Anytime there’s a shooting or bombing, I hold my breath. “Please don’t be Muslim, please don’t be Muslim,” I think to myself.
I browse through Twitter and see other Muslims with similar sentiments. Why? Because we know, if the shooter is Muslim, the backlash is on us. No matter how removed we are from that one awful person, no matter how much we embrace ideologies of peace, no matter how much we go out of our way to denounce Islamic extremism, the burden of it falls on our shoulders.
Truthfully, some of the most notable cases of mass shootings have been committed by non-Muslim, often white perpetrators such as James Holmes, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Adam Lanza, Michael McLendon, Seung-Hui Cho, Marc Lépine, and Elliot Rodger. Yet, rather than focusing on a culture of entitlement, misogyny, and racism, we often hone in on a racialized shooter with a foreign religion that upsets the status quo.
And when these non-Muslim, white males do commit an act of terror, members of the white community, the Christian community, and so on, are rarely asked to apologize on behalf of this one criminal’s behaviour. Yet when the criminal in question is Muslim, imams and other Muslim leaders must step forward to say “not in my name!” Society shines the spotlight on us, expecting us to take the blame for extremist outliers to our community.
Since the Ottawa shootings, the spotlight has been on shooters like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who was a recent convert to Islam. The public jumps on that one fact, rather than the role that mental illness plays in violent crime. Shooters and bombers who are non-Muslim are rarely regarded as terrorists, and even more, the main discussion seems to revolve around what a shame it was that a sweet, quiet, intelligent young man like that could commit such a crime. Where did they go wrong? How did they go from innocent to murderous? The media coverage is rife with sympathy and testimonials from family and community members who insist their son was a perfectly normal boy — simply bullied and alienated into shooting up an entire school, movie theatre, or mall.
Shooters and bombers who are non-Muslim are rarely regarded as terrorists, and even more, the main discussion seems to revolve around what a shame it was that a sweet, quiet, intelligent young man like that could commit such a crime.
Zehaf-Bibeau converted to Islam, a.k.a. the bogeyman of the west, the newest hysteria to take over the empty slot once the Red Scare and Soviet threat started sounding irrelevant. But what the public has failed to notice about Zehaf-Bibeau is that he had a history of major drug addiction, a telltale sign of mental illness. What the public so expertly ignores is that perhaps, due to their addled minds, these recent converts gravitated towards a radical and violent subject of Islam in an irrational attempt to justify their violent urges.
During the online fervour of the Ottawa shooting, Islamophobic treats were rampant. Dozens of “go back home!” flooded the internet, and a lot of “those scum” tweets like one that said “Canada needs to ban all Muslim scum.” I couldn’t help but laugh. Where are you hoping to banish me too? Go back home where exactly? With 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, I wonder which country they’re referring to. On one hand, there are plenty of Canadians who are against this kind of hate. The perfect example would be the Cold Lake community in Alberta banding together to cover Islamophobic vandalism on the Cold Lake mosque, placing welcoming and heartfelt signs over the “Go back home!” scrawled across the building. But on the other hand, the hate seems more overpowering than the few exceptional instances of acceptance.
Even in a city as diverse and seemingly welcoming as Toronto, discrimination still exists. Posters for Ward 2 candidate Munira Abukar were defaced with racist and Islamophobic vandalism, proving that even the most diverse city in Canada can still be a breeding ground for the broader anti-Islam anti-immigration bigotry that is slowly rising in Canada.
There is no doubt that radical, ultra conservative Islam is a problem in some places. I grew up in a Muslim family, I was born in a Muslim-majority country, and I have seen the changes in my community and a shift to a more insular conservative brand of Islam. Still, why should me or my Muslim friends face the backlash crimes committed by hateful folk motivated by an overly-politicized Wahhabist form of Islam? Why should I be associated with terrorists? All religions, all ideologies, exist on a spectrum from the very open-minded and welcoming to the very isolated and prejudiced. And yet somehow only Islam seems to be represented by its hateful side, rather than its open and positive side.
I’ve been to prayer spaces where a woman lead Friday prayer and the founder of the prayer space was an openly gay Muslim man. And I’ve also been to spaces where conservative Mosque-goers criticized me for not wearing conservative enough clothing. But in the public eye, only the latter seems relevant, only the oppressive side is worth noticing. Muslim shooters begin a public panic of big bad Islam, while white non-Muslim shooters rarely start a public discourse about the origins of their violence, which is often rooted in social alienation, macho gun culture, sensationalism of shooting coverage, misogyny, and Christian extremism.
Despite the fact that there are Muslims of all backgrounds living in Canada, of all political ideologies, Muslims have become the frightening “other,” the foreign threat that is so very un-Canadian. The idea of “go back home” is one that is driven by the racialized perception of the brown Muslim immigrant coming to this seemingly great country of freedom with a baggage of hate and anger.
Instead of jumping to simplistic and, really, childish declarations of “they’re shooting our freedom! They’re bombing our democracy,” let’s instead take a rational and informed approach, and remove the idea of “they” as this all-encompassing word for every single Muslim in Canada. I won’t apologize for what happened in Ottawa, because I didn’t do it and I certainly do not condone it. And no other Muslim should be expected to apologize either.