Barâa Arar discusses her personal experiences as a Canadian Muslim and activist at the frontline of the Muslim ban and Alexandre Bissonnette’s trial
On the morning of January 29th, 2017, I prepared a few words to share at the “No Muslim Ban” rally planned for the following day at American Embassy in Ottawa. Only weeks earlier, as a Canadian travelling through the United States, I had been harassed by Homeland security for over three hours at JFK airport. I had only tasted a glimpse of the discomfort those who were stranded by Donald Trump’s executive order felt and I wanted to show my solidarity. As a Muslim and an activist, I knew the ban is not simply policy; it functioned as an endorsement of anti-Muslim hate.
Little did I know, by the end of that day, along with the rest of world, I would witness the horrific consequences of xenophobic rhetoric.
On January 30th, I stood in front of a crowd who organized around one cause, but now rallied for another. We planned to show our support for refugees, migrants, and others impacted by the Muslim ban. But inevitably, our minds were riddled with questions about the shooting from the previous night. I had never stood in front of a more somber and more heartbroken crowd of people. I held back tears as I started the very little I managed to scramble together: “I have no words, and yet, I have many.”
How could I begin to explain what it felt like to be a Muslim in Canada that day? How can I begin to utter how unsafe and confused I felt? How could I, as a woman in Hijab, take the bus, wait in line for a coffee, or walk through campus without viscerally feeling the heinous attack on my community? Everything I said seemed like an empty platitude. There would be no words, never the right words, to describe the heaviness in my heart knowing worshippers were targeted simply because they were Muslim.
Yet, a naïve part of me wanted to believe the Muslim ban was unrelated to the horrific and fatal attack at the mosque. A part of me wanted to retain a blind belief that hate’s consequences could not be so immediate, so life-shattering, and so paralyzing to my community.
However, the devastating reality, as it is being revealed to us at Bissonette’s trial, is his motivations directly stemmed from his consumption of Islamophobic and anti-immigration discourse. In his own words: “I was watching TV and I learned that the Canadian government was going to take more refugees, you know, who couldn’t go to the United States, and they were coming here.” He continues: “I saw that and I, like, lost my mind. It was then that I decided it was time to go.”
On January 29th, 2017 Islamophobia killed.
Likewise, when Darren Osborne, the man who drove a van into a crowd of Muslim worshippers in England last year, was being tried, the Crown heard how his obsession with Muslims prompted him to start binge far-right material online. Police characterized him as becoming brainwashed by such content. The trial judge stated his attack on innocent worshippers is a translation of his “ideology of hate towards Muslims.”
On June 19th 2017, on the other side of the Atlantic, Islamophobia killed.
Without a shadow of doubt, in both these instance, we saw how words are not “just words,” and policy is not “just policy.”
Bissonnette’s behavior was influenced by a bombardment of anti-Muslim rhetoric he consumed from pundits like Alex Jones and Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter. The nativity that sheltered me from complete pessimism was blown open. As I follow the Bissonnette trial, now on its seventh day, my worst fears are confirmed. Words were not just words. Words led to actions – hateful action. And those actions made of women widows and of children orphans.
Just I was glued to my Twitter feed on the night of January 29th, I continue to be deeply invested in the proceedings. I wish I could worry about normal things, like writing my papers or finishing my grad school applications. But instead, I cannot stop thinking – what if it was me? What if it was my father? What if this happens again? Although, the Canadian community mourned with an outpouring of vigils and donations, the Islamophobic climate that produced Bissonnette has not suddenly lifted.
The testimonies of the widows and the survivors are harrowing. I do not read them to feel defeated. Instead, I read them to be find hope to move on from this unspeakable tragedy. The words of survivors like Hakim Chambaz and Saïd El-Amari, and of family members like Megda Belkacemi, among others, are the voices of resilience and rebuilding.
They are the voices of “never again.”
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Barâa Arar studies Humanities at Carleton University in Canada. She co- hosts The Watering Hole Podcast where she tells many of her tales. You can find more of her work on her website livewellspoken.comor on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: @livewellspoken.