By Fatima Nafm
Shereen Al Tamimi dreads the end-of-day bell at the North York Islamic school where her mother teaches Arabic.
Outside the school, she knows the car will be parked, its passengers waiting patiently to harass the school teachers.
Sometimes they stare silently, sometimes they call out ‘terrorist,’ and once one of the cars followed them part of the way home.
The car drew alongside at the traffic lights and a “middle-aged, white-Canadian man” rolled down the window, and thrust out his fist with the middle finger raised.
“She stands out as a symbol of Islam because she wears the hijab, works in an Islamic school, and (so) is an easy target,” said Al Tamimi, whose mother asked not to be named. “My mother was scared and she considered that she should stop teaching at an Islamic school.”
Al Tamimi, who immigrated to Canada from Saudi Arabia with her parents eight years ago has not had to deal with discrimination since 9/11 herself. She jokes that she has her form-fitting jeans, exposed hair and fair complexion to thank for that.
As executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation, Audrey Jamal documented an alarming increase in hate crimes after the Twin Towers were toppled in 2001.
“The phones started ringing off the hook (after Sept. 11), about once incident after another,” she said. “Women were upset about being heckled at because they wore the hijab and in one incident, a woman’s hijab was pulled off in an elevator.”
In a report released in September, Statistics Canada noted that 20 per cent of visible minorities aged 15 and over said they had been victims of racism in the last five years. For Arabs and Muslims incidents of discrimination intensified after Sept. 11, 2001.
Three years later, more subtle forms of racism have emerged out of society’s fear that “all Muslims are terrorists,” said Jamal.
The Canadian Arab Federation has been registering ‘disturbing’ complaints about men being asked to change “obviously Muslim-sounding names like Mohammed” on their business cards. Children are asking parents if they can change ethnic-sounding names to Canadian-sounding ones after being teased in school yards.
Sociology professor Mustafa Koc knows how a name can have an effect on the way society stereotypes a person.
“Right after 9/11, I was enjoying my wine at a faculty wine and cheese event, when a colleague came up to me and said ‘you’re not allowed to do that in your religion,’” he said. “Overnight I had been transformed from a loud-mouthed sociologist into a Muslim in his eyes.”
Al Tamimi blames the treatment of Muslims, Arabs and those members of visible minorities who appear to share their background on American foreign policy.
“When you go declaring a war on terrorism and then say only Arab and Muslim countries are responsible for those acts, then you are implicating all the nationals of those countries and anyone who can be pointed out as having anything to do with these countries,” she said.
The stereotyping of persons who appear to be of Muslim, Middle Eastern or South Asian origin has severe implications on the lives of the 3 million visible minorities in Canada.
The magnitude of the paranoia that casts Muslims, and those who appear to be Muslim or Arab, in the role of possible security threats can be felt in ethnic profiling at the U.S.-Canada border.
When she joined the Ryerson Debate Team, Jeanne Sumbu didn’t think the first case she’d have to argue was her own.
Seven debaters were in a van headed for Harvard University’s annual debate tournament when they pulled up at an American border check point in Buffalo last month.
Two of them had forgotten to take their passports along and one of them was a person of colour.
“I couldn’t believe the questions that only I was getting,” Sumbu, a second-year student in Ryerson’s radio and television arts program, said. “It was humiliating. Why was it okay for a white person not to have a passport and a crime for me not to be carrying one?”
after he had scrutinized her driver’s license the border official asked Sumbu where she was born and how long she had lived in Canada.
“My family has lived in Nova Scotia for two hundred years, and he was lumping me in with people from countries being profiled right now,” she said. “I was offended and angry because I thought only Muslim or Arab people were being singled out, but I was picked on as the only non-white person and that proves anyone can get profiled.”
Sumbu is used to people guessing at her ethnicity because she is a light-skinned black person but the encounter with the immigration official was the first time she felt targeted because of it.”
Americans use racial profiling “because it works,” said John Thompson, president of the Mackenzie Institute, a think-tank in foreign policy issues.
Even though the Muslim world boasts a diversity of races, from blue-eyed and blonde-haired Muslims to black Afircans, because the terrorist from Sept. 11 “were Muslim men from a quartet of countries” the U.S. is focusing on Arab males, Thompson said.
