People hold an anti-racism banner with photos of the six victims of the Sainte-Foy, Que., mosque shooting one year after the attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City. The banner reads: “Together against hate and racism.”People hold an anti-racism banner with photos of the six victims of the Sainte-Foy, Que., mosque shooting one year after the attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City. The banner reads: “Together against hate and racism.” (Photo: The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot)

Inside Canada’s Growing Islamophobia Problem

Hate crimes against Muslims in Canada increased by 71 percent in 2021. Yet 50 percent of Canadians don’t believe Islamophobia is an issue.

IT WAS A cold night ON January 29, 2017, when worshippers gathered at the red-brick Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City in Sainte-Foy, Que. About 40 people showed up to perform Isha, the fifth and final prayer of the day. Prophet Muhammad encouraged Muslims to convene for this evening ritual, equating the reward for performing Isha en masse to praying for half the night. But as attendees wrapped up and prepared to leave, their plans were violently interrupted.

Shortly before 8 p.m., a 27-year-old white man exited his car and began his rampage in the parking lot. He walked through the mosque, shooting anyone he saw. Five congregants were seriously injured. Six men—Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Abdelkrim Hassen and Azzeddine Soufiane—were killed.

The men were regulars at the mosque. They were teachers, businessmen, friends, fathers, husbands and cherished members of their community. The news of their deaths sent waves of shock and grief around the world. They became the only people in this nation’s history to be gunned down in their house of worship. In Canada, their chosen home, this monumental loss made tangible the fear Muslims live with on a daily basis.

The assailant’s obsession with Donald Trump and far-right media would be revealed in the following months. Leading up to the shooting, he searched for photos of the interior of the mosque and studied other mass murderers. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it a terrorist attack; in 2021, he designated January 29 as National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action against Islamophobia.

While a single gunman orchestrated the fatal attack in Sainte-Foy, it was not an isolated event. Before that evening, the mosque had faced at least seven different hate crimes, including the delivery of a severed pig’s head during Ramadan in 2016. Mere months after the shooting, a defaced Quran arrived in the mailbox. In 2019, a man allegedly spewing anti-Muslim hate attacked someone near the entrance.

Across Canada, other public, violent acts of Islamophobia would continue to take place. In June 2021, a family of five were out for an evening walk in London, Ont., when a man in a pickup truck deliberately drove into them. Four were killed: Salman Afzaal and his wife, Madiha, their daughter, Yumna, and Talat, her 74-year-old grandmother. The only survivor was nine-year-old Fayez. (In February 2024, a judge ruled that the assailant committed terrorism in his killing of the Afzaal family.)

Following the attack, the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights commissioned a study on Islamophobia and violence against Muslims in Canada. The full report, released in November 2023, indicates that anti-Muslim sentiment is widespread and the issue is even worse than statistics suggest. These findings reveal what Muslims in the country have known for decades: Canada has an Islamophobia problem.


ACCORDING TO CANADA’S Anti-Racism Strategy, first unveiled in 2019, the definition of Islamophobia includes “racism, stereotypes, prejudice, fear or acts of hostility directed towards individual Muslims or followers of Islam in general.” In addition to individual acts of discrimination, Islamophobia can lead to the treatment of Muslims as a security threat on institutional, systemic and societal levels.

Part of addressing an issue is acknowledging that there is one. Therein lies the conundrum: Half of Canadians don’t believe Islamophobia is an issue, according to a March 2023 study by Angus Reid Institute. Those most likely to view Islam negatively are also most likely to say there is no problem, the study found.

A National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) report in 2022 also found that more Muslims have been killed in targeted hate crimes in Canada over the past five years than in any other G7 country. And Statistics Canada reported a 71 percent jump in hate crimes against Muslims in 2021, noting that these figures only reflect hate crimes reported to the police. Those hate crimes have also increased since the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict in October 2023; in Canadian cities with large Muslim populations, police said reported hate crimes have multiplied.

Muslims have long urged federal and local governments to acknowledge and define what Islamophobia looks like in Canada. The year before the Quebec City mosque attack, Liberal MP Iqra Khalid presented Motion 103, calling on the federal government to condemn Islamophobia and conduct a study on how racism and religious discrimination can be reduced. She was motivated by several stories she heard of racist acts against members of other faiths. While the motion eventually passed in March 2017, debate around the existence of Islamophobia was fierce.

