Five months after Harper’s Conservatives made a pre-elections pledge to establish a controversial “barbaric cultural practices” tip line, a group of lawyers and legal organizations in Vancouver have launched a different kind of phone line — a hotline offering free legal advice for victims of Islamophobia.
“The Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline is a free and confidential number that people who experience Islamophobia, or hate crimes related to Islamophobia — whether you’re Muslim or perceived to be Muslim — can call,” explains lawyer and activist Hasan Alam.
The concept for the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline, launched on March 9, emerged from what a group of local lawyers observed as a “significant increase” in Islamophobia in Canada.
Alam defined Islamophobia as, “the fear of and hatred toward Muslims or people who are perceived to be Muslim.”
“Especially under the Harper government,” says Alam, “we noticed that there was very specific fear mongering happening, that utilized Islamophobia to justify Harper’s policies, such as Bill C-51, and all of that translated into an increase in hate crimes.”
In response to a question on the anti-terrorism legislation, Harper implied last fall there was an opportunity for radicalization in mosques: “It doesn’t matter what the age of the person is, or whether they’re in a basement, or whether they’re in a mosque or somewhere else.”
The statement was followed by an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric leading up to the elections, with the niqab being lauded by the former Prime Minister as a primary concern in relation to gender equality and Canadian values.
Rise in incidences of violence
The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), a human rights and civil liberties advocacy group that endorsed the project, has been tracking anti-Muslim incidents across Canada since 2013. They have recorded a rise in alleged incidents corresponding to events where Muslims have been portrayed negatively in the media.
Vancouver-based lawyer and chair of NCCM’s Board of Directors, Kashif Ahmed, spoke to the significance of this new resource in B.C.: “We had 61 anti-Muslim incidents reported in 2015, and already had 12 reported in 2016.”
Ahmed identified a number of different forms of Islamophobia-related hate crimes, including “cases of people who are being assaulted on the street, victimized in their workplace and denied promotions, verbally abused, verbally harassed, mosques being vandalized, cases of schools not providing anti-bullying services to Muslim students or allowing bullying to continue, or even teachers being the ones doing the bullying.”
“We had 61 anti-Muslim incidents reported in 2015.”
Local incidents include a pepper spray attack on a group of Syrian refugees and vandalism of a Coquitlam mosque, yet many attacks motivated by Islamophobia go unreported.
The hotline is operated by Access Pro Bono, an organization committed to providing “access to justice” in BC for individuals and non-profits unable to afford legal fees. Their volunteers are currently able to assist callers in seven different languages — English, French, Farsi, Indonesian, Arabic, Swahili, Punjabi, and Urdu.
“In a lot of instances people who experience Islamophobia are new immigrants, they don’t speak much English, they don’t know where to turn to for legal advice, or help in general, and they’re scared to turn to law enforcement agencies a lot of the time because of their precarious legal status,” says Alam.
Personal experiences of Islamophobia
Alam has a personal investment in the initiative, as a Muslim and a lawyer who has actively advocated against Islamophobia.
“I get calls from people, a lot, saying that they have experienced Islamophobia, and that they need help. Oftentimes, I myself can’t help them. I don’t have the area of expertise in that specific instance that I can give them legal advice,” he explains.
Alam spoke to the first time he experienced Islamophobia himself.
“I remember being the president of my Muslim Students Association (MSA) at Simon Fraser University, and getting a call from a government agency, who left a message for us at the interfaith centre.”
“That fear or hatred can translate to physical assault, negative comments, attitude, discrimination, or prejudice.”
The message was from a woman requesting to meet with him, “to better understand the needs of your community.”
Eager to discuss the needs of the MSA, Alam agreed to meet the woman at a Starbucks. After he arrived, shook her hand, and allowed her to buy him a coffee, the woman revealed that she was a Canadian Security Intelligent Services (CSIS) agent who had questions about the activities of the MSA and his community.
Although the questions were not targeting him personally, Alam expresses, “For me, that was Islamophobia, and it was coming from the government. Why was I subjected to being interrogated by CSIS agents, simply on the basis that I was a Muslim and involved with a Muslim student group?”
Usefulness in lobbying efforts
Alam explained that another important element of the project is the recording of Islamophobic hate crimes.
“Being able to use that information to better advocate to government, and to lobby government to do more about Islamophobia and racism in general [. . .] and pushing the government to do more about that, and more advocacy, and having people’s voices heard is something that is really important for me.”
Alam hopes the Islamophobia hotline will send out a clear message to those who perpetuate Islamophobia that there are repercussions for their actions, while at the same time making those who appear to be Muslim feel safe.
“I think we’re still living in a fairytale world, thinking ‘this is Canada, not the United States, these things doesn’t happen here,’ and I think a big part of this is recognizing that Islamophobia and racism are real,” he says.