“I’m a Muslim. I’m labelled a terrorist. I trust you, do you you trust me? Give me a hug.”
That’s what Mustafa Mawla’s handwritten signs read as he stood in Toronto’s Dundas Square on a frigid day in January.
It was part of a social experiment he and a group of young Muslim-Canadian filmmakers undertook to explore their feelings in a country where politicians are ramping up the talk about fighting terrorism.
Standing there blindfolded, arms outstretched, waiting for hugs on a busy street corner, Mawla wondered if they would ever come.
“I was thinking that most of the time I would be left standing there, that people are going to walk by and that I am going to be cold,” he says.
Mawla and fellow young Muslims know Canadians’ safety in the era of ISIS is about to become a ballot-box issue and they’re nervous, not necessarily about terrorism, but about hate and suspicion.
They have a request for Prime Minister Stephen Harper: Ease up on the rhetoric.
“I would ask him to to take it easy with the words ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorism’ and scaring people that there are jihadis or terrorists among us,” says Assma Galuta, a university student who conceived the “Give me a hug” project and hopes one day to do humanitarian work abroad.
“There are unstable citizens from any faith, any religion, but to target Islam and scare your own citizens… [Harper is] creating a barrier between a lot of people.”
Galuta doesn’t just talk theoretically. The changes she has witnessed in Canada have been swift and at times cruel.
She maintains she lost friends after the attacks on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in October, which were perpetrated by a man thought to have been sympathetic to Islamic extremism.
‘Kill the terrorists’
One friend, a Canadian soldier, was so angry after the shootings that he told her it was time to “go and kill the terrorists.”
She says she tried to talk calmly with him, but he said, “What your people are doing is wrong.”
Your people. That hurt, she says.
Galuta says she has stopped wearing her headscarf. That’s a big deal. She wore it from the age of nine, but now feels targeted because of it.
“As a woman walking home alone at night, it’s one thing to be scared about. But with the scarf on, it’s traumatizing,” she says.
These 20-something Canadians are smart, eloquent, well-read and deeply passionate, but they all agree they are now more careful about expressing their opinions, especially about Canada’s foreign policy or the way this government is handling threats of domestic terrorism.
Parents are concerned
Maaz Khan, a university student, says his parents are particularly concerned.
“They don’t want us to get hurt, or us to feel unsafe when we go to school or anywhere. They want us to be safe, that’s why they want us to stay away from these [topics],” he says.
Mawla’s parents have offered similar cautions.
“When we go out, my mom tells me, ‘Don’t go out of your way and say things, do things against the media and stuff because if it is taken out of context, then you will be in trouble. The police will say, “Oh, you said this before, so you might be doing this.”‘ Taken out of context, [any commentary] can be used any way.”
It doesn’t feel like the Canada they grew up in. Of that Galuta seems certain.
The good news, however, is that sometimes human kindness wins over fear. It did on the day of the experiment in Dundas Square.
Mawla, who thought he’d be left standing alone, was hugged — repeatedly.
One man even stopped his car in the intersection, ran to him, gave him a big bear hug and got back into his car.
That’s the Canada these young Muslims love and want to defend.