Last month, my husband, two daughters and I went on a two week Euro-adventure to Berlin and the south of Spain. The trip was better than we ever imagined it could be and since getting back to our temporary home base in Morocco, I have hit the post-vacation slump: the can’t-I-just-go-back everyday kinda feeling. But lucky for me, I’m a writer and I can teleport myself to places we have visited using memory and journalling alone. One point I wanted to suss out more about our trip was just how much was affected by the fact that we are Muslims. Perhaps some of the things I talk about below wouldn’t have been so noticeable if we jet-setted to Europe from our permanent home base in Canada, but because we were coming from a Muslim country, however Euro-influenced it might be, somethings really stood out.

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Rare blog appearance by the husband. On a boat, no less.

Halal food hunting is always an adventure. I mean, for any Muslim who keeps halal with their eating, this is going to be the first challenge. This was more of an issue in Spain than Germany for two noticeable reasons: Germany is very inclusive of its large Muslim population -something we noticed everywhere we went and which is largely to the country’s history of genocide against religious minorities. The overcompensation was nice and welcomed…and frankly how it should be. It’s what one would expect from a country that had repented for its monstrous sins – we even had halal breakfast sausages (a variety to choose from!) at our hostel’s morning spread! Of course, this isn’t to obfuscate Germany’s very real resurgence of far-right, anti-Muslim elements but mainstream society seems pretty welcoming to Canadian-levels. We didn’t notice we were different the entire time we were there.

The second reason why halal food was more of an issue in Spain is because of the long Spanish history of persecuting Muslims. This actually has an effect on the food – believe it or not? Spanish hams and pork products are not a cultural anomaly – they rose in popularity during the post 1492 era and the Inquisition as a way of sussing out who was still practicing Judaism or Islam in private despite be forced to convert to Christianity in public. So yeah, Spanish cuisine is very, very pork heavy and it’s everywhere. There is also a lot of alcohol in both places but we noticed that more family-friendly places didn’t serve it at all so it was relatively easy to avoid altogether.

To get around these issues while still having an authentic experience, we sought out halal restaurants with certified halal products, tried street food that we knew was prepared in a haram-free place (like churros!) or we stuck to the grocery stores and ate veg/pescatarian. I am already inclined to veganism so this wasn’t a stretch for me but my husband was longing for a nice big tagine by the end of the trip, for sure!

 

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Finding places to pray is a challenge. Not only are all the former mosques of Andalusia now churches or cathedrals that Muslims are not allowed to pray inside, the remaining modern mosques for local Muslim populations are forcibly non-descript and tough to find. Unlike Canada, where a mosque is allowed to look like a mosque (with a minaret and everything), the same isn’t true elsewhere. We ended up just having salat where we stayed and left it at that.

Airports aren’t fun. Being Muslim in an airport is a nerve-wracking experience, no matter where you are, especially when you are dragging two little kids along and you tend to be the only visible Muslims in a 100-kilometer radius for some reason. Obviously the extra attention by security agents didn’t happen when leaving Marrakech much but it did get bothersome when entering Germany and Spain. My husband has a permanent resident card for the EU and the level at which it was scrutinized was necessary but irritating. Maybe it’s because the officers just did it in such a harsh manner or I’m overly sensitive to racism against Moroccans to the point of paranoia but I wasn’t pleased and I’m pretty sure that he would have been hassled a lot longer if he hadn’t been travelling with his Canadian-passport-carrying family. Oh, and the hijab pat-downs get old real quick, especially when someone is scanning my baby’s milk at the same time and both kids are hollering. Sigh.

Being the only hijabi makes you a sideshow novelty. I have no idea why but on our entire 2 week trip, we really only saw a handful of hijabi muslimahs. And yeah, we look for each other. I was pretty shocked to constantly be the only hijabi in the room and, as a result, be the constant object of other peoples’ stares. In a walking tour around Sevilla, our group turned to look at me every single time the guide mentioned Islam or the Qur’an. I mean, the association there isn’t so bad but you really start to feel like a circus freakshow when people are looking at you with their mouths hanging open in the grocery line.

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Circus is in town, baby.

Having a Canadian accent and being white changed how people with Islamophobic biases treated me. Despite the extra unwanted attention as a hijabi in tour groups, shops and on the street, I did notice that people changed how they treat me immediately on hearing my Canadian accent. It’s amazing how fast people compartmentalize you as a tourist and not one of “those” Muslims with just the flicker of a knowing glance when you ask for a bag or a receipt.

