When a family in London, Ontario were brutally murdered earlier this week, for no apparent reason other than their Muslim faith, the fallout of the tragedy could be felt across the country.
“It’s just a big tragedy for us. For any Muslim, but any Canadian really,” says Dr. Kenzu Abdella, former president of the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association and professor at Trent University.
Sunday (June 6) evening, a man driving a black Dodge Ram drove into Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, daughter Yumna Salman, 15, and her 74-year-old grandmother, killing all four as they waited to cross an intersection while out for an evening walk. The couple’s nine-year-old boy, Fayez, was hospitalized with serious injuries. London Police have determined the family was targeted based on their Muslim faith.
Twenty-year-old Nathaniel Veltman of London was arrested a short distance from the scene and is now facing four charges of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
Dr. Abdella was out of the country for the past year and only arrived home in the past few weeks and went directly into quarantine. He says he was pretty isolated and first learned of the attack when friends started reaching out to him to offer their support.
“It happened in London, but it feels like it happened right next door,” says Dr. Abdella.
“It really scares you to know someone was targeted just because of what their faith is, not because of anything they have done.”
As not only a Muslim, but also a visible minority and a father, Dr. Abdella says the fear and worry created by such attacks is only compounded. The attack is a reminder that while Canada is generally considered to be an open and welcoming society, Islamophobia is still very much alive in our country.
“It shows this can happen anywhere and it can happen to us. Especially when you have children, you get scared,” he says.
“You know it happened because they look like you.”
The news of the tragedy hit particularly close to home for Dr. Abdella for another reason. In November 2015, the Masjid Al-Salaam mosque in Peterborough was set ablaze in what police determined to be a hate crime. To date, no arrest has been made.
“For the Peterborough community, we have not forgotten that experience, so when something like what happened in Quebec or in London happens, it all comes rushing back,” says Dr. Abdella, adding that he continues to be grateful for all the love and support shown to the Muslim community after the arson.
Publicly showing this support has been made more difficult thanks to COVID-19, says Larry Gillman, president of Beth Israel Synagogue, where Peterborough’s Muslim community was invited to worship following the arson.
“We can’t host anything or get together the way we would like to,” says Gillman, noting that he wrote a letter offering support to the local Muslim community during this difficult time.
The letter, which Gillman provided to This Week, expresses outrage, sadness and shock at news of the attack.
“Please know that the Peterborough Jewish Community, as well as the wider community, stands with you in this time of deep sorrow. We pray for the families, and also the well-being and recovery of the surviving family member,” reads the letter, in part.
Likewise, Bishop Daniel Miehm of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Peterborough has also reached out to the Imam and the president of the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association to offer support.
“Bishop Miehm echoed Pope Francis’ call to all believers to engage in dialogue, friendship and collaboration in order to promote the common good and peace in society,” according to a statement from the Diocese of Peterborough.
Dr. Abdella says he is personally thankful for the outpouring of support from friends and colleagues and the acknowledgment that the fallout of such attacks go well beyond one religious community.
“It’s not just a Muslim issue, it’s a societal issue,” he adds.
Education is the key to eradicating our society of such hate, says Helen McCarthy a representative from the Abraham Festival, an interfaith group in Peterborough.
“Once people realize who is inside the burka or the hijab and they just relax physically because it is just a regular person,” she says.
“Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachings all confirm that we not do to our neighbor what we would not have done to us. Education can dispel fear and prevent violence. To honour this family, let’s vow to deeply educate ourselves about the innocent “others” so we find ways to protect them in the future,” reads the official statement from the Abraham Festival on their Facebook page, which also announced a virtual vigil will be held for the Afzaal family Friday, June 11 at 2 p.m. Registration is available until noon Friday.