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Islamophobia hotline to help victims of anti-Muslim hate crimes in Canada

Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline will offer free advice to victims of anti-Muslim incidents that are on the rise across Canada
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets onlookers in the Hall of Honor (AFP)

TORONTO, Canada - Legal and civil society groups in British Columbia have launched a confidential hotline offering free legal advice to anyone targeted by anti-Muslim discrimination or hate crimes, which organisers say are on the rise across Canada.

Anyone that experiences incidents related to Islamophobia in the province can call in to the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline for advice and information, explained Hasan Alam, a Vancouver-based lawyer who helped set up the service.

The hotline will be coordinated through the Access Pro Bono Society of British Columbia, a group that helps people obtain free legal aid, and services will be offered in seven languages, Alam said: English, French, Arabic, Indonesian, Farsi, Punjabi, Swahili and Urdu.

“A lot of people don’t know where to turn to for help when they’re victims of Islamophobia. Some people are afraid to reach out to law enforcement agencies because a lot of people affected by Islamophobia are new immigrants, don’t speak much English, and have precarious citizenship status,” Alam told Middle East Eye.

He said he hopes the confidential nature of the hotline will encourage people to speak up when they face anti-Muslim bigotry. Documenting these instances can also help pressure the provincial and federal governments to do more.

“I think Islamophobia is very prevalent, but unfortunately it goes unreported,” Alam said. “If we keep presenting this sort of rosy picture of Canada, we’re never going to get to the underlying racism that is happening here.”

Anti-Muslim hate crimes increasing

Seventeen percent fewer hate crimes were reported to police in 2013 compared to the previous year, according to the latest data released by Statistics Canada. But 20 additional incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes were reported in that same period, marking a 44 percent increase from 2012 to 2013.

The data also showed that most anti-Muslim hate crime victims between 2010-2013 were women, likely owing to Muslim women’s head coverings, such as the hijab, which make their religion readily known.

“That is a very significant increase,” said Amira Elghawaby, communications director for the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), an advocacy and support group that tracks anti-Muslim incidents across Canada.

Elghawaby told Middle East Eye that NCCM has documented what appears to be a rise in anti-Muslim hate incidents and alleged hate crimes, and these incidents tend to spike when Muslims are negatively portrayed in the media or in relation to national or international events.

The deadly attacks in Paris and the heated debate around a Muslim woman’s right to wear a face veil during Canadian citizenship ceremonies, a topic that dominated Canada’s federal election campaign last Fall, are examples of this, she said.

“It seems that when Islam and Muslims are being negatively portrayed or implicated in any kind of negative event that, unfortunately, we see on the streets that there may be an increase in attacks,” Elghawaby said.

In November last year, a mosque in Peterborough, Ontario, was set on fire in what authorities investigated as a hate crime. A firebomb was placed near one of the windows at Masjid Al-Salaam, the town’s only mosque, one day after the Paris attacks.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “deeply disturbed” by the incident. “Muslim-Canadians contribute enormously to the social and economic fabric of our nation, and Canadian authorities will not abide innocent and peaceful citizens being targeted by acts of vandalism and intolerance,” he said in a statement.

‘Not just a silent victim’

Several other examples of Islamophobic attacks received media attention in Canada in the past year.

Last September, a pregnant woman had her headscarf ripped off by two teenagers as she waited to pick up her daughter from a Montreal-area school. Oumessad Khoufache, 31, fell to the ground during the attack.

A group of newly arrived Syrian refugees was pepper-sprayed outside the Muslim Association of Canada Centre in Vancouver after attending a welcome event in early January. About 30 men, women and children received medical treatment after a man on a bicycle pepper-sprayed the crowd.

“I condemn the attack on Syrian refugees in Vancouver. This isn't who we are - and doesn't reflect the warm welcome Canadians have offered,” Trudeau tweeted at the time.

Also in January, the mayor of Vancouver apologised to three British tourists after their photos were distributed by local police – and published by local media – after they were said to exhibit “suspicious behaviour” at a downtown shopping mall.

Mohammed Sharaz, his friend and his teenage son were deemed suspicious after they were seen taking photos and videos inside the mall. Sharaz’s son and friend have visual impairments so they take photos to be able to zoom in on them later, CTV News reported.

Elghawaby said she encouraged people to report instances of anti-Muslim attacks to police and to groups like the NCCM, even if they are unsure that what happened to them was motivated by racism.

“It matters,” she said. “Sometimes people call us and submit reports knowing that … there may not be any consequences for the perpetrator, but just feeling that, you know what, I reported it, I told police about it. It’s now on the map. I’m not just a silent victim in this.”

Widespread support

A wide swath of legal and advocacy groups in British Columbia have come out in support of the Islamophobia hotline, including the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, the South Asian Bar Association of British Columbia, the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers – Western Chapter, and others.

Alam said this outpouring of support makes sense because Islamophobia doesn’t just affect Muslims, but all people of colour experiencing racism and discrimination in Canada.

“Due to the ignorance and bigotry which is behind Islamophobia, people such as Sikhs who wear a turban or have a beard are targeted, as well. All brown bodies are under threat from Islamophobia because the racism doesn’t differentiate. The racism isn’t based on any sort of real logic; it’s racism,” he said.

Alam said he’s received calls from people in Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto and New York asking how they can set up similar hotlines. “We really hope that this is an initiative that’s going to spread,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate that there’s a need for this,” Alam added, “but it also speaks to the fact that Islamophobia is real, that it exists within different provinces throughout Canada and that people are seeking a remedy or a legal recourse to deal with this.”

You can call the Islamophobia Hotline at (604) 343-3828.

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