That year, Khalid read to the House of Commons a few of the more than 50,000 emails she received as a response to M-103. “Kill her and be done with it,” one of them read. “We will burn down your mosques, draper head Muslim,” read another.

A prevailing argument against the bill was that it would effectively forbid criticism of Islam—an argument Amira Elghawaby, Canada’s first special representative on combatting Islamophobia, vehemently rejects. “[Fighting] Islamophobia is not to shut down criticism,” she says. “It’s about the type of racism and discrimination that can lead to hate against Muslims.”

Elghawaby was appointed by Trudeau’s Liberal government in 2023. Prior to this role, she was a journalist and long-time advocate for Muslim Canadians, most notably at the NCCM. Her job includes advising government ministers on how policy impacts Muslims, refining how hate crimes are tracked in Canada, improving the training of national security agencies and raising awareness about the diversity of Muslim communities.

Amira Elghawaby at a mosque in London, Ont. She wears a patterned hijab, thick-rimmed glasses and a red blazer, with her arms crossed over her body. Amira Elghawaby at a mosque in London, Ont. Earlier this year, Elghawaby was named Canada’s first special representative
on combatting Islamophobia. (Photo: Alicia Wynter)

“So much energy has been taken up simply by making the argument that Islamophobia exists,” she says. “We want to move toward actual solutions.”

Her position was one of several recommendations made by the NCCM ahead of the National Summit on Islamophobia, held by the federal government a month after the Afzaal family was attacked. Another called for reforming the Security Infrastructure Program, which provides funding and support for communities at risk of hate-motivated crimes, and it was put in place in late June 2023. The program will cover as much as half of the cost of security equipment—up to $100,000 a project—for places of worship and other eligible recipients.

“These numbers and these tragedies do tell us part of the story,” Elghawaby says. “But what [they] necessarily tell is the story of how Islamophobia can impact people’s day-to-day experiences.”

The insidious nature of Islamophobia manifests in many ways. On an individual level, it can include being treated differently in the workplace, being hassled at the airport with secondary screenings and hostility from border agents or being verbally assaulted while walking home. On an institutional level, it also affects how Muslims are perceived in systems like health care. One of the most prevalent stereotypes about Muslim women is that they are powerless victims of their religion. Lack of knowledge can lead to the neglect and trivializing of women’s symptoms, says Rezwana Rehman, a registered nurse and master of nursing student in Toronto.

Rehman is writing her thesis on the experiences of visibly Muslim women in the Canadian health care system. Doctors often make assumptions on behalf of Muslim women, stripping them of their agency. “I have experienced this myself,” she says. “Muslim women just want to be treated like normal people.” For example, some women might be okay with seeing a male doctor, others might want someone to accompany them and then there are those who aren’t comfortable with it at all.

“Muslim women don’t mind being asked questions. Ask as many questions as you want, but when you start to assume, that’s when it becomes problematic,” Rehman says. “There’s a difference between cultural competence and cultural humility. Practise cultural humility. It’s okay to not know, but it’s never okay to assume.”

Other governmental systems also perpetuate Islamophobia. A 2021 University of Toronto study found that Muslim-led charities were disproportionately targeted for audits by the Canada Revenue Agency. In some cases, these organizations were unfairly stripped of their charitable status.

The quiet indignities Muslims experience across the board contribute to feelings of rejection and being unwanted in one’s home. The Angus Reid study reveals that Canadians tend to view Islam the most negatively among various religions. Thirty-nine percent of Canadians outside of Quebec hold unfavourable perspectives of Islam; in Quebec, that number reaches 52 percent.

“So much energy has been taken up simply by making the argument that Islamophobia exists,” says Elghawaby. “We want to move toward actual solutions.”

The study also found that more than 44 percent of Canadians believe Elghawaby’s new appointment is unnecessary. That viewpoint gained traction after a 2019 column she co-authored with Jewish activist Bernie Farber for the Ottawa Citizen resurfaced four years later. Directly referencing a Leger Marketing poll that showed that 88 percent of respondents in Quebec had negative feelings about Islam and supported a ban on religious symbols, the pair wrote, “Unfortunately, the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment.” Studies show that those with negative views of Islam were far more likely to resist public displays of religion. Elghawaby has since apologized for the comments she made in the column, saying she knew what it was like to be stereotyped.

But the immediate jump to attack Elghawaby left a bitter taste for many Muslims. “I think we had a textbook case of Islamophobia when the person appointed to counter Islamophobia was told to apologize for standing up to [it],” says Mifrah Abid, an anti-Islamophobia advocate and coordinator at the Coalition of Muslim Women in Kitchener, Ont.

