Racialised Islamophobia is part of a larger white supremacy movement that has been part of the North American and European experience for centuries.
As Canada reels from yet another Islamophobic attack, some three years after the Quebec City Mosque massacre and after revelations about the abuse of indigenous children at residential schools, the latest horror is eerily familiar.
I remember a few years ago, walking in the centre of the city I grew up in. One sunny afternoon near the Vancouver Art Gallery, I was nearly killed by a motorist while crossing the street.
I can still recall the details vividly. A man with a mullet in an old Toyota with a suburban license plate from a place called Maple Ridge came within inches of me, plowing through the crosswalk at high speed.
As I turned to look at him, heart pounding, he raised his fist and shouted, “Terrorist!” before driving off in a toxic cloud of testosterone and exhaust fumes.
I was shaken to the core and had to sit down on a bench for a few minutes to collect myself. There must have been a dozen people crossing the same intersection who witnessed the would-be attack, but not a single person even glanced at me.
Nothing to see here, folks. Just another random act of misguided Islamophobia.
That’s right. I’m not a Muslim. My ancestry is Christian. I wonder what my great-great-grandmother Sara, who, together with her son and daughter fled Ottoman-era oppression in what is today Lebanon, would say?
Her descendant being targeted as a Muslim in a country she sought refuge in from Muslim Turks? Oh, the irony.
But I am not alone.
While researching his thesis on anti-Muslim racism in Canada, Vancouver-based scholar and hate crimes expert Alnoor Gova surveyed a large number of victims of Islamophobic attacks who were South Asian Sikhs and Hindus, and Arab and Armenian Christians.
The same trend is evident south of the border in the US, with incidents like the victim of the horrific first “revenge killing” in the aftermath of 9/11 being a Sikh man who was gunned down in Arizona by an assailant who said he wanted to “go out and shoot some towelheads” to avenge the actions of Osama bin Laden.
Besides proving that violent thugs are less than discerning, this trend points to the fact that Islamophobia is just racism in another guise — and not a very convincing one at that.
Just as the Chaldean patriarch used to say in Iraq, “when the American bombs fall, they don’t distinguish between Muslim or Christian,” or just as my Maronite Lebanese friend discovered when he encountered anti-Muslim sentiment after settling in France: it’s not about religion. It’s part of a larger white supremacy movement that has sadly been part of the North American and European experience for centuries.
When my great-grandparents Najib and Massadi arrived in Canada as 17-year-old newlyweds with Sara, after barely surviving an attack by Turkish gunboats as they left Port Said, Egypt and enduring a long sea journey to France and then to Ellis Island, their Ottoman travel documents were stamped “Asiatic.”
If they had arrived a year later, they likely would not have been allowed in due to pan-North American anti-Asian exclusion laws – over a century before Trump’s “Muslim exclusion” laws that applied to West as well as East Asians.
Nonetheless, they persevered, and after spending a single freezing winter in Winnipeg, moved to warmer West Coast climes. They ended up settling in a place called Prince Rupert, a fishing town full of Scots, First Nations and a lone Syrian family near the Alaskan border.
Ignoring the apartheid-like conditions endured by the area’s First Nations, and not carrying the same cultural baggage as the English and Scottish immigrants, they welcomed native people to their store and were the only shop owners who offered them credit and didn’t have store detectives harass them.
As a result, friendships flourished, and my grandmother’s brother was adopted by a Haida chief in the early 1940s, when native ceremonies were still illegal in British Columbia. Clandestinely, in the back of the shop, prayers were said, and my family became part of the Eagle Clan.
When I interviewed Nisga’a elder Rod Robinson in 1997, a chief who had been instrumental in securing his people’s land back from the federal government, he recalled visiting the shop as a boy. As a special treat for the twice-yearly trip from the reservation to buy supplies, his father had taken him to the movies the night before.
Robinson remembered the “whites only” and separate “Indian entrance” well. But instead of the usual “cowboys and Indians” movie, that night there was a silent film about the “evil Arabs” and the triumphant English army. The villain was a Sheikh with a big moustache and a sword who chopped off people’s heads, Robinson told me. So, the next day, when he first met my great-grandfather Najib, he was terrified and began to cry. But Najib just kept smiling and giving him ice cream and eventually he came round.
As I write this, simultaneous vigils are taking place for both the slain Muslim family in London and the 215 children whose remains were found in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School, on either side of the Vancouver Art Gallery, just 50 metres from where the mullet-wearing racist almost hit me with his car.
I remember my great-great-grandmother Sara again. Even though she was a Christian, she always wore a black headscarf, as was the custom in her village. Her children, embarrassed by her Old World habits, kept pestering her to remove it. Eventually she did, and as the family story goes, she immediately caught a cold that turned into a fatal pneumonia.
Ironically, she is buried in the Vancouver suburb of Maple Ridge, a place the family settled in when it was a wilderness enclave, not a bedroom community, full of New World promise — a place her son always said was known for abiding by “the rule of law.”
I say a prayer for her now, and for my country, reeling from two traumas, and searching for a way to heal. I still wonder, what would Sara say?
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