On Sunday, June 6, the Afzaal family went for an evening walk in their London, Ont., neighbourhood. As they waited to cross the street, a driver in a black truck slammed into them, killing Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, 15-year-old daughter Yumna Afzaal, and Salman’s 74-year-old mother. Salman and Madiha’s son, Fayez, 9, was the sole survivor and remains in hospital.
Muslims across Ontario and beyond are grieving the anti-Muslim attack, but amid their sorrow are feelings of exhaustion, fear and uncertainty over what members of the Muslim community say is a lack of concrete action against Islamophobia and other hate-motivated crimes targeting marginalized groups in Canada.
“The time has come for us to have a national conversation about how to break down these barriers, not just Islamophobia, but to hatred, racism, anti-Semitism,” said Firaaz Azeez, the executive director of Markham-based charity Humaniti.
The London Police Service has charged the suspect with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. Police have said it was a planned, premeditated act, motivated by hate, and that the victims were targeted because of their Islamic faith.
“Incidents like this are a tragic reminder that Islamophobia and xenophobia are real, deadly and persist in Ontario,” said Ena Chadha, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
WATCH | As Canada’s Muslim community mourns deadly attack, frustration mounts:
Islamophobia ‘all too familiar’
As the third deadly anti-Muslim attack in Canada in four years, the incident has renewed feelings of fear, anger, hopelessness and exhaustion among Canada’s Muslims.
“This is a terrorist attack on Canadian soil, and should be treated as such,” said Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
“Muslims in Canada have become all too familiar with the violence of Islamophobia, with attacks on Muslim women in Alberta, the [International Muslim Organization of Toronto] mosque killing, and the Quebec City mosque massacre.”
In January 2017, a man killed six worshippers and wounded five others at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City. In September 2020, 58-year-old volunteer Mohamed-Aslim Zafis was stabbed to death at a mosque in Etobicoke. In March, a woman wearing a hijab was assaulted in Calgary. That attack followed several others in Edmonton in December last year that were investigated by the police hate crimes unit.
Usman Ali, a volunteer at the International Muslim Organization in Toronto, was a friend of Zafis. He said the London attack brought back a lot emotions, “but also frustration, frustration with what’s happening to our community.”
While Ali hopes the suspect will be prosecuted to the “maximum extent possible,” he says more action is needed.
“Hopefully policies and rules are made to support the community and combat these types of actions,” he said. “It’s great when communities come together and support, but words aren’t the only thing we need anymore, we need action.”
Legal academic and journalist Azeezah Kanji says there’s growing frustration after the London attack, which she says is “yet another in a long line of incidents in which people apparently feel emboldened and justified to kill Muslims.”
She says these attacks are a “product of a much broader context of structural Islamophobia.”
‘A gaping wound that needs to be healed’
Kanji says this is the kind of Islamophobia that leads to “state-sponsored practices of draconian counter-terrorism measures,” citing the surveillance of Muslims, laws like the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act and the hijab ban in Quebec as examples.
“All of which produce a climate in which people think its normalized to think of Muslim life as demonized and devalued.”
Kanji says she and various other organizations have requested that the government address these issues for years, but that “it takes an overt act of killing against Muslims in order to even begin to have a serious conversation about Islamophobia in this country.”
Kanji also noted that following the Quebec City mosque shooting, it took the federal government four years to make what she called a “tokenistic declaration” of a day of remembrance and action against Islamophobia.
“It’s a band-aid for a gaping wound that needs to be healed.”
Trudeau condemns attack
In a speech in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned Sunday’s killing, calling it a terrorist attack.
“They were all targeted because of their Muslim faith,” he said. “This is happening here, in Canada, and it has to stop.”
Trudeau said the country must come together to fight the “ugly, pervasive trend” of anti-Muslim violence.
Azeez, with the non-profit organization Humaniti, said those in the community are feeling “incredibly disheartened” and that this could happen to any of them. “How do we stop this? What do we do about this beyond talking, condolences and prayers?”
Ryerson University associate professor Tariq Amin-Khan said these attacks reflect Canada’s dissonance between how it prides itself on its tolerance and diversity and what happens to marginalized communities on the ground.
“Today it’s Muslims, yesterday it was Indigenous people, on a regular basis it’s Black folks. We’ve also had attacks on Jews and Sikhs.”
He noted that there are a number of white supremacist groups in the country and “not much has happened in terms of actions to curb their hate-filled activities.”
He recommends establishing laws to protect targeted communities.
‘Gems of our community’
Saboor Khan, a close friend of the Afzaal family, knew them not just through their involvement in the London community, but also through roots in Pakistan.
“We couldn’t believe that this happened here in London and it happened to them,” he told CBC.
“They’re the gems of our community,” Khan said, visibly distressed. “It’s heartbreaking to see that … it is still happening in Canada.”
Khan’s sister, wife and mother all wear the hijab, and as a result he says he genuinely fears for their safety and the safety of other Muslims following the attack.
“It’s a very uncomfortable situation, it’s not the same anymore.”
He says he hasn’t seen any practical solutions from any level of government, and noted that despite the Quebec City mosque shooting being considered a terrorist attack, the perpetrator was not charged with terrorism.
Moreover, soon after the shooting, Quebec introduced a bill to ban religious symbols, notably the hijab, something he said is not helpful.
“When folks at the leadership level are engaging with us in that manner, they’re giving legitimacy to these hate groups indirectly.”