Alex Gillis

Professors Edward Schatz and Aisha Ahmad didn’t create the Islam and Global Affairs Initiative primarily to address Islamophobia, but a spike in hate crimes and rhetoric in Canada, as well as the U.S. ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries, sparked outrage and protests.

As co-directors, they started the initiative in 2016 within the Munk School of Global Affairs as an interdisciplinary network of about 30 U of T scholars who cover issues related to Islam and world affairs. And they organize events about pressing, contemporary issues, including one on February 15 called “The Muslim Ban: Trump’s First Legal, Political and Security Crisis of 2017.

“The number of hate crimes in Canada has increased dramatically since the November U.S. presidential election,” Schatz says. He explains that Islamophobia south of the border has emboldened people in Canada to express racist, hateful ideas. Protests against this bigotry have also risen.

“Our work is important because of the increase of hatred and rhetoric directed against Muslim communities and especially because of the silence among those who want to defend Muslim communities or defend values like free speech,” Schatz says.

The Islam and Global Affairs Initiative also organizes events about other contemporary issues, including the evolution of jihadist organizations, the question of gender and sexuality in Islam and the effect of refugee flows in provoking xenophobic backlashes – events that provide deep analysis on political and security questions. The events and supportive networks they foster are particularly important in Canada, where, in tandem with a rise in Islamophobia, there has been a spike in hate crimes and a five-fold increase in the number of asylum seekers crossing from the U.S. to Canada, according to the Canadian Border Services Agency.

“We’re of two minds in Canada,” Schatz explains. “We’re appalled by Islamophobia on the one hand, but on the other hand we like to think we’re better or more humane than Americans, which leads to complacency.” He’s glad that Canadians are protesting and speaking out more.

“Borders are porous,” Schatz says. “Hatred crosses borders. It can inspire lone-wolf types to act on their impulses, as we saw with the massacre at the Quebec City mosque.” Six people were murdered and 19 injured when a man opened fire on the mosque on January 29. “In this context, people have to work to remain humane,” Schatz says. “No society is immune from Islamophobic messages. Everyone must be involved to counter hateful rhetoric and hate crimes.”

Schatz points to Canadian politicians who have escalated Islamophobia beyond the shocking comments about niqabs and Islam that Canadians heard during the last federal election. “The new populism has a racist element while denying that it’s racist,” he explains. “These days, calling for ‘values-based’ screening of immigrants, for example, is Islamophobic and has clear links to events south of the border.”

He says that an inquiry into Islamophobia by the Canadian government is long overdue and says that more people are taking to the streets and posting on social media to voice their opinions on Islamophobia and violence.

“Students are curious, concerned and outraged,” Schatz says, adding that more events are being organized at U of T, including Anti-Islamophobia Week” on February 13-17, hosted by the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

“Hateful and immoral behaviour shouldn’t be met with silence,” Schatz says.

February 14, 2017