Our people stick together better as minorities. For all of the issues that Muslims have with each other in Muslim-majority countries (humans gonna human, eh?) we sure seem to get along better and in a more cooperative spirit when we are the minority. We just noticed that everywhere we went, other Muslims would seek us out to ask for directions or assistance and to be honest, we did the same. I’m not sure why but the whole “we’re in this minority deal together so give me a hand” thing is real.

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Not a paid ad.

 

For better or for worse, travelling as a Muslim is definitely a unique experience and not one I exactly have a choice in! Before I was Muslim, I travelled a lot and I have to say that I really notice a difference in terms of acceptance and treatment by fellow travellers and locals. It’s also something other Muslims report noticing (especially if they are visibly Muslim) and honoring those experiences without self-gaslighting about them is important. Sharing raises awareness for everyone – that’s  the beauty of storytelling and bearing witness to someone’s stories. In the end, any different treatment we experience is neither going to define our trip nor the countries we visit.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. 

As a non-Muslim ally, you might be watching the current state of affairs with regards to how Muslims are treated in the West, in Western political rhetoric and while being massacred in their homelands, and you just might be wondering what you can do about it. Or at least you should be wondering that. It is entirely understandable that you might feel overwhelmed by the deluge of hatred being lobbed at Muslims these days and you might not even look to yourself as the source of the antidote to this hatred. But you are.

Here is a quick list (literally off the top of my head) of 20 things you can easily do to combat Islamophobia starting right now. You might look at some of these items and think you lack the capability to do some of these things but I am here to assuage some of your concerns. Firstly, you don’t have to do all 20 at once. Combatting Islamophobia is an ongoing and never-ending process. Islamophobia has been an issue since the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) himself, and it periodically rises and falls depending on a lot of converging factors. We happen to be at a time when Islamophobia is at a fever pitch, mainly because of geopolitical problems and hideous orange cheeto-puffs who think they can say whatever they want when running for the US presidency.

The second thing to bear in mind is that yes, you can do all of these things. There is no magic to becoming an activist. It isn’t something you study in University (although studying a lot of other things helps build the necessary mindset because: “knowledge = power” but that is beside the point). Anyone and everyone with a kernel of compassion in their heart can help do many of the things contained on this list and would go a long way to fulfilling your duties as a non-Muslim ally. Yes, you have duties.

If you are wondering how and why any of this applies to you, know this: Muslim or not, Islamophobia affects all of us. It divides our world. Its end logic is genocide. If you want any part of making this world a better place and preventing harm against a marginalized group (which, frankly, should be all of you out there), then this list is for you. Get on it.

Self

  1. Call it what it is. And know where it comes from. Some people are hesitant to use the word Islamophobia. Heck, I even attended a lecture recently by washed-up writing troll in which he declared that Islamophobia is a term created by all Muslims to apologize for Daesh. What?

Islamophobia is real. It affects Muslims every single day. There are a lot of definitions for it rolling around the ol’ internet but mainly it is “an unfounded hostility towards Muslims and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims” as well as describing an attitude that addresses “the discriminations faced by Muslims that [can] not be explained by their race, class or immigration status.” Although, I would like to point out that the latter points often go hand-in-hand with fear of Muslims and ignorance of Islam.

This is going to sound really harsh but one has to remember that, sometimes, describing the facts is difficult to accept: part of knowing where Islamophobia comes from is recognizing that it is a cultural problem. Islamophobia dominates in white, Western culture. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which I will list now:

  • As hard as this is going to be for Westerners to accept, we are way more isolated than other cultural groups. We tend to be withdrawn and get most of our information about other cultures from mass media rather than actually interacting with them. Add to this fact that the mass media is far from impartial about Muslims (in particular) and the air is rife with possibilities for Islamophobia. Misinformation and a lack of information are some of the largest contributing factors to a prejudiced worldview. Simply recognizing this fact is crucial to moving forward.
  • Islamophobia does not have its origins in white, Western culture (after all, the first Islamophobes tended to be members of whichever dominant culture Muslims found themselves in), however, it is fairly common to this culture because (believe it or not) white, Western culture tends to define itself on what it thinks it is not. And historically, because of close proximity and the legacy of colonialism, the “others” against which white, Western cultures have defined themselves are, not surprisingly, Muslim cultures.

