POLITICS
02/05/2019 05:45 EST

Hate Groups Showed Up At Canada’s Oldest Mosque, Reigniting Familiar Fears

Muslims have increasingly been a target of aggression in Canada — and 2019 is off to a discouraging start.

Members of far-right hate groups recently entered the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, Canada, and gathered outside to harass worshippers on their way to Friday prayers.

The incident evoked memories of the shooting, two years ago almost to the day, that left six people dead and 19 injured at a Quebec City mosque. It also served as yet another illustration of growing anti-Muslim bigotry in the country.

“Over the last three years we’ve seen a rise in two far-right movements in Canada, and those are the anti-Muslim and the alt-right neo-Nazi groups, which sometimes overlap but are two distinct things,” said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “We have had regular anti-Muslim demonstrations in cities across Canada, mostly in our largest cities, at least every month going back at least two years. This isn’t just an isolated incident. It’s just constant.”

On Jan. 25, two men ― at least one of them wearing clothing embroidered with the Arabic word “kafir,” which translates to “nonbelievers” ― were seen entering the Al Rashid Mosque in “what seemed like an attempt to scout the property and provoke our community,” according to the mosque’s Facebook page. The men entered the women’s section of Al Rashid, mosque communications director Noor Al Henedy told HuffPost, despite signs indicating men are prohibited from that area.

The two men — who were reportedly members of anti-Muslim groups called the Clann and Canadian Infidels — then joined a number of individuals affiliated with far-right groups outside the mosque, where they confronted worshippers. Some of the exchanges were broadcast live on Facebook by Tyson Hunt, the former leader of the Edmonton chapter of the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-Muslim neo-Nazi group.

Founded in 1938, the Al Rashid Mosque is the oldest mosque in Canada and has over 100,000 community members. Edmonton Police Service spokesperson Carolin Maran told HuffPost that the Hate Crimes and Violent Extremism Unit is investigating the Jan. 25 incident and that no arrests have been made.

Reported hate crimes against Muslims in Canada rose a staggering 151 percent between 2016 and 2017, though even that likely underrepresents the total. It’s estimated that over two-thirds of hate crime victims don’t report attacks to the police, which may be due to factors such as language barriers or fear of retaliation.

Two years ago last week, a gunman opened fire on worshippers at a Quebec City mosque, killing six Muslim men and injuring 19 others. It was later discovered that the shooter was obsessed with far-right Islamophobia, American mass killers and U.S. President Donald Trump. The shooter is set to be sentenced next week.

Last Tuesday, on the anniversary of the 2017 attack, François Legault, the premier of Quebec, sparked controversy when he told reporters that Islamophobia doen’t exist in the province. There have been calls to make Jan. 29, the anniversary of the shooting, a national day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia.

The 2017 attack “certainly set the tone for that year,” said Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, an independent nonprofit that advocates for Canadian-Muslim civil rights.

Gardee called the recent incident at Al Rashid unsettling, “not just for Muslims in Edmonton but for Muslims across the country.”  

The uptick in harassment and violence against Muslims has paralleled a growing number of hate groups targeting Muslims across Canada.

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network monitors over 130 active hate groups in the country. Experts say infighting among these groups is common, with warring members splitting off to start their own factions, often adopting a variant of some existing group’s name. Hunt’s Edmonton chapter of the Soldiers of Odin recently announced it was shutting down and rebranding itself as the Canadian Infidels.

Such distinctions aside, the groups are all animated by the same bigoted ideologies, Balgord told HuffPost.

“One extremely common theme that runs kinda through the whole thing is extreme anti-Muslim hatred,” he said. “Calls to violence, celebrations of violence towards them, overtly racist statements, referring to them with slurs that I won’t repeat, using memes and stuff.”

Such groups are known to use social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Gab to establish communities, recruit new members and spread their ideas and agendas. Many social media services have repeatedly been criticized for not doing enough to control the spread of hateful ideologies using their tools.

NurPhoto via Getty Images
During a rally held in Toronto on Jan. 27, 2018, a woman holds a sign with the names of the six people killed in the Quebec City mosque shooting a year earlier.

Some members at the Al Rashid Mosque became alarmed after the Jan. 25 incident, prompting mosque officials to update their security protocols. They are working with police to patrol the mosque and its nearby Islamic school.

Al Hendy said the mosque has received “overwhelming” support in the last few days, getting a flood of emails and phone calls from politicians, Canadian citizens and members of nearby churches and synagogues, who have reached out offering their help and encouragement.

“We don’t want to be driven by fear,” Al Hendy told HuffPost. “We are a peaceful community and we have been for a very long time, and that’s not about to change because of anything.”