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November 25, 2009

Canadian Muslim woman attacked, politicians slow to condemn

Scott Stockdale

Scott StockdaleIn response to a recent attack on a Muslim woman, some 300 people filled the auditorium for a public presentation at The Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration, in London, Ontario last Sunday.

The Canadian Charger was there.

On the previous Sunday morning, a woman had her head covering torn off and was pelted with anti-Arab slurs during an attempted stabbing. London police are treating as a hate crime.

The suspect who attacked the 52-year-old woman made comments referring to Arabs and terrorism, after pulling off and tearing her attire, police said.

The woman entered an elevator in an apartment building just after 11 a.m. Sunday when a man she didn't know stabbed at her with an unidentified object, piercing her clothing, police said.

He then pulled off her head covering, police said, and tore it with the weapon.  "The suspect said something like 'you Arab terrorist,' " said Constable Marcel Marcellin, the London police force's diversity officer.

Prime Minster Stephen Harper did not condemn the attack.

But Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley told the audience at the Sunday event in London, Ontario that his colleagues from all political parties are united against hate crime for any reason, whether it be a person's background, dress, religion, color of skin or sexual orientation.

“Rules and laws exist and they will be applied,” Mr. Bentley said. “We must be forever vigilant against those who speak hate. The community is based on respect for everyone. This issue strikes at the foundation of the community, province and country.”

In her keynote address, Saleha Khan, chair of the Muslim Resource Centre, said the key element of a hate crime is motivation: a person or group are victimized because of who or what they are.  She said hate crimes are part of a continuum of hate.

“We're all capable of strongly disliking someone. Am I going to act out on it and take away someone else’s right to enjoy his or her life? At this point it's no longer a thought: it gets verbalized or acted out. I'm supposed to be able to walk down the street and feel safe. I have a right to safety. Some people feel I don't belong here.”

Because hate crimes are generally committed by strangers, a hate crime is an attack on a person's or a group's identity, Khan said. It leaves the whole community feeling vulnerable because “Anyone who looks like that could be attacked.”

This can lead to heightened isolation and feelings of vulnerability and stress for the whole community. She added that hate crimes can also lead to intra or inter-community conflict.

Rather than feel insecure about being the victims or potential victims of hate crimes, Khan told the audience that they need to find out what they can do for themselves.

“We need to ensure that victims will report hate crimes. We need to have a strong relationship with the police services. We need to call them (police) and ask what we can do.”

Meanwhile, she offered some advice of her own to those who have or may be victimized by hate crimes.

“If you feel unsafe, document it. Talk to your family about it. If you're in a mall, talk to the security guard. Take a picture with your cell phone. People who are going to commit hate crimes always have a history behind it. They're acting on hate they can't contain anymore.”

In response to a question from an audience member about how to protect children from hate crimes, Khan said parents need to be engaged in the school system. They can do this by going to school events and making people aware of who they are and what they do.

“Be proud of who you are and be strong in your identity,” Sister Khan said.  And if you're aware of racial bullying, Khan said to talk to the school administrator; and if you don't get satisfaction, talk to a school trustee and then the police.  She added that most of the time, crime in schools is not reported to the police.

Constable Marcellin told the audience that hate crimes impact more severely than non-hate crimes because they extend to the group, other vulnerable groups, and the entire community and police need the cooperation of the community in order to solve these crimes.

He said the London police hate crime unit received reports of 44 hate crimes in 2008, six of which were against Muslims.

As of September 30, 2009, London police have received reports of 29 hate crimes, three of these against Muslims.

In each of these years, Muslims reported the least number of hate crimes of the groups being targeted, Constable Marcellin said.  Of course, there are no statistics available for hate crimes that go unreported.

Khan said one hate crime is one too many. She advised people – particularly women – to be aware of their surroundings and to trust their instincts.

“If you feel uncomfortable, stay inside. Call someone.”

Meanwhile, Constable Marcellin said the investigation into the attack on the Muslim woman is ongoing.

The suspect is described as a white man between 30 and 35, standing 5'7'' and wearing a black leather jacket and black toque.

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto

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