“The need for racial profiling [at the border] and our distaste for it is something that we’ll have to reconcile,” he said. Thompson addressed the issue recently at a seminar on Canadian public policy issues at Toronto’s Sheraton Centre.
“We’ve got to create intelligence networks without trampling the rights of the law abiding,” he said.
An intelligent system would identify and exclude those who do not fit the profile from scrutiny.
Sikhs, for example, are neither Arab not Muslim but some Sikh students say law enforcers see their beards and turbans as enough evidence to link them to the terrorist group Al Qaeda.
Karanjeet Singh was in Los Angeles as part of a Ryerson team competing in an international model airplane building competition.
Singh says he was subjected to “discriminatory treatment” at the airport.
“I was the only one being pulled aside for questioning, and I am the only one with a beard and a turban,” he said.
Jagraj Singh’s run-in with racism post 9/11 has been confined to comments he’s gotten walking around downtown.
He prefers not to take it personally.
“I have been called ‘Osama’ a bunch of times and you can get angry about it, or you can accept that prejudice exists, and it will show up like that,” he said.
“You’re on the FBI most wanted list,” isn’t what Akil Nasser expected to hear when he tried to board a plane from Montreal to Toronto.
Nasser, a technology consultant who works for Accenture, rolled his eyes when the attendant handed him over to four police officers.
“Then, I thought, it’s better to be cooperative, and to avoid a scene,” Nasser said. “I was also feeling self-conscious because I hadn’t shaved that day and I am aware of the stereotype of disheveled, bearded terrorists.”
One officer said, “sometimes a name match is a mistake because we only get a partial name match.”
But a mistake can mean a person singled out as a potential security threat could be arrested and deported to a country where the regime believes in torture, as Syrian-born Canadian Maher Arar found.
He was first detained by U.S. authorities in September, 2002. He was changing planes in New York, en route to Canada after vacationing with his family in Tunisia. Arar was accused of having ties with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network and deported to Syria when he hadn’t lived in Syria for more than 15 years.
The Syrian government released him last month, explaining that they had held onto Arar as a favour to Washington.
The American government shot back that U.S. authorities had acted on information given to them by Canadian intelligence services.
The evidence against Arar has outraged civil liberties groups in Canada. The case against him appears to have been based on Arar’s 1997 rental lease agreement which was witnessed by Abdullah Alalki, a Syrian-Canadian who, Americans suspect, is Al Qaeda operative.
According to them Arar was declared guilty by association.
Following the furor over the case, the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP began an investigation.
In Nasser’s case, it turned out flagging him had been a mistake.
There was a man on the FBI most wanted list, but his first name was not Akil and his last name was Al-Nasser.
“I keep traveling to a minimum now, in the current climate of uncertainty, freedom of movement has been usurped from you,” said Nasser. “You can travel but there are consequences.”
“Right now, you can be arrested just for being Muslim,” said Uzma Shakir, Toronto activist and director of the Council of Agencies serving South Asians.
On Nov. 18, the last of 21 Pakistani students being held under a federal investigation were released. They were taken into custody on Aug. 14 in a pre-dawn raid and held under anti-terrorism measures adopted after Sept. 11, 2001.
In October, immigration officials admitted they didn’t have evidence to justify detaining the students. Since then, 10 of the detainees have been ordered out of the country on immigration violations.
The rest are out on bail, seeking refugee in status in Canada because they believe the terrorism allegations will endanger their lives in Pakistan.
Last week, the Canadian Islamic Congress started distributing flyers in mosques that recommend Canada’s 600,000 Muslims memorize their lawyers’ phone numbers and avoid traveling to the U.S., as a safety measure.
Some blame the passing of the American Patriot Act, which allows law enforcement agents to question and indefinitely detain persons who are perceived to pose a threat to national security. Canada has its version of the Act in Bill C-36.
“The real issue is balancing civil liberties with national security,” said politics professor Michael Burke. “Whenever there has been reactionary legislation empowering law enforcers, it has led to civil liberties being trampled.”
Canada’s policy makers have succumbed to pressure from the White House to align their policies with American ones, Burke said, calling it a mistake.
“There needs to be a more considered response,” said Burke. “We need to examine the consequences of this kind of legislation on the rights of Canadians who are of Arab or Muslim origin.
“(Until then) civil liberties in Canada will continue to be trampled on,” he said.
With files from Jonathan Colford.