In the early morning hours of April 6, the congregation of the Islamic Society of Markham began trickling into their mosque for dawn prayers. Suddenly, a non-Muslim man drove into the parking lot at high speed, almost running over one worshipper. For the next six minutes, the intruder hurled Islamophobic hate speech and threats at congregation members and security personnel from his vehicle before leaving the property. The 28-year-old man was later identified and arrested by York Regional Police.
Just three days later, a 47-year-old man blocked another Markham mosque’s entrance with his SUV, and witnesses reported that he verbally assaulted several people before departing. Following the rise in violence, Qasir Nasir Khan, president of the Islamic Society of Markham, is concerned that, without meaningful government intervention, a tragedy like the 2021 London truck attack, which took the lives of four Muslims, could be imminent. “Why do we need to wait for something terrible to happen in order for us to treat Islamophobia as the significant problem that it is?” he asks. We spoke to Khan about the fallout of these attacks on the GTA’s Muslim community during the holy month of Ramadan.
Take me back to the April 6 incident. Were you at the mosque when it occurred?
I usually go in right before dawn prayers, so I arrived shortly after the intruder left. In a way, the timing of his attack was fortunate—just 20 minutes later, there would have been more than 80 people coming into the mosque at once, so the chances of him harming someone would have been much higher. Instead, it was only the early arrivals and our volunteer security team there. He drove in, almost hitting someone, and then stopped to target our congregation with hateful slurs and abuse, which I won’t repeat here. He also slandered our very revered Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and threatened to burn our mosque to the ground. Our security asked him to leave a number of times and threatened to call the police, but he ignored them. After veering dangerously close to a few other people and cars, he finally drove away.
Six years ago, six Muslims were killed by a gunman in a Quebec City mosque. Did your congregation fear the worst when he stormed onto the property?
He had already come to our mosque, actually. Two weeks earlier, he threw a beer bottle at our security team and abused us verbally. We filed a police report, but he had been standing just beyond the frame of our security cameras, so they couldn’t charge him. We were concerned when he came back, but we weren’t too fearful. We were prepared. After our mosque was vandalized in 2020—a window was broken and someone urinated on our property—we started maintaining a volunteer security team and heightened safety protocols, including automated door alarms and locks. What’s most troubling about the recent attack is that nearly an hour passed between when we called the police and when an officer arrived. That is unacceptable. What if this intruder had returned with a gun? It felt like protecting our congregation wasn’t a high priority.
Have fewer people been showing up since the incident?
No. We were in the midst of Ramadan, and people were willing to accept the risk of another potential attack to come together and pray as a congregation.
The number of hate-motivated incidents targeting Muslims in the GTA spiked during Ramadan, and shortly beforehand, a woman wearing a hijab was threatened by a man wielding a knife inside a Vaughan subway station. What do make of the timing?
Some of the recent attacks are likely related to the weather getting warmer: a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf is more easily identifiable when we’re not all wearing coats and hats. But, ever since 2019, we’ve noticed an overall uptick in these incidents, and there is a pattern of sorts. If there’s a news item related to conflict in the Middle East, or incidents like the recent burning of a Holy Quran by a far-right politician in Sweden, these crimes become more frequent. People make assumptions about Muslims based on what they see on TV, and hatred builds inside them. Then, when they see a Muslim in their day-to-day lives, they take it out on that individual. The GTA is very diverse, and these crimes are the acts of individuals. But I am concerned that, with the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric in politics, major Islamophobic shifts happening elsewhere in the world may migrate to Canada.
Have you ever been attacked, verbally or physically?
A few times. Most recently, in 2016, a businessman I’d been talking to over the phone met me in person and was shocked when he discovered that I wasn’t white. He bluntly told me that he didn’t want to deal with “you guys.” He then called all Muslims “terrorists.”
In response to the attack on your mosque, the National Council of Canadian Muslims is calling on the Ontario government to pass the Our London Family Act, which was proposed after the hate-motivated killing of a Muslim family in London two years ago. It would create a systemic approach to tackle Islamophobia, with measures that include dismantling white supremacist groups and establishing a unit to investigate inadequate responses to hate crimes. Are you optimistic?
We’ve seen a lot of talk from our governments and police forces but very little action. We need our police to treat hate crimes with the seriousness they deserve—when dozens or even hundreds of people at a mosque are at risk, police need to respond right away. And we need harsher penalties—prison sentences and hefty fines—to prevent people from abusing and threatening Muslims. The perpetrators know that, usually, they’ll get a slap on the wrist at most. But Islamophobia stems from ignorance, and the best way to tackle ignorance is education.
The Peel District School Board, where about 25 per cent of students are Muslim, voted unanimously this past January to adopt a comprehensive anti-Islamophobia strategy. Is that a step in the right direction?
Definitely. I would encourage other school boards to follow Peel’s example in training staff on the harms of Islamophobia and incorporating Muslim students’ identities into the curriculum. Our children are going to be tomorrow’s politicians, lawmakers and police officers, so creating an environment of understanding and acceptance will help eliminate biases. We need this kind of approach because, in Canada, we all live alongside people whose beliefs are different than ours, and that’s going to increase as more immigrants move here. That could worsen the problem—or it could become an opportunity to learn that we’re all fundamentally the same.
This interview had been edited for length and clarity.