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Canada anti-Muslim attack: ‘It could have been any one of us’

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls the killing of four members of a Muslim family in Ontario a ‘terrorist attack’.

Montreal, Canada – Like so many others have done during the coronavirus pandemic, the Afzaal family was out for an evening walk. But on Sunday, as they waited to cross a street in London, Ontario, they were run down by a driver police say was motivated by anti-Muslim hate.

For members of Muslim communities across the country, the Islamophobic attack that killed four people, including a teenage girl, and seriously injured a nine-year-old boy, harkens back to painful memories of a deadly assault on a Quebec mosque more than four years ago.

It is also a sign that something is terribly wrong.

“The sentiment that I’m hearing across the board, and I think everybody is feeling, [is] that it could have been any one of us,” Selma Tobah, a 31-year-old graduate student at Western University who has lived in London for more than 10 years, told Al Jazeera.

“They were just out on an evening walk. I take evening walks all the time with my friends and family. I wear hijab – my mom, my sisters, my friends. So it literally could have been any one of us.”

Family targeted

London police told reporters on Monday that three adults and two children were hit in “an intentional act” about 8:40pm local time on Sunday (00:40 GMT on Monday). “We believe the victims were targeted because of their Islamic faith,” police chief Steve Williams said.

The slain victims – a 46-year-old man, two women aged 74 and 44, and a 15-year-old girl – were all members of the same family, police said. The boy is in hospital with serious injuries, but is expected to recover.

A statement released by the family and shared on social media, as well as Canadian media outlets, have identified the family members as Salman Afzaal, his wife Madiha and their daughter Yumna. Salman’s mother was also killed, but her name has not been released. Al Jazeera is not publishing the name of the boy because he is a minor.

A 20-year-old London man, Nathaniel Veltman, was arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.

“There’s no question that we’re aching, we’re in pain. Our hearts are broken, our minds are numb,” Abd Alfatah Twakkal, a Muslim community faith leader in London, told Al Jazeera. “At the same time, there are concerns and feelings of fright, fear – because of the egregiousness of this horrific act and crime, which had the impact of instilling terror within our community members.”

People put up a sign at a makeshift memorial where a man ran over a Muslim family in London, Ontario [Carlos Osorio]

Twakkal said London’s Muslim community – one of the oldest in Canada – has received an outpouring of support and solidarity, which provides some comfort. But he urged concrete action to address rising Islamophobia and racist vitriol that is often spread online.

Statistics Canada said in March that police-reported hate crimes targeting Muslims “rose slightly” to 181 incidents in 2019 – the last year for which the data is available. That is up from 166 incidents the previous year.

“It’s not enough just to say we reject Islamophobia, we reject xenophobia, we reject racism, discrimination… but it’s also even more critical that it doesn’t stop there,” he said. “Steps need to be taken for people to say that we don’t accept it. When they come across it, to reject it, to call it out, to say that this is not acceptable.”

London Mayor Ed Holder said in a statement on Monday that three days of mourning would be held in the city after the attack. “Let me be clear: This was an act of mass murder, perpetrated against Muslims — against Londoners — and rooted in unspeakable hatred,” Holder said.

A moment of silence was also observed on Monday in Parliament in the capital, Ottawa, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the deadly violence as “a terrorist attack motivated by hatred in the heart of one of our communities”.

“Unlike every other night, that family never made it home. Their lives were taken in a brutal, cowardly and brazen act of violence. This killing was no accident,” said Trudeau, promising to take stronger action against far-right groups in Canada.

‘Floodgates of fear’

But Tobah said anti-Muslim hate and Islamophobia are not new in London – or across the country.

For years, politicians of all stripes in the French-speaking province of Quebec have debated the “reasonable accommodation” of immigrants, leading to the passage of a law that now bars some public servants from wearing religious attire. This includes hijab worn by Muslim women, who are the most directly affected by the legislation, known as Bill 21.

Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in his failed 2015 re-election campaign, proposed barring Muslim women from wearing a niqab during Canadian citizenship ceremonies. His party also promised to create a “Barbaric Cultural Practices” hotline – a move that critics said aimed to get Canadians to phone in complaints against their Muslim neighbours.

In 2017, after a gunman killed six Muslim men as they prayed at a mosque in Quebec City, an effort to pass a largely symbolic motion condemning Islamophobia and studying the extent of the problem drew heated debate in Canada’s Parliament. Conservative politicians said it could infringe on freedom of speech, while far-right commentators jumped into the fray to accuse the governing Liberal Party of seeking to impose Islamic law in Canada.

“I think after the Quebec mosque shooting, the floodgates of fear are just wide open. I think previous to that incident, it was always just a what-if in the back of our minds: ‘What if this happened here in Canada?’ But then after that, it was just like all bets are off in a sense, like anything can happen,” said Tobah, adding though that the attack in London hits close to home.

She said far-right groups such as the anti-Islam movement “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident” or PEGIDA have marched in the city in recent years, while Muslims and other visible minorities regularly experience racism in the streets. “So I don’t think any incident was beyond the imagination of Muslims in Canada.”

Community in mourning

More recently, a string of verbal and physical assaults against Black Muslim women has taken place in the province of Alberta, while a mosque caretaker was stabbed to death in the west end of Toronto in September, prompting calls for the government to take far-right violence more seriously.

“There’s fear. There’s shock. There’s sadness,” said Yusuf Faqiri, a spokesman for the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), a national advocacy group, about the deadly attack in London.

A vigil will be held in the city on Tuesday evening to honour the family, while people are also raising funds online to support the nine-year-old boy who was injured.

“This tragedy brings back the horrible memories of what happened in Quebec, which was only four and a half years ago,” Faqiri told Al Jazeera. “There [are] so many emotions, but what’s important to understand is that we need to put a stop to tragedies such as this. We need to call it for what it is: this was a terrorist act, this was an Islamophobic act.”

People gather at a makeshift memorial after an anti-Muslim hate crime killed four people in London, Ontario [Carlos Osorio]

Nawaz Tahir, a lawyer and Muslim community leader in London, said, “The horror that has visited this family, the Canadian Muslim community, and Canada at large … is unfathomable.”

“These were innocent human beings who were killed simply because they’re Muslim,” Tahir told reporters during a news conference on Monday. “The London Muslim community has a long history in this city. This is our home, and it is as much a part of us as we are a part of it. The individual that did this doesn’t understand that.

“Hate will never overshadow the light of love. Make no mistake about it, justice must and will be done. Every Londoner, every Ontarian, every Canadian must stop and ask ourselves, how do we make sure this never happens again?”

That was echoed by Tobah, who added that many young Muslim Canadians are in shock over what happened. “There are a lot of young people right now that are reeling, that are traumatised, that are trying to process,” she told Al Jazeera.

“How do you look your child in the eye and tell them that they’ll be safe here, as a young Muslim or as a visible minority? Because at present we can’t guarantee that for our kids.”

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