After the Human Shield

“When we are tempted to group people into categories, let us fight that temptation, and get to know our friends instead. Let us challenge the instinct to judge.”

The week since the shooting of Muslim men in Sainte-Foy has been surreal for Canadians from coast to coast to coast, trying to make sense of the impact of this attack on our social fabric.

I needed time to process what the shock of the Jan. 29 brutal murder of six Muslims and the injury of another 18 meant for me and all Canadians throughout this vast country. I tried to truly understand the implications of deliberate targeting of praying Muslims in places of worship, places that are oases of peaceful reflection and connection between the Creator and the faithful.

Frustrated by the headlines that were springing up in the wake of the shootings, I decided to collaborate with my friend Jeeshan Chowdhury, who proposed organizing events throughout the country to mobilize our communities and protect our mosques.

Within less than 12 hours of the horrific attack, events started springing up throughout the country, including in my hometown of St. John’s, where community members were organizing to show solidarity with, and support for, our Muslim communities. A friend organized an event in Victoria, then others planned their own events in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City, Montreal, Halifax, and Iqaluit. We can’t take credit for all or any of these, but we were moved by the mobilization that took place in such a short time.

In St. John’s, my friend and human rights activist, lawyer Gobhina Nagarajah, took to traditional and social media to organize what turned out to be a heartwarming gathering of thousands; it was inspiring to see her generosity of spirit, empathy, and drive to make things better by bringing us together.

On Friday—the day three of the six murdered men were buried in Quebec City—over a thousand people surrounded the Masjid-an-Noor Mosque in St. John’s to form a symbolic “human shield” around the building as members of the local Muslim community prayed inside. Thousands of others who joined in via live streams broadcast by CBC and The Independent, in their workplaces, classrooms, homes, airports, and while waiting in lines at stores.

Photo courtesy Daniel Smith.
Photo by Daniel Smith.

It was all surreal and beautiful — people gathering simply to show Muslim community members that our communities have no room for hatred, and that regardless of our religious background, we all belong.

Muslims, non-Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, countless other faithful, atheists, agnostics, gay, lesbian, transgendered, and queer community members, women and men of all ages and backgrounds, Indigenous friends and neighbours, community members in wheelchairs, children and parents, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, politicians and community activists, labour leaders and business owners, public servants and staff of community organizations. We all stood there, surrounding our mosque in a symbolic stance of protection, to indicate to haters our pledge not to be silent, but to speak up whenever our community members are marginalized and ostracized.

Photo courtesy Daniel Smith.
Photo by Daniel Smith.

As St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe eloquently summed up, “We are a community of communities.” An attack on one of our communities was an attack on all our communities. It was a healing experience, both for our Muslim friends, but also the rest of our community members disgusted by the audacity of one hater who tried to break up our cohesion, to weaken our respect for one another, to sow the seeds of fear in our society.

Photo courtesy Fatimah Rathore.
Photo by Fatimah Rathore.

As I arrived to the event, carpooling friends there, I couldn’t believe the sight before my eyes: Hundreds of people walking for nearly a mile to get to the mosque. Hundreds of people who had to park far away because all the nearby spots were taken; busloads of students being dropped off from the various schools in the city and surrounding areas; long lines of taxis and buses dropping off children and adults with handmade posters and signs, bouquets of flowers and cards with sweet messages, none of them negative, all of them colourful.

By the entrance to the mosque, children offered people in line a Timbit. Rocket Bakery, whose co-owners made a point to very visibly express their support to the community, served hot drinks. It was a mild, wintry afternoon, as the event began, and the sun made all of us feel the warmth of unity. In an odd but beautiful coincidence—and some might say, divine intervention—inclement weather and winds held off until the end of the event.

Our politicians and community leaders spoke in support of diversity, respect, and equality of our communities.

Photo courtesy Remzi Cej.
Human Shield St. John’s organizer Gobhina Nagarajah. Photo by Remzi Cej.

Gobhina reminded us to match our words with actions: When we talk about support for inclusivity and diversity, we must also live that commitment on a daily basis.

What really inspired me were the crowds that just didn’t want to leave, despite the cold. The mothers with daughters who had drawn their signs together and stood together with strangers to remind community members that they loved them; the coworkers who hugged one another repeatedly because this event brought them closer together; fellow Muslim women and men who thanked their new friends as they came in and left the Friday prayers; the children who witnessed it all; and the students who tuned in through their classrooms.

It was a lesson for all of us that hope, optimism, empathy, and care for one another is good for all of us, not only the members of the communities for whom we express these things. How beautiful that teachers, coworkers and community members found this moment to express their sorrow with one another. Colleagues and my employer joined the effort as well, some attending in person, others joining online.

As I ran back to my car, and the flurries and wind blew in my direction, I came across Burke, Tilak, and Maggie, local settlement agency staff and friends who approached two new Canadian women who were walking back from the event in the snow, far from where they lived. The three of them helped the women get home, using gestures to understand one another, always smiling and being kind. It reminded me of the wonderful people who bring meaning to community.

So, what now?

This reassurance of empathy is wonderful. It is also a reminder that all our community members should feel safe and supported at all times. Friday’s event provides an opportunity for each and every one of us to call the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, speak with our Muslim friends, borrow books from libraries, check out informational websites, and, if you’ve always been curious, read the Qur’an — the best way to fight ignorance, prejudice, and discrimination, both within us and our social and professional circles, is to be more knowledgeable about the issues in our society.

Islamophobia is unfortunately one of those pressing issues. Before you prejudge and categorize Muslims, why not meet one? You will most likely find out that Muslims care about the same issues you’re worried about: sending children to school, finding babysitters, caring about aging family members, worrying about their own health, feeling respected by their peers and colleagues. If you have views on Islam, why not discuss them with Muslims? Having dissenting views on ideas propounded by Islam is not Islamophobic; assuming all 1.6 billion Muslims are violent and dangerous is. So is assuming that a woman wearing a headscarf is dangerous to our democracy.

Photo courtesy Daniel Smith.
Photo courtesy Daniel Smith.

The temptation to categorize Muslims as dangerous to our security will become greater as some people try to break our social fabric apart; we must resist these temptations and challenge our own assumptions at all times. All this is valid for any diverse groups in our society, including other religious and cultural minorities, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ community members, women, and persons with disabilities. When we are tempted to group people into categories, let us fight that temptation, and get to know our friends instead. Let us challenge the instinct to judge.

Photo courtesy Remzi Cej.
Photo courtesy Remzi Cej.

I carry a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt in my notebook wherever I go. It speaks to our individual obligation to ensure that a better world begins with us and the people around us.

Her words are a fitting conclusion to my thoughts about the importance of the Human Shield rally, and future efforts we ought to make for one another — that a harmonious society is one of respect and care for one another:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

More photos from the Human Shield Rally in St. John’s. Click to englarge:

Remzi Cej chairs the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission, works for the provincial government, and volunteers with Amnesty International Canada and Passages Canada. His interests range from public policy to human rights and social innovation. Remzi has a passion for subtitled movies, bowties, and moose tajine, and often spends weekends experimenting in the kitchen. He bursts into instant laughter at the sight of “misused” quotation marks.

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