Sidrah Ahmad-Chan and Niya Abdullahi are members of Rivers of Hope, an organization based in Toronto whose mission is "to dismantle Islamophobia, racism, and all related forms of oppression" in order "to create a safer and more equitable world for us all." Scott Neigh interviews them about Islamophobia in Canada, and about the work they are doing to address it.
The list of high-profile manifestations of Islamophobia in Canada is long and serious, even just in recent years. There was the massacre of Muslim worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City on Janaury 29, 2017, by a white man with far-right politics. In that same year, there was the aggressive wave of Islamophobic organizing by the grassroots far right and within the Conservative party in response to a non-binding parliamentary motion called M-103 condemning Islamophobia. And then there is Law 21 in Quebec, which bans public sector workers from wearing religious symbols, and recipients of certain public services from covering their faces, in a move that in practice targets Muslim women. And all of that is without getting into the ways in which over the last three decades the Canadian state has participated in military action against multiple Muslim-majority countries, and has surveilled, targeted and harassed Muslim communities in Canada.
All of that, however, is just the most publicly visible tip of the proverbial iceberg. From microaggressions, to discrimination, to verbal abuse, to harassment and assault, Muslims in Canada are subjected to all manner of everyday harms and indignities that seldom get mainstream attention. Muslims are of course as diverse as any other large group of people, and experiences of everyday Islamophobia vary a great deal according to the other oppressions that intersect in their experience -- Black Muslims experience Islamophobia bound together with anti-Black racism, Muslim women experience gendered Islamophobia, and so on.
Rivers of Hope got its start with research that Ahmad-Chan was doing as part of her MA at the University of Toronto. She interviewed Muslim women from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to build a qualitative picture of the kinds of gendered Islamophobia that they face and the ways that it impacts their lives. She is no stranger to facing Islamophobia herself but, still, she heard some things that surprised her.
Ahmad-Chan decided that she couldn't just type up her findings and leave it at that -- she had to use them to inform action, to give back to her community. Initially, with the help of artist Azza Abbaro, she turned her findings into the Rivers of Hope Toolkit in 2018, which was then distributed in the community and online.
From there, she and two other women founded Rivers of Hope as a collective. They got some funding to create a workshop for high schools called Challenging Islamophobia through Education and the Arts. Part of that process was recruiting facilitators to deliver the workshop, and it was at this point that Abdullahi joined the team. The workshop talks about the basics of Islamophobia – what it is, how it happens, and so on. It is also very focused on solutions, encouraging participants to reflect on their own actions and attitudes, but also helping build skills for people to intervene when they witness an Islamophobic incident in public. A particularly popular part of the workshop, according to Ahmad-Chan, is its use of the "theatre of the oppressed" model, where people act out a skit in which an incident occurs, and audience members can volunteer to join the skit as a bystander and act out how they might intervene.
So far, they have delivered the workshop in more than 20 schools, a few post-secondary institutions, as well as in various community contexts and to teachers in professional development contexts. In the coming years, they plan to significantly increase their outreach and their delivery of the workshop across the GTA and beyond, and they also hope to develop more workshops dealing with specific aspects of Islamophobia.
Though they are currently working against Islamophobia in an educational mode, they recognize the need for systemic change. In particular, they understand Islamphobia as intimately linked to the many other forms of systemic oppression that shape life in Canada. For that reason, the struggles against them must be linked as well. They argue that addressing Islamophobia in Canada must look like committing to decolonization, it must look like working to defund the police, it must look like questioning how borders divide us, it must look like taking a critical stance towards mainstream Canadian multicultural nationalism, and much more.