On a December evening in 1992, my Pakistani family entered a nondescript bookshop off Charlotte Street in downtown Sydney, Nova Scotia. We wiped our boots and left them on the plastic mat before descending to the musty basement. I did not know what an Islamic study circle was, but here we were amid a group of Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Kenya, and Somalia to study and discuss the Qur'an. My first winter in Canada was full of novelties, but this one topped them all. The subterranean setting on a half-abandoned commercial high street was a fitting place to host our weekly classes. It set the tone for living invisibly as Muslim in Cape Breton’s post-industrial landscape marred by social tensions and economic depression.
As a 7-year-old, I waited for the lecture and prayers to end so we could feast on Timbits, Orange Crush, and Doritos — also novelties — alongside the biryani, samosas, and chai. In my previous homes in Lahore, Pakistan, and London, UK, I had never been to a self-designed religious group like this. Our practice was more personal, relegated to home and private spaces, even though we lived in a place where Islamic symbols were more publicly identifiable. The experience of talking about things said and read in the Qur'an in a room full of folks with different nationalities was entirely new. All of us shared the experience of migration, and we forged ties beyond ethnicity and language to overcome isolation in this homogenous place. It was a testament to immigrant survival.
I was reminded of these memories as I processed the devastating news of the terrorist attack that killed six people in a Quebec City mosque in January. The week was already traumatizing for Muslims in North America, where bloated anti-Muslim sentiments pushed by Donald Trump during his campaign were being sanctified in official policy. There was a significant rise in hate crimes south of the border as Trump validated white rage from the highest office.
For me, it was a reminder of a breach on the sanctity of a place of worship. I thought of the faces of those men — all immigrants who arrived to work hard and to make a home in a new place. They could have been my father, my uncle, my cousin. Going to a place of worship suddenly eroded a false sense of safety among Muslims I knew. In Cape Breton, where the Muslim population is so small we lived relatively undetected, our presence was suddenly made visible.
In Canada, we feel smugly removed from the bigotry on display in the United States, but the Quebec City shooting shattered those delusions. And the hate that fueled it isn't new. In 2013, as politicians in Quebec promoted the proposed “Charter of Values,” there was a spike in abuse and threats against Muslim women. During the Stephen Harper era, the federal cabinet proposed policies that targeted Muslims and were designed to appease its nationalist Conservative base. Last month, a new motion (M-103) introduced in Parliament to study systemic discrimination and end to systemic racism "including Islamophobia" was challenged as “politically correct nonsense” by Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch, who has also proposed Trump-style “vetting” of all immigrants in Canada. In less than a month since the Quebec shooting, it’s business as usual for politicians and alt-right Canadian media who are happy to stir populist sentiment to consolidate their supporters.
Canada is not immune to Islamophobia. The Cape Breton I grew up in looked just like the lands where Trump gained his biggest support — the areas that have seen a decades-long breakdown of their economic capital. With politicians who are ready to inflame pre-existing social tensions, we are forced to contend with the racist and anti-Muslim sentiments that reverberate in hidden corners of our country. Canadians so like to fixate on all the things we are not, that we are often negligent of all the things we can be.
In the months prior to the 2016 US election, I saw news about a website enticing disillusioned American voters to move to Cape Breton Island in case of a Trump victory. The site was so popular it even earned a shout-out from then-president Barack Obama. The glorious scenery of the Cabot Trail is front and centre on the website — but the reality of the island is glossed over.
My parents moved to Cape Breton Island after training and working in psychiatry in the UK for 20 years. After I was born, our family moved back and forth between Lahore and London, and faced a precarious future. In the late ’80s, they felt the trickle of xenophobia in a Britain with high unemployment levels and contracting public services. As employees of a constricted National Health Service, they left yearning for better and newer career opportunities. Even as they were reluctant to further distance themselves from their roots in Pakistan, they were lured by opportunity in Canada. For international professionals, rural settings across Atlantic Canada offer an easier entry as they grapple with complicated licensing requirements. In my parents’ case, they were guaranteed plenty of work in mental health amid socioeconomic downturn and substance abuse that were causing the community to wither.
