Dr. Mansoor Pirzada says Newfoundland and Labrador is a uniquely tolerant and supportive place, but words of comfort are no longer enough when it comes to the rising degree of Islamophobia in the country.
Pirzada, president of the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, was reacting Tuesday to the attack in London, Ont., over the weekend that left four members of a Muslim family dead.
Only a nine-year-old boy survived when a 20-year-old man driving a pickup truck deliberately picked up speed and ran them down on a sidewalk in the southwestern Ontario city.
It’s the worst mass slaying in London’s history, and the worst attack against Canadian Mulsims since a man gunned down six members of a Quebec City mosque in 2017.
Police have described it as a hate crime.
“Obviously, we are all devastated and shocked because of this tragedy. And it is actually a hate crime,” Pirzada told The Telegram late Tuesday afternoon. “Whatever you call it, the bottom line is one entire, innocent family is wiped out from the surface, leaving a nine-year-old behind who is trying to fight and struggle to survive.”
Pirzada heard the news first through a colleague in the U.S. on a dermatology website, and assumed it had happened in that country.
“It didn’t even occur to me that this news belongs to Canadians.”
That colleague actually knew the family.
Pirzada plans to deliver a sermon during Friday prayers at Masjid-al-Noor mosque in St. John’s, but said he feels almost lost for words.
“Sometimes I don’t know what to say to my community, because we have been telling this to the authorities, that Islamophobia is a real thing. It is as real as somebody being an anti-Semite,” he said.
“What do you say to a family? That you cannot walk on a sidewalk? You cannot go on a trail? You cannot go in the park? Are these the times that we are heading towards?”
Pirzada said there’s no doubt hate is growing. Even in this province, Muslims are often subjected to verbal slurs in public, he said.
“What we are seeing is a trend which is going upwards. It’s not a trend that is going downward. The only reason this is going upwards is because the authorities, the politicians, they have not taken it seriously. They have not taken Islamophobia seriously,” he said.
“It’s not rocket science. We can see escalation.”
While most of the hate being spewed stems from hate groups and self-described news agencies on the mainland, Newfoundland can still play a part in putting a stop to it, he said.
That’s what he told Premier Andrew Furey and Immigration Minister Gerry Byrne in a phone call Tuesday morning.
“We cannot just be all the time making phone calls of condolences and saying, ‘What can we do? What can we do?’ We have to do something,” he said.
“I said Newfoundland should take charge. Because Newfoundland in itself is a unique place. It’s a unique community which is totally different from the rest of Canada.”
He pointed to the local reaction to the 2017 Quebec shooting as an example.
“You could see the outpouring of support, the outpouring of love from all the Newfoundlanders. They came to the mosque and surrounded it, and gave us strength.”
Pirzada says he tries to encourage tolerance among fellow Muslims, especially when verbal slurs come from young people.
“Sometimes we try to ignore it, and I tell my community members you have to be tolerant, you have to be patient because the person who is saying all these things has no idea what he or she is saying because they have learned from all these websites which are spewing hate and bigotry and everything,” he said. “Younger minds, obviously they are vulnerable.”
But he says action is needed.
“We must take charge. We must have some guts to say enough is enough, we will clamp down on all these websites that are spewing hate. We will clamp down on all these media places which are basically fanning the fire of hate and Islamophobia. Why can’t we do that?”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted at a response along those lines Tuesday.
“We’ll continue to fight hate online and offline … (including) taking more action to dismantle far-right hate groups, like we did with the Proud Boys by adding them to Canada’s terror listing,” Trudeau told reporters.
The accused in Sunday’s attack, Nathaniel Veltman, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder. Police are reviewing the possibility of adding terrorism charges.