Why is it important to recognize in which cultural contexts Islamophobia typically dwells? Well, if we know where something flourishes, we can better address it. If you are a white, Western, non-Muslim, the chances are much higher that Islamophobia is part of your subtextual daily narrative, particularly if you consume mass media in any way (which is most of us). It might even be an intrinsic part of how you define yourself without your realizing this to be the case. Learning that and recognizing it is critical to challenging that narrative and then abolishing it entirely. It is also important to recognize how certain cultural contexts will create negative associations with groups we perceive as “Others” at an unconscious level in our minds.

  1. Look inward at your implicit bias. Implicit Islamophobia is a type of prejudice that results from subtle cognitive processes which operate at a level below that of conscious awareness. The bias refers to stereotypes and an overall ethos (set of attitudes subscribed to) that initiate behavioural patterns and thereby effect how we understand others, our actions towards them and decisions about them. There are quite a few common stereotypes associated with Muslims through overt messaging or more subtextual associations in media and writing that affect our unconscious biases towards them. Some of these associations are internalized by Muslims as well and can affect how they think of themselves and one another. Recognizing that these associations exist and might be operating at the level of implicit bias is just the beginning of your journey in cleansing one’s self of these harmful associations.

According to the research on racial implicit bias compiled by the Open Society Foundation, it was shown that negative associations can affect people’s decisions and their behavior toward people of other demographics than themselves. Implicit bias also affects how people act with people of another race. In spite of their conscious feelings, white people with high levels of implicit racial bias show less warmth and welcoming behavior toward black people, as an example.

  1. Do a de-bias cleanse periodically. Yes, this is an actual thing and it represents the ultimate responsibility taken by an individual seeking to live in a way that reduces their harm on others. You can consider signing up for this 7-day online cleanse which provide you with daily tasks to de-bias yourself. Other important steps include:
  • Raising awareness of implicit Islamophobia
  • Identifying and acknowledging differences between you and Muslims and knowing that those differences are OK
  • Checking your thought processes and decisions for bias
  • Identify distractions and sources of stress in your environment. These tend to force reversion back to stereotypical associations in our mind and therefore habitually harmful behaviours.
  • Institute feedback mechanisms. Get your friends to tell you how you are doing. It’s a thing and will likely inspire them to begin this process in themselves.
  1. Educate your children. Prejudice starts young and begins with the messages we are taught in adolescence. If these messages of prejudice are consistent growing up, the possibility of growing up Islamophobic is very high. Educating your children includes teaching them about Islam and Muslims directly (yes, you can do this! There are many resources out there!), visiting a mosque as a family, getting to know your Muslim neighbours, attending Ramadan fast-breaking meals (iftar), and much more. Educating your children about Islam also means a less-direct approach by which you limit the negative messaging around Islam from coming into your home. This means scrutinizing what media your children are consuming and replacing it with more diverse educational options. If you think that is too much work, take one look at the state of our world right now and recognize what could have been prevented if even a few more parents did this.
  2. Visit a mosque and speak to people there. Don’t be shy. Mosques are typically inviting places – albeit they can a bit disorganized. Recognize that most Muslims are forbidden from proselytizing and trying to convert people so you don’t have to worry about any uncomfortable conversations or ulterior motives in people being excited that you have appeared. Introduce yourself to people inside, let them know why you are there, maybe watch a prayer in action. You will be shocked at the response when people thank you for taking the time to learn about Islam and Muslims. And you might just learn something and make some new friends to boot. A mosque is more aptly called a “masjid” or “Jamia” in Arabic – meaning a place to gather together to submit oneself. This doesn’t only mean a place that Muslims put their faces on the ground to pray – often mosques are community centers which house language classes, knowledge courses, counselling services and much more. If you live with a mosque in your community, you are more than welcome to join in the community activities provided therein.
  3. Join an interfaith coalition. There are a great many of them and they are always looking for more participants. If you do not belong to an identifiable religious group or you consider yourself an atheist, fear not. You are still welcome. Approach organizers and find out how you can contribute to the conversation and, most importantly, learn from members of other faith groups. You can take that knowledge back to your family and your communities as well.
  4. Become friends with Muslims. This is easier than people realize. First of all, you might already be friends with a Muslim and not even realize it. Not everyone is “visibly” Muslim as the media would have us believe. Second of all, visiting mosques and joining interfaith coalitions is a sure-fire way to meet them. The next step is initiating friendship – not so that you can have your token Muslim friend that you reference every time someone mentions anything about Islam or says something Islamophobic, but simply to branch out, know someone from a community and way of life different than yours. Muslims are just like regular people because they are people. Some Muslims may be more approachable and socially adept – others, not so much. Regardless, taking the initiative to get to know others and forge lasting bonds goes a long way to bridging false differences and divided communities.
  5. Visit a Muslim country. Who doesn’t love traveling?! Of course, you want to pick one of the few that is not on fire right now, but visiting a Muslim country is one of the quickest ways to learn a whole lot about Islam and Muslims and to see that they are just living their lives like the rest of the world. Speaking in generalizations, you are bound to get some delicious food and incredible hospitality along the way. Plus, hearing the call-to-prayer five times a day is beautiful and a totally unique experience. Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia and many others are on the list of those filled with wanderlust so be sure to get them on your list too!