Since the 1980s, Cape Breton’s once flourishing status has been in steady decline — the closing of the coal and steel industries left a painful gulf that nothing has filled. Once a thriving port city, the Sydney we arrived in was a vision of a distant past— with double-digit unemployment and illness. The average life expectancy in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality is lower than anywhere else in Canada. It has the highest cancer rate in the country (I went to high school a mile away from the Sydney Tar Ponds), and in the early 2000s, an illicit OxyContin market, called “hillbilly heroin,” skyrocketed. Several nights a week, my dad would come home exhausted from shifts at the addiction services clinic.
Since Trump won the election, analysis upon analysis has attempted to decipher the reasons why towns in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin turned against the Democrats and voted for Trump. Like Cape Breton, these towns once had flourishing industries that left long ago. They are the neglected heartland of a country that romanticizes an iridescent era of “greatness,” evoking xenophobic and nationalist language in the process.
As the only Muslim and often the only racialized kid at school, the feeling of being foreign in shape and place was something I came to know in Cape Breton. In sixth grade, a girl named Alicia, who lived at the end of my road and took the bus to and from school with me, sent me a hate note. It said that she despised me, that she was disgusted by what I looked like, how my family sounded, and that she’d throw rocks at me when she saw me come home. Taking the school bus suddenly felt unsafe. When I did try to wear my identity — like speaking about Pakistan’s history in a public speaking competition or wearing traditional clothes to school in a misguided invitation for a “talent show” — I was mocked and ridiculed.
Islamophobia took on a new sharpness after 9/11, like when I heard, whispered under the breath of a classmate, “stupid, dirty Arabs.” In subsequent months, I felt enraged and unfairly represented in news, media, and Hollywood movies that loved stereotyping Arabs and Muslims. Like so many things, the religion was under scrutiny when our American neighbours mandated it to be. With Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, Afghans and Pakistanis were now intrinsically a part of the suspicion that military times breed. My background went from relative obscurity to sudden item of interest.
Throughout my school years, we continued to go to Saturday night Islamic study classes. Eventually, they were moved to the university campus. When we prayed together in the public hallway, my anxiety heightened — what if someone saw me and questioned these unfamiliar practices? I wanted to hide and shake off any air of difference that could be smelled on me. In essence, the unfamiliarity with other cultures, along with a subtle resentment about the success that new arrivals find on an island rife with losses, bred a discomfort about my background. In turn, I quieted the parts of my religiosity that I found to be incompatible with where I lived.
In 2003, I moved to Toronto hopeful for a big city experience where I wasn’t an outsider. But, in many ways, I am. I see the undertones of segregation in the city as ethnic minorities stick to the neighbourhoods where people look and sound like them, and the institutional and systemic discrimination that people of colour face on a daily basis. Despite being a place that loves to praise its own diversity, Toronto is not immune to hate — whether bigotry in politics or public hate crimes.
I’ve struggled to maintain a consistent religious practice here in Toronto, because it took years to shake off some of the internalized aspects of feeling misunderstood and to really embrace that there’s a place for me to exist. I haven’t always found a Muslim community that I can fully make my own; however, I do feel a distinct sense of Muslimness in this era of hate. As the alt-right media and politicians become bolder in their hostility to Muslims, it’s become easier to take a stand and be bolder in my faith.
And I’m not sure this sense of Muslimness would have transpired if I had stayed in Cape Breton — or a community that looked like it.
After the Quebec shooting, there was an outpouring of love and grief. For one week, people all over Canada were sincerely interested in learning and understanding from their Muslim neighbours. Mosques opened their doors and were flooded with curious visitors transcending faith. Vigils and rallies held across the country expressed a new form of solidarity. It was moving, and a testament to the best of elements of Canadian humility and acceptance. But I’m left feeling wary.
What happened in Quebec is a reminder of the divisions here that are ready to be exploited. The greatest inequities that exist between regions is kindling for an American- style populist backlash. If we don’t wake up to our own bubbles, we won’t see it. Take it from someone who’s been looking in from the outside for years.
Contact Sana A. Malik at email@example.com.
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