London, Ont. terror attack ignites calls for change

Muslim student community seeks greater safety and inclusion on campus

An array of dishes at a feast for Eid-al Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan. 

Wikimedia Commons (Supplied)

The Muslim community in Winnipeg has been thrown into a state of grief. On June 6 in London, ON, four members of the Afzaal family were killed by a driver who was targeting them because of their faith. 

For Abdul Ahad, the president of the University of Manitoba’s Muslim Students Association (MSA), the attack was yet another confirmation that Islamophobia is on the rise. In 2019, racially/ethnically-motivated and religiously-motivated hate crimes were the highest reported categories in the country, according to Statistics Canada 

“It’s really unfortunate to see the rise in Islamophobia,” Ahad says. “It’s a horror. It’s a shock. It actually (compromises) our safety.” 

Ahad says the MSA is actively looking towards solutions to make Muslim students feel safer on and off campus. While he says the University of Manitoba has implemented many programs and facilities—including a prayer room and community vigils—he says the MSA hopes to facilitate more cross-cultural gatherings to build understanding. 

For now, he says the MSA acted as a source of support for Muslim students who have been coping with the pain of the attack in London, ON. 

“Coming together is actually a source of comfort,” he says. 

Talia Taras, a human rights student at the University of Winnipeg, attests to the fact that religious discrimination has many faces—it can be at the micro level, just as it can be macro. 

In May, Taras wished to attend a webinar on community policing hosted by the University of Winnipeg—the problem, however, was that it fell on Eid al-Fitr, an Islamic holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. When she requested the date be changed to ensure interested Muslim students like herself would be able to attend, it was ultimately denied. 

The dates of Eid al Fitr are determined by the lunar cycle that guides the Islamic calendar. The University of Winnipeg’s calendar of religious holidays mistakenly lists Eid al Fitr as taking place from May 14 to 16, rather than the correct dates of May 12 to 13. A statement from Kevin Rosen, the University of Winnipeg’s executive director of marketing and communications, confirmed that the dates of Eid al Fitr were “inadvertently listed incorrectly” in the university’s online calendar, adding that they will “strive to have the calendar double checked and corrected going forward.” 

Still, Taras says there is no excuse. By hosting the webinar over Eid al-Fitr, she said it “disregarded vital additions to the dialogue concerning policing in our community.” It’s a pattern she says is linked to a double standard that exists when Muslim students wish to seek accomodation for religious holidays on campus. 

“We take two weeks off for Christmas when we’re done with exams for school. That does not seem to be extended to Muslim students who have to ... go out of their way to ask for accommodations,” Taras says. 

If campuses are to become safer and more welcoming to Muslim students, Ahad believes more dialogue and a culture of mutual understanding must be created on campus.

“It has to do with education, and it also has to do with awareness,” Ahad says. “The more we know about one another, the easier it is to peacefully exist on campus.” 

Taras says that the culture of the university as a whole must adapt to reflect one of inclusion. 

“In order for that culture to change, it’s not going to be the individual; it’s going to be the culture itself, and it has to be a mission for the university in total,” Taras says. 

“A lot of people have shown support in this time of grief,” Ahad says. “We hope this incident brings us together, not sets us apart.”

Published in Volume 75, Number 25 of The Uniter (May 20, 2021)

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