Preventative

  1. Interrupt Islamophobia every single time you encounter it. This is the principle behind the recent anti-discrimination #makeitawkward campaign. Every time you hear someone uttering falsehoods about Muslims, or generalizing about Islam: speak up. Every time you are watching a film or television show with others and Muslims are depicted in a harmful light: speak up. It doesn’t require explanation. It doesn’t require follow-up. A simple “That kind of harmful stereotyping is unacceptable here” will do. It takes practice to be assertive but once people realize that being prejudiced around you is not allowed, they might think twice about doing it altogether.
  2. Start a conversation circle in your community. Do you know people who are scared of Muslims or hate them? Why not take a tiny bit of initiative and start a discussion group? There are surely organizations in your community that would be willing to join forces and support such an initiative but really it doesn’t take much more than getting some people around a table to have a conversation. The power of this kind of initiative is in its simplicity. Making safe space for people to be real about their concerns and simultaneously un-learn harmful behaviours is a crucial way forward.
  3. Meet with local Muslim leaders to find out what they need. Yes, you can do this all on your own. It will likely help you to understand how interrupting Islamophobia can best be done and how to initiate conversation circles to exact actual change. By backing those actions up with knowledge of what marginalized people need from their mouths directly is extremely powerful. Start by asking at the mosque and keeping your eye on local media stories to find out who the important Muslim leaders are in your community.
  4. Spread the word on social media. Don’t be afraid to share positive stories about Muslims on your social media accounts, even if you don’t have a single Muslim friend or ally on your page to back you up. You do not have a single need to respond to haters so let them fill the comments sections how they want – for every ten haters your posts attract, there are likely double that amount of sensible people, watching in the shadows, learning from the information you put out there and changing their worldviews as a result.
  5. Talk with family and friends. Painful conversations need to be had around familial prejudices that you will no longer stand for. Be direct and unemotional letting your family members and friends know that you will not stand for Islamophobia in your midst. Or ask them to explain their Islamophobic jokes because you don’t understand why they are funny. Be compassionate and patient. With time, love and kindness will conquer anyone – it is just a matter of being consistent with your message. Interrupt prejudice every time it arises and don’t be afraid of being the only person standing for compassion and justice in a room full of your peers.
  6. If you’re a business owner, hire Muslims. Diversify your staff. Give others the opportunity to learn about Muslims through proximity to their coworkers. Just make sure you educate yourself first on typical Muslim etiquette and holidays, and if there is anything you are unsure of, just ask them. Most Muslims with culturally-sensitive employers would have nothing but respect for someone who took the time to learn what makes them comfortable in their working environments.
  7. If you’re a journalist, share good news about Muslims. Take the time to find the positive stories (and there are plenty) that have Muslims at their heart. Use these narratives as a way to counter the overwhelming deluge of Muslim stereotypes found in mainstream media today. At the very least, use measured and mindful language when writing about negative stories that might involve Muslims and be aware of double standards employed against them when they are not even involved. A case in point is the fact that the term terrorist is only associated with acts of violence perpetuated by Muslims, whether or not that individual acted alone or was mentally unstable. In the cases of white violence, mental illness excuses pervade. Changing those narratives subtly by vocabulary shifts has a bigger impact than can be measured.
  8. Don’t be afraid to plan ways to educate others about Islam. Do you belong to a church group or youth organization? Do you sit on the board of a community league? Why not take your social position within specific organizations as an opportunity to advocate for some knowledge about Islam to be disseminated. This could mean bringing in a Muslim lecturer to talk about Islam generally; it could be facilitating interfaith dialogue; it could be joining forces with Muslim organizations to get advocacy work done. Whatever you decide to do, you can take seemingly small, simple opportunities to make a world of difference.

