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Muslim Canucks deal with stereotypes 10 years after 9/11

Gilary Massa's high school art class began buzzing with speculation the day a student rushed in to announce that "somebody bombed America." Amid her horror Massa had one hope which proved to be in vain — that the perpetrators wouldn't be Muslim.

From the safety of her home, she heard the frantic phone calls to American relatives who feared being seen in public. Massa's mother tried forbidding her hijab-clad daughter from returning to school for fear of the persecution she might face.

Massa overruled her mother, but found the Toronto classroom she returned to was not the same one she left on Sept. 11, 2001.

Classmates badgered her with questions about her faith, setting the stage for a pattern of behaviour she would witness time and again over the next decade.

"I automatically had to start justifying myself and talking about my beliefs and denouncing what had happened," Massa said.

"It was a weird thing to have to prove that I didn't agree with the actions of 9-11. What person in their right mind would agree with the bombing of innocent people? It was interesting to me that all of a sudden I was having to actually convince people that, no, I didn't know Osama Bin Laden, he was not my leader, I didn't agree with his actions."

Massa said she was never able to relax that defensive stance over the next 10 years, since stereotypical ideas that took root in the days after 9-11 never abated.

Safa Ali was forced to the same realization after encountering a sign of overt racism she had never witnessed before the collapse of the World Trade Center's twin towers. Her entire family had their passports flagged for no apparent reason, she said, adding the alerts remain in place to this day.

Airport staff treated the family with veiled hostility in the months following 9-11, reserving the bulk of their skepticism for Ali's father and brother, she said. She herself came under attack from a friend's grandfather who had no qualms about bashing her religion and launching a conversion attempt.

Such blatant racism has subsided, but the stereotypes that drove such actions in the past — such as the notion that all Muslim women are oppressed and all believers in the faith are prone to violence — appear to have become more firmly entrenched in society's consciousness, she said.

"When people talk about it, it's almost taken as a given now. There's no need to say it out loud or be aggressive about it," Ali said. "It comes from a place of, you could call it empathy, because they're saying, 'Oh, those poor women and all those poor girls.' But if you dig deeper it comes from this opinion that there's just one way that the majority of people are and it's so sad that they're like that."

Stereotypical thinking gave Yousaf Khan a scare in the summer of 2006 when several of his former classmates were arrested as part of the infamous Toronto 18.

The suspects were dubbed Canada's first homegrown post-9-11 terrorist network when they were arrested in 2006 amid headline-grabbing allegations of a plot to target landmarks in Toronto and Ottawa, behead the prime minister and attack the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Eleven of the men served jail time, while the remaining seven had their charges dropped or stayed.

Khan, 27, had enjoyed nothing but positive experiences with Canadians since arriving in Ontario in 2000, but feared the spectre of a home-grown terrorism network would infringe on his daily life.

Fortunately for Khan, that fear proved groundless in each of the three provinces he's called home, including his current city of Edmonton. The experience, however, did force him to ponder the complex dynamics at play in Canada's Muslim community.

His former schoolmates who turned extremist were driven by a powerful sense of isolation and humiliation, he said, adding their views were fuelled by turbulent politics in the Middle East combined with subtle snubs at home.

Khan and his friends, however, took a different path. The tragedy of Sept. 11 proved beyond a doubt that fundamentalist doctrine had no place in mainstream society, he said.

"From what I've seen amongst my own friends ... before, they might have had some kind of sympathy with Osama Bin Laden and everybody else," he said. "Seeing that there's absolutely no success, there's absolutely no divine support, I have to think the sympathy for him has completely waned away."

Questions of identity also dogged Ali and Massa as they came of age in the post-911 era.

Ali said she questioned her faith more critically in her teens and now calls her belief in Islam a "more salient" part of her identity.

The issue runs even deeper for Massa, who said the systemic distrust of Islam she believes has crept into Canadian culture has made her question the relationship between the religion she practices and the country she calls home.

Massa feels particularly threatened by legislation banning traditional Islamic attire, such as a proposed bill in Quebec that seeks to ban the use of the face-covering burka or niqab when providing or receiving public services.

The law — which has languished in Quebec's National Assembly for months — would ban women from receiving government services while wearing the burka or niqab, which cover the face. Some Quebec legislators want the proposed ban extended to all religious symbols, such as the Sikh ceremonial dagger known as the kirpan.

Such attitudes trouble Massa.

"What exactly is Canadian identity? I thought it was about being Canadian and being able to continue your religious or cultural traditions and having the freedom to do that," she said.

"Those sorts of things are slowly being taken away. It's a small minority of my community that is under fire right now, but I fear that those types of things will be extended."

Not all Muslims have felt the sting of victimization.

Amir Shahzada, a Toronto cab driver who moved to Canada in 2002, said he has never experienced discrimination during his time in North America.

"I'm driving a cab for almost five, six, seven years, and I have a lot of people, different mentality people ... They are very good," he said.

Sohail Raza, president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, says any tensions that exist can be traced back to the Muslim community rather than the rest of Canada.

Mosque leaders have capitalized on the notion of Islamophobia, convincing Muslims they are under attack and driving the community towards fundamentalism, he said.

"I'm free to critique Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, but why am I not able to take any critique on myself?" he said. "(Mosque leaders) get away with that. They play with the human rights issue. They play with freedom of speech. They have infiltrated institutions just to harm Canada."

Massa disagrees, saying the post-9-11 years have encouraged more Muslims to educate themselves on the tenets of their religion and question teachings handed down from family members or community leaders.

Still, she said, Muslims should be allowed to grapple with identity questions and sort out their internal differences without judgment or interference from the rest of Canada.

"I'm the first person to criticize the actions of my own community, but I think that is a discussion we have to have as a community."

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