Combat hate by building goodwill and tearing down walls

By: Ihsaan Gardee, Executive Director, National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM)

First published in Toronto Star.

The families of the victims of last year’s horrific Quebec mosque attack recently learned they would have to endure another difficult period of delay as the judge postponed the sentencing of the shooter.

Tragically, more families are facing the unspeakable pain of losing loved ones to bigoted violence in the wake of Saturday’s attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that claimed the lives of Jewish worshipers on a serene Sabbath morning.

Like the mosque shooter, the synagogue attacker was motivated by malicious hate – in this case, virulent antisemitism – prompted by his disdain for immigration.  In the minutes before he launched his cowardly attack, the gunman wrote these ominous words online: “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Once more, we are forced to contend with a macabre display of hate-driven violence directed against minority targets. As Shakespearean tragedy tells us, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

But there is nothing fictitious about what’s happening. Something sinister is erupting in our body politic both in the United States and Canada.  While many Americans remain disturbed by the ugly rhetoric emanating from their highest office, Canadians seem to want to wish away the creeping rise of far-right extremists who mimic white supremacism.

We need not look further than the Toronto mayoralty candidacy of neo-Nazi linked Faith Goldy or rabid Islamophobe Kevin Johnston’s campaign in nearby Mississauga.  Both received thousands of votes when arguably 10 years ago they would have been confined to insignificant levels of support.

Yet we still ask ourselves: how did it come to this?

Our liberal democracy can act wayward at times, but what is striking about this political moment is that democracy is being undermined by elements who do not agree everyone is equal under the law. These forces want to divide us along ethnic and religious lines so as to weaken the very foundations of our society’s fundamental democratic bargain.  Some of these forces have actively armed themselves such as militia-like groups in Alberta.

Let’s not delude ourselves.  With far-right extremists emboldened by the dog-whistle politics played by elected leaders both south of the border and here at home, should we be surprised that some of their angry coterie are targeting Muslims and Jews with hateful violence?

As a Canadian collective, we should recognize that this is a multi-faceted problem with no quick fixes.  Unless we give it the seriousness it deserves, we only increase the risk of seeing more of our fellow citizens gunned down in sacred places.

Attention must be given to grassroots, community-driven strategies to combat the growth of bigoted politics and incendiary rhetoric.  Government can help set the stage, but it is us citizens who need to forge the path.  Larger-scale engagement among communities can help, as it has before, build mutual goodwill and tear down walls of misinformation. The Canadian-Muslim Vote, a non-partisan organization, aims to do just that by annually inviting Canadians to visit their neighbourhood mosques. The notion that a spirit of community and knowing one another are among the strongest bulwarks in the fight against intolerance is also supported by a 2016 Environics study.

In parallel to this, concerted efforts are required to shatter any credence given to ideas that enable xenophobia and which lay the groundwork for menacing hate to take root – no matter how carefully stated.  This means informing our communities about actors who traffic hate-laden conspiracy theories and use the veneer of public debate to give their intolerant policy views legitimacy.  Last year, not enough of us challenged the hateful lies repeatedly spewed by pseudo-journalists suggesting the mosque attack was an “inside job done by Muslims”.

And where the rhetoric crosses the line into hate incitement or violence, our existing laws must be enforced consistently and without hesitation. Community safety demands no less.

In troubling times talk often turns to holding the politicians accountable. We can change who is at the helm, but we must harness our individual and collective power to challenge this dangerous hatred and take steps to protect our shared values of human dignity and mutual respect.