Reactive

  1. Stay calm and step in when it is safe to do so. When something terrible happens to Muslims in your community or a Muslim in front of you, the first step is to remain calm. Do not panic. Someone hurling insults at a hijabi on the train might become violent but they are less likely to do so if other people step in. You do not even need to address such a person. Simply sit down next to the Muslim person and engage them in conversation as though you have known them your entire life. They know why you are helping them and they appreciate it. Stay with them until their attacker stops and leaves.

If a Muslim is being physically attacked, start hollering and get others to do so too. Get someone to call 911 immediately in the meantime. Get someone else to take pictures of an attacker. Get the group to lay into them to stop violence against their victim. If you are alone and witnessing an attack, stepping in while screaming and swinging will usually send someone running. Being witnessed has the power to send an attacker running alone.

  1. File a report. This is crucial for agencies that are trying to track data on Islamophobic incidences. In Alberta, you can file a report with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council Islamophobia hotline at 1-800-607-3312. They will then refer you to either mental health professionals, legal counseling or law enforcement agencies to take appropriate further action.
  2. Contact the police. Although many agencies such as AMPAC will forward some incidents to police for charges to be laid or further investigation, you can always take it upon yourself to also file a police report of a specific incident you witnessed or came upon. Anti-Muslim graffiti, hate flyers and other such issues qualify as Hate Crimes under the Canadian criminal code (not “free speech” here!) and should be prosecuted as such.
  3. Thank other allies and join forces in denouncing hatred. Once you start on this journey, you will find that you are not alone. A great many other allies from all walks of life are taking a stand against Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination. When those individuals and groups do so, take the time to thank them for their efforts and note that they do not go unnoticed. Solidarity against hatred is the way of the future and allies are a crucial part of dismantling the systems which allow for it to continue.

nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

During the 2015 Canadian federal election, the niqab came into central focus as a key election issue with Canadians dividing themselves among the camps of supporters and condemners. The issue reached such a ridiculous fervour that, on the advice of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, I opted to write an opinion-editorial on the issue about how it was dividing the country and we must stand together to move forward. After this article’s publication, I received an email from the Rabbanit (wife of the Rabbi), Dorit, at Beth Shalom Synagogue. She proposed that we start a Muslim-Jewish women’s dialogue circle to talk about some of the issues that plague both of our religious groups and would allow us to create a safe environment for women from both groups to ask questions, offer insights and generally get pushed out of their comfort zones in the interests of learning.

Our first meeting in January at the Synagogue was small but intimate. The few women from both sides shared their life stories and, by virtue of the fact that the meeting was taking place in the Synagogue, answered many questions about their brand of Judaism, Jewish dynamics in the city and their perspectives on some political aspects of both faiths. Some amazing connections were made, especially between myself, Nakita, and Michelle from the Jewish community. A philosopher, feminist, life coach and convert, Michelle is a tour de force who has gone on to launch Edmonton’s first women’s film festival in honour of International Women’s Day. Nakita was lucky enough to help in a small way with this effort with The Drawing Board being privileged enough to build the website and help with some public relations aspects.

Such relationships are not the only beautiful thing to come out of the group so far. In our second meeting at the MAC Rahma Mosque in February, the turnout was much higher and the Muslim and Jewish women were lucky enough to get a tour of the mosque from the brand new Imam, Dr. El Sayed Amin. The Imam is exceptionally gifted in public speaking, interreligious dialogue and intellectual pursuits so to have his full attention was a true honour for all of us. Additionally, most of the Muslim women had never had a tour of their own mosque before so it was an amazing learning opportunity for us as well. The mosque was unbelievably hospitable to us, offering us the space on a continuous basis (bi-monthly as we change on and off with the Synagogue) and having the Imam around to answer any of our more in-depth questions and read us excerpts of the Qur’an.

The second meeting’s conversation revolved around the subject of veiling and modesty in both the Muslim and Jewish traditions and the dialogue was amazing. For many participants, it was the first time for them to encounter a person of the other faith, let alone sit across from them, sharing food and life stories. Perhaps my favourite part of all was when the Jewish women joined the Muslim women in the Musalla for ‘Asr prayer, with some Jewish women actually participating in the prayer, shoulder-to-shoulder with their Muslim sisters. It was so beautiful, it actually brought a tear to my eye.

In the coming months, we will be discussing such important and controversial issues as conversion, terrorism, Palestine-Israel and much, much more. As our group grows and solidifies, we hope to have more public events aimed at creating a better understanding of both of our often misunderstood communities. And if we can do this together with mutual respect and kindness, we have already won the day.