By Saima Jamal, Jason Devine, and Amir Sharar

Whether we look at news stories, police reports, or personal anecdotes we can see that Islamophobia, the irrational fear of Muslims and Islam, is growing across North America. This toxic growth has been particularly acute here in Calgary. This city was already home to the neo-Nazi organisation Blood & Honour but it now has five other hate groups who are explicitly Islamophobic: The Canadian Combat Coalition (C3) Worldwide Coalition Against Islam (WCAI), Guardians of Alberta (GOA) who are a split of the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic group the Soldiers of Odin (SOO) and finally, the National Advancement Party of Canada (NAPC).

These groups have been vigorously spreading lies and misinformation about Islam. For example, they make the far-fetched claim that Muslims are taking over the Canadian Government to establish Islamic (Sharia) Law. They share propaganda that portrays the actions of fringe extremists as those of everyday Muslims. They have been promoting hatred against Muslims both online and in public rallies, by presenting Muslims as a danger to Canada and a drain on its resources. If you analyse these groups’ presence online you will see that they are also militaristic in tone, where they glorify violence and their members routinely joke about employing violence against Muslims as well as anti-fascist activists.

These groups claim that they are merely critiquing religion but an analysis of their online communications demonstrate that they are inherently anti-immigrant and deride all people of colour who they suspect of being Muslim. And this is crucial: Islamophobia does not merely affect Muslims but in fact all people who are perceived to be so by Islamophobes and anti-Muslim bigots.

Their long-term goal is the complete eradication of Islam but their short-term goal is to normalise Islamophobia in this nation, to make it an acceptable ideology among mainstream Canadians. This is where the immediate danger lies because of Islamophobia, represented by racism and bigotry, is presently the most organised and well-funded form of bigotry presently in North America. When Islamophobia is normalised, the conditions are created for violence to be invited and enacted against anyone who is perceived to be a Muslim and anyone who supports them. When the general population fears Muslims because they see Muslims (and their activist allies) as an existential threat, then the justification for violence is made much easier.

The explosion in the number of Islamophobic groups and supporters, and in the number of hate crimes, shows that this is no longer a fringe issue and we need to be prepared to counter it. The propagation of anti-Muslim and anti-Islam messages are pushed by “alternative news” outlets that are not beholden to ideals of journalistic integrity and accuracy. These news outlets provide extremist groups, like the ones previously mentioned, with ammunition to justify intolerance and violence.

To counter Islamophobia, we have seen various initiatives from Muslims like “open house” mosque tours, tea with Muslims, Iftar events that invite strangers and non-Muslim neighbours, distributing flowers with messages about Islam, feeding the homeless, volunteering in different community groups and community engagement in general. One would think that all these should be enough, but polling demonstrates that more needs to be done so we need to look at more innovative ways to fight Islamophobia. Countering anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, anti-Muslim propaganda pieces, and anti-Muslim influence on our politicians are unexplored areas that require serious consideration.

We propose that every Canadian need to have a basic knowledge of Islam to counter the dangerous misinformation extremist groups are propagating. This information needs to be spread in the forms of workshops run by knowledgeable imams, activists, and scholars for non-Muslims with the simple intention of how to correctly answer the myths and false information that Islamophobes share. These workshops should not be given as proselytising but as pure educational tools are given to Muslims and non-Muslims alike to be better prepared for conversations on topics where the fear of misunderstood topics like Sharia, unfounded insults levied against the Prophet Mohammad and misinterpreted and abused quotes from the Quran are challenged. Anti-Muslim narratives need to be challenged and so the next phase in combating Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry starts here.

The battle against racism and Islamophobia with education and exposure is still not enough. Reporting the groups to the media and police alone is not enough. We need wider community organising and public demonstrations of solidarity with Muslims. We cannot automatically assume that Canada is a country of acceptance, opportunity, and freedom because history has shown us that this has not always been the case. Every Canadian need to stand up to these this new flavour of self-righteous racists promoting anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigration sentiments. It is only then that we achieve a civilised society and a strong nation.