Those advocating for restrictions on freedom of expression are unknowingly fuelling distrust of terms such as ‘Islamophobia’ among many Canadians across the political spectrum

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A sudden flash of terror is all it took to cruelly silence three generations of a beautiful Muslim family in London, Ont. The members of the Afzaal-Salman family were educated and hardworking. They came to Canada from Pakistan for a better life, much like my own family, but were prematurely torn away from us because of their clothing and the colour of their skin.

The family portrait circulating in the media petrifies me, as I see in them my own father and mother, who often wear their traditional shalwar kameez on their evening strolls together.

There is little doubt that this crime is part of a rising trend of racially motivated hate crimes and anti-immigrant sentiments in much of western Europe and North America. Yet after this tragedy, we witnessed how Canadians were overwhelmed with grief and came together in support of the Muslim community and the victims’ family. This was a moment in which the hatred of one sparked goodness, love and compassion in our nation as a whole.

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But like many such tragedies, there are those who are using this as an opportunity to push their own agendas. At the community vigil held at the London Muslim Mosque, Munir El-Kassem, imam of the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario, used his closing remarks to opine on the recent Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza and tensions in east Jerusalem, thus painting an Arab touch to a Pakistani family’s tragedy.

Before him, Nawaz Tahir, chair of Hikma Advocacy Group, challenged “those who hide behind freedom of expression” to re-evaluate the sanctity of such rights. The remarks were met by much enthusiasm from the crowd.

Foreign leaders also exploit such confusion to propagate their own agendas. In the wake of this tragedy, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan demanded Western countries do more to counter Islamophobia. Among Khan’s proposed list of solutions includes the criminalization of blasphemy against the religion of Islam. Khan, like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has a long history of trying to school Western leaders on human rights.

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Khan also denounced French President Emmanuel Macron for defending free speech and demanding reform within Islam in the aftermath of the brutal murder of Samuel Paty, a French school teacher who showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils to have a class discussion. After suffering 36 Islamist attacks in eight years, which killed more than 200 people, Macron implored an “Islam of enlightenment” that could be at peace with the French republic.

But this was met with staunch criticism from Muslim leaders. Erdoğan called Macron “mentally damaged,” and in a series of tweets, Khan said the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine whose staff were massacred by jihadists in 2015, were an example of Islamophobia and extremism. In none of those tweets did he condemn the killing of Samuel Paty, nor did he acknowledge the extremist theology circulating within the Muslim world.

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In Pakistan, blasphemy against Islam is punishable by death. The victims of this draconian law include academics such as Junaid Hafeez, who was imprisoned in 2013 and sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2019. Hafeez’s lawyer and prominent human rights activist Rashid Rehman was assassinated in 2014.

Those advocating for restrictions on freedom of expression are unknowingly fuelling distrust of terms such as “Islamophobia” among many Canadians across the political spectrum. Where does one draw the line between genuine criticism of an ideology and bigotry toward a people? Without the ability to engage in candid discussions about the definition Islamophobia, distrust festers and further fuels anti-Muslim bigotry and extremism in some segments of our society.

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Islamophobia, which is defined as hatred of Muslims as a people, should be distinguished from criticizing different versions of Islam, in order to study it, challenge it or reform it. Those who try to confuse the definition by demanding special protections for their belief systems do a tremendous disservice to all Muslims who fled theocratic regimes for a better life in this country.

Muslims in Canada, including my own family, have been taken aback by the repeated and ever-increasing anti-Muslim violence seen over the past decade. But politicization of Islam and the plight of Muslims benefits no one. We should not let a small fraction of extremists within our society, Muslims and non-Muslims, steal the narrative and divide our society. The fact is that the vast majority of Canadians do not want their fellow citizens, regardless of their background, to suffer and live in fear.

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To tackle acts of senseless hate, we need the to be able to speak freely and candidly. We need to engage in difficult topics, while preserving each other’s respect and dignity. Those who commit acts of violence are brainwashed by those who fill the void with hate and paranoia, where intellectual discourse should have been.

National Post

Ahmed Shah is a resident-physician at McMaster University and a graduate of the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine.

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