015, scientists developed promising new vaccines, and in California a young Muslim teenager was voted prom queen, wearing her tiara over her hijab. Maybe the kids are alright after all (at least if we do our jobs right!).
And just this month London elected Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim politician to serve as leader of a major European city. Of course, while many progressives celebrated this milestone, others saw something more sinister at play.
For a masterclass in casual Islamophobia, just wade into the comment section of this Breitbart article, "London's New Muslim Mayor Planned Cathedral Swearing in Ceremony in Break with City Hall Tradition." Many people believe the choice of location was meant to be a gesture of goodwill; others see a Muslim plot to destroy life as we know it. A typical comment reads, "Desecration...abomination. London is finished. England is dying," while JohnGaltClone1957 summed up the prevailing opinion, "Good thing they removed all the crosses. Having them go up in flames, when the Islamist walks in, could be embarrassing."
We’re pretty sure JohnGaltclone1957 is thinking about vampires. What’s that they say about haters? Haters gonna hate.
But as parents, as educators, as human beings, we get to decide which voices children hear. We get to decide which stories to tell. I’m not going to give into despair, and I’m going to make sure I surround my children with as many voices of love and hope and optimism as I can. I’m going to make sure the voices of hate and fear are drowned out in a chorus of love.
I’d like to leave you with a piece of the statement Prime Minister Trudeau made after the Ontario mosque fire:
"Canada is a country that is strong, not in spite of our differences, but because of them. Muslim-Canadians contribute enormously to the social and economic fabric of our nation, and Canadian authorities will not abide innocent and peaceful citizens being targeted by acts of vandalism and intolerance...
"The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have shocked peace-loving people in all countries around the world. We must remain focused on those responsible for the atrocities committed in France. It is equally important for Canadians to understand that Muslims around the world are also being persecuted regularly by these violent extremists. We are in this together.