By Andrew Ehrkamp
News Editor

Sadique Pathan is a faith leader at the historic Al-Rashid Mosque, which serves the more than 80,000 Muslims in Edmonton, but even he’s not immune from Islamophobia.

Most times it’s subtle – a smirk, disrespect, or swearing. Other times it can be much more obvious.

“I work in social work and I’ve had clients refuse to work with me,” said Pathan, a behavioural health consultant and the outreach imam at the Al-Rashid, which, in 1938, was the first mosque built in Canada. 

“One in particular said to me ‘Because you are Muslim you must be like the people in Afghanistan and you don’t believe in women’s rights.’ I looked at her and I was absolutely baffled.”

Pathan spoke out against Islamophobia on the sidelines of an Aug. 28 meeting with Archbishop Richard Smith, in Edmonton, to promote understanding and forge partnerships between Catholics and Muslims. 

Hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise, and community leaders say it’s based on misunderstanding of Islam.

There were 1,362 hate crimes in Canada in 2015, up five per cent from the previous year, according to Statistics Canada latest numbers released in June. And those are just the crimes that are reported.

Hate crimes targeting Muslims increased 61 per cent to 159 incidents. 

Closer to home, Alberta saw the largest increase in hate crimes, up 39 per cent to 193 from 2014 to 2015, and Edmonton had the biggest increase of a major city in Canada – 45 more incidents in 2015 compared to the previous year.

In January, six people were killed and eight more injured, including several children, during a shooting at a Quebec City mosque.

As recently as July, a man who described himself as a Nazi told a Calgary teacher on vacation in Manitoba to take her "head towel off" and "go back to your country." 

Imam Pathan said these incidents are based on a misunderstanding of Islam including the oppression of women and the perception that “Muslims are terrorists and violent.”

“The majority of victims in Egypt or wherever, these different groups in Syria that show their ugly faces, they are Muslims who are dying not in the tens, in the thousands.”

Pathan cites “the ‘alt right’ and white supremacist” groups in Canada and the U.S. for the increase in Islamophobia.

“Various politicians are using and planting very, very anti-Islam and Islamophobic narratives, and nobody was calling them on it,” Pathan said. “Now thankfully, there is a sense that government and various interfaith groups and various advocate groups are saying ‘That’s not tolerable.’”

As father of four, Mousa Qasqas said he worries about his own children and the students at Edmonton’s two Islamic schools – one of which has more than 1,000 students.

“Our biggest fear is for any of them to be the victim of a hate crime with this whole change - the ‘alt right’, white supremacists, and these crazy, crazy groups that are making a comeback. Somehow in 2017 you would think there would be no place for this intolerance but it does, it scares me.”

Muslims in Edmonton say that since the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., there has been a steady rise in Islamophobia and it can be both local, and subtle.

“Sometimes I’ll take my kids to the hockey game and people will say ‘Oh my God, you’re here at the hockey game? But you’re Muslim.’ What does that have to do with anything?” said Qasqas. 

“The biggest misconception to me is the fact that people look at Muslims like we’re something foreign  ̶  just the fact that they say we’re something other, 'not Canadian', for example.”

Qasqas said his wife is sometimes questioned about wearing her hijab, sometimes even in public.

“I think it’s really misunderstood, with people looking at it as a symbol of oppression or whatever it may be. It’s the power of speech. It’s very easy to make someone believe in something just by labelling it as ‘freedom’ or ‘good,’ a them-against-us mentality.”

A first step towards a better understanding of Islam would be “just getting to know a Muslim,” Qasqas said.

Pathan predicts “hard times ahead”, but he’s optimistic times will get better.

He said the media has a responsibility to accurately report crimes involving Muslims, our government must enforce laws against hate crimes, and individual Muslims also have a role.

“Every Muslim has that responsibility to first live to the virtues and message of Islam in its purest form,” Pathan said, adding “Muslims do need to, and I think they are, taking great steps in becoming engaged with different communities, interfaith, different levels of government.”

“I do always believe there is hope. I do believe there is goodness and I believe that there is a change. However, I’m very, very much a realist that the work never ends.”

For more information on Statistics Canada’s hate crime numbers, visit: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/170613/dq170613b-eng.htm