The Rise of Islamophobia in Toronto's Election
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The Rise of Islamophobia in Toronto’s Election

School Board candidate Ausma Malik has been the target of Islamphobic slurs, and she's not the only one. We need to stand against these vile attacks.

ausma malik islamophobia

Ausma Malik is running for school board trustee in Trinity-Spadina. She wears the hijab, and is running in a downtown ward that doesn’t have a significant percentage of voters who look or dress like her.

As much of Toronto knows by now, Malik has been the target of an extended and multi-faceted smear campaign claiming she is a “radical terrorist sympathizer.” Sue-Ann Levy and the Jewish Tribune have attacked her in print and online, and a group calling itself “Concerned Citizens of Toronto” has leafleted houses and stuck up alarming posters in the ward. She has been verbally assaulted at debates and forced to defend herself on subjects that have absolutely nothing to do with schools or education in Toronto. Fake attack websites have been created in her name, diverting Googlers away from her real campaign website.

I know Ausma Malik, I know her family, and I also know many of the people who consider themselves her closest friends, and who have worked with her for years—on student council at the University of Toronto, as a researcher at the Provincial Legislature, with Frontier College’s literacy program, with the Toronto Environmental Alliance, at the Stephen Lewis Foundation, and elsewhere—and who are knocking on doors for her now. She has been a fixture in this city, doing civic-minded work for people from a broad spectrum of communities, for many years.

Anyone who knows Malik knows that she does not and never has supported any form of terrorism. Yes, she was at a rally protesting, in the strongest possible terms, Israel’s actions in southern Lebanon in 2006, and particularly the bombing that caused the collapse of a building housing dozens of civilians. Lots of people protested that war. Michael Ignatieff also used strong terms to decry those same actions, and while he upset some folks when he did so, nobody put together an organized campaign to accuse him of being a terrorist sympathizer in response.

So what’s actually going on here?

While it started before this week’s horrific events in Quebec and Ottawa, is the smear campaign feeding off the resultant public fear? Are Malik’s attackers offended that a hijabi would dare to run, or run in a downtown ward that doesn’t contain a large community of such residents? Do they believe that Islamophobia is somehow an acceptable form of bigotry? And why do they believe that this kind of intimidation and these scare tactics constitute reasonable political discourse? Other than Levy and the Tribune, why won’t the smearers use their own names? Why do they hide behind that murkiest of labels: “Concerned Citizens of Toronto”?

Is the real issue that the smearers are worried that Malik, as a school trustee, would insert views about Israel that they disagree with into school-related issues? And if so, why wouldn’t they ask voters to think about that question and make up their own minds?

This election campaign has seen appalling misogyny, racism, and Islamophobia—most of it in the form of verbal abuse or the defacing of signs—but there is something particularly odious about the thought and organization that has gone into the smear campaign aimed at Malik.

Resources and money have been put into printing; time and thought has gone into the leafleting, postering, and creation of fake websites. The attacks have been constructed to demonstrate that there is something frightening and evil about Malik as an individual, in language calculated to cast aspersions on her character and her reputation. Most disturbingly, they are designed to depict her as Canada’s new nightmare: the homegrown terrorist sympathizer.

The smear campaign is as base and despicable as the scrawled “go back home” on Ward 2 candidate Munira Abukar’s signs; the hurling of garbage at her volunteers; and the verbal abuse and threats to which she and Idil Burale, as well as other Muslim candidates, have been subjected. Olivia Chow has also been vilified, told to “go back to China” at a debate, and subject to other verbal abuse. These attacks are cowardly assaults on non-white women running for positions of power in Canada’s largest city, and they are all reprehensible. The attacks are clear indications of the racism and bigotry that still divide the city.

But the attack on Ausma is deliberate, targeted character assassination, disguised as “concern” and “background research”—and is, therefore, particularly chilling. I hope that Trinity-Spadina voters will see this smear campaign for the vile defamation it is, and ignore it at the voting booth. A city whose motto is “Diversity Our Strength” ought to be above this noxious behaviour, and we must rise up against it.