The matter I wish to bring to your attention is the very politicized and complicated reality of “Islamophobia”. To me this is not just a word but a strong set of experiences sewn into the fabric that makes up my identity. I am just another student on campus with dreams and goals but I’ve come to realize that what my parents and family as a whole have faced, and continue to face, is not acceptable. I am willing to publicize my personal experiences in the hopes it leads to a better conversation about Islamophobia and what exactly it has the power of doing.
I’m a second generation Canadian born and raised here in Edmonton and the eldest of eight children. My parents are well-educated “immigrants”. I quote the word immigrant because I see it as a term that’s quite derogatory in our society – it “others” not only newcomers but naturalized Canadian citizens, for example, who have been here for 20 plus years. The term “immigrant” hinders people and labels them as those who are expected not to flourish or do well, people who are expected to struggle; it is an oppressive word.
I’ve been lucky to be born a Canadian but the label itself comes with a split identity. I’m stuck between two worlds – my parents’ cultures and the so-called Canadian way of life. I’ve been raised to incorporate the good of both my parents’ cultures and the “western” culture, but it has placed my siblings and I (along with many just like me) in between worlds, where I’m too open-minded and free-spirited for those who identify with my parents’ middle eastern cultures, and I’m a little too traditional and family-oriented in the eyes of many fellow Canadians.
I am writing to lift a common misconception in our society that racism is dead or dying, because that is false, and I’m willing to display my experience as proof. I believe it is the right time to go ahead and start a grass-roots movement against Islamophobia here on campus, because it has, and continues to, taint our social fabric as an ideology; as a hidden but overt means of oppression or political tactic that is ravaging through every institution we have and continues to harm the identity of many Muslim youth. Islamophobia has caused many Muslim youth to forsake their identity as Muslims, to forsake their parents’ culture and adhere themselves to anything that has nothing to do with Islam or religion because that is, realistically, the only way you can “succeed in society” in the eyes of many.
I grew up in a predominately Ukrainian and Polish neighbourhood where I faced my first taste of what I would later recognize as discrimination; when a few of my ruthlessly hateful neighbours decided to start calling my brothers and I “immigrant piglets” on our way back from school one day. To this very day I remember the shocked look on my mom’s face when I asked her what “immigrant piglets” meant. That was not the worst of it, but rather the beginning of a torturous string of years that would follow. My neighbours were fixated on getting rid of my family because we were considered a “nuisance”. The major source of disdain, I choose to believe, that compelled the neighbours to hate us, was the fact that we were a Muslim family of Middle Eastern origin who were well-off even though my parents were just “immigrants”. Regardless of how fair-skinned we were as a family, my mom’s hijab and my dad’s accent alienated us as “others” and somehow justified the consequent treatment we would face by a majority of the neighbours.
The day after the tragedy of 9/11, my neighbours placed American flags on their living room window. The hatred and violence escalated to an unbearable level, to a point where my mother didn’t feel it was safe for my brothers and I to leave the house. At one point, my father was attacked from the back by a 25-year old neighbour and I sadly witnessed the whole occurrence. I saw the rage in the man’s eyes, I saw the way he imitated my father and tried to provoke him to fight back, but my father stayed silent, kept his head high and didn’t show any emotion.
No matter how often my mom would cover my eyes or tell me to go to my room, the yells and acts of vandalism on our house always echoed in my mind. I saw the same lack of “tolerance” in the eyes of some of the police officers my mom would call to help “protect” us. Some of the police officers would badger my mom with questions, ask her why she continued to wear a hijab when it was clear that it labelled her as Muslim and some chose to ignore or not believe what was happening. Thankfully a sergeant from the station realized what was really going on and took the time to help my parents battle through the hate and discrimination.
Islamophobia is not a popular term but it is nothing new to society. It is hidden into our social structures as polite racism.
What is polite racism? My mom who wears a hijab may not have people pointing at her and saying “ew, a Muslim”. Rather, it’s shown through more discrete motions. It’s hidden using jokes, discrediting the racism for even existing, or using emotional ploys (i.e. you’re being too sensitive). Polite racism is when an elderly woman notices a hijabi woman walking nearby with her daughter, who doesn’t wear a hijab, and makes a point of smiling and nodding at the daughter, but then glares at the mother. The examples are endless but what’s missing is active dialogue about how to counteract this very harmful social norm. It seems like many Canadians choose to ignore the subtle racism ingrained in our institutions, from our legal system to our educational system, because we feel it’s too complex to break down and analyze.
Whether you want to believe it or not, parents still push their kids away from “ethnic” kids, or some teachers still crack racist jokes. Racist jokes may be not be intended, but when a guy is called a terrorist by his teacher because he has grown his beard out for rugby, you really see the racial undertones. We justify it because “that’s just the way it is”. We urge our peers to “take a joke” or claim “it can’t be that bad”. This type of racism doesn’t just damage the “victims”, but it also damages the victims’ children, and downplaying its occurrence does a disservice to us all.
This still continues to happen even though we know that “racism is bad”. I feel it’s necessary to tackle Islamophobia directly. For instance, by showing what Islam really is and how Muslim youth really are, contrary to media-driven presumptions. I hope that doing so will also help further pave the way for exposure and resistance against other oppressive actions towards other “minorities”.
We need to find out what people think of “Islam” and question why so many stereotypes exist towards the word “Islamic” or “Muslim”. Change starts with us, through recognizing the limits of our preconceived notions of the world. Embracing people’s differences can be as simple as avoiding the question “where are you from” and instead asking about the culture they are a part of, because that gives your fellow human being the chance to freely and proudly explain their culture and creates a space to find common ground.
If we can think more openly here on campus, our ideas can transgress the limits of this campus and move into the society of greater Edmonton. By changing our opinions, we ultimately change the perspectives of our future generations. So, perhaps it’s necessary to think twice before you tell a person to “go back to their country”, “learn to speak English”, “learn to follow the Canadian way of life” or before you ask someone you’ve just met where they’re from simply because they look “different”.
Regardless of how much we say Canada is multicultural, I will always see it as a broken mosaic; a fantasy romanticized by media and preached to the masses but never actually implemented.
Multiculturalism should not just be about tolerance of cultures, it should instead, lean more towards embracing all the different cultures out there. If we want to live as a peaceful society, I believe we need to look beyond accents and physical appearances and focus more on each other’s good intentions, intelligence, and words. No one human being out there is more superior to another. Some of us have grown up with stereotypes about other ethnic groups, but I do believe we need to move past them, and that we can move past them.