Abid was in the news for confronting a woman who used racist language in a government services building. In a video of the incident Abid posted on Twitter in May 2023, she tells the woman that she, along with others in the space, heard her say “fucking brown people.” After a few seconds, the woman lunges toward Abid and grabs her phone, throwing it on the ground. The woman was arrested.

“That person was actually using a lot of expletives against brown people, not Muslim people specifically. But here’s the thing: Islamophobia is very intersectional,” Abid says. “How do I know which part of my identity the person is attacking? When I posted that, there were people on my Twitter feed who were saying, ‘The wrapped head seems to be instigating the poor white woman and cornering her.’ And there were [other] people who were defending that stance. I felt very hurt. It was overwhelming to face that assault in person.”

Islamophobia should always be considered through an intersectional lens, says Jasmin Zine, a professor of sociology and Muslim studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. In a 2022 report entitled “The Canadian Islamophobia Industry: Mapping Islamophobia’s Ecosystem in the Great White North,” Zine notes that Islamophobia includes a variety of racial identities with which anti-Muslim racism intersects, such as anti-Black racism and anti-Arab racism. This can relate to the “racialization of religion,” or how race and religion are intertwined, she says. Islamophobic violence is also sometimes experienced by people who are simply perceived to be Muslim. For example, a video posted online in July 2019 showed a man in Montreal harassing a woman with her child, yelling racist and misogynistic slurs, because she was speaking with her friend in Arabic. Neither of the women were wearing religious symbols at the time of the attack. Similarly, there have been several instances of Sikh men, who wear turbans, being mistaken for Muslims and becoming the victims of anti-Muslim hate crimes.

Part of normalizing Islamophobia is institutionalizing it. This largely happened after the September 11 attacks. “There is a kind of liberal Islamophobia in Canada, where, on the one hand, we have a celebratory multiculturalism,” Zine says. On the other hand, Canada has security and social policies that target Muslims.

The most obvious example is Quebec’s Bill 21, a secularist policy that affects Muslim women who wear hijab. It bans public servants from donning any religious symbols in public. While the bill was enacted in 2019, its predecessor, Bill 94, was first introduced in 2010 and directly targeted Muslim women who wear niqab, prohibiting them from seeking public services while wearing the face veil.

A study conducted in 2022 by the Association for Canadian Studies found that out of Jews, Sikhs and Muslims, Muslim women face the brunt of marginalization and social stigmatization as a result of Bill 21. In 2021, Fatemeh Anvari, a much-loved third-grade English teacher in Quebec, was told she had to remove her scarf or lose her job. She chose the latter and made headlines.

Wearing hijab comes with its own set of negotiations that every Muslim woman must make, especially when it comes to individual safety. That might include sharing your location with friends or family or opting to wear a hoodie or hat in place of a traditional hijab when anticipating being in a space that feels threatening.

Aisha Ali is president of the Edmonton-based Sisters Dialogue, a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting racialized Muslim women and girls. The group was formed in July 2021 as a response to a spell of attacks on Muslim women, particularly Black Muslim women, in the city. (Black Muslim women wearing hijab are especially vulnerable, according to findings from the Senate committee report.)

Young women march with signs in London, Ont., in June 2021. Their signs read, "Scared of a scarf" and "She was our friend." Young women march with signs in London, Ont., in June 2021, days after members of the Afzaal family were run down in what police deemed a hate crime. (Photo: The Canadian Press/Geoff Robins)

In December 2020, two Black women wearing hijab were attacked outside of an Edmonton mall. Several days later, a young Black woman wearing hijab was at a transit station when an unknown woman assaulted her. Elsewhere on that same day, a woman wearing a burka was stopped on the sidewalk by a man who swore at her and pushed her to the ground. The following February, a woman at a transit centre was reportedly approached by a man who swore at her, threatening to physically assault and kill her.

When Ali was 14, she was taking a walk in her neighbourhood when two men driving a truck pulled up to her and started honking. “Get out of our country; you don’t belong here,” she remembers them yelling. “I was wearing my hijab, and I remember how terrified I was of them hurting me. [I] feeling so othered—that your presence is so discomforting or enraging for other people that they feel the need to stop their day to tell you.”

The frequency at which events like this happen might be surprising to non-Muslims, Ali says. “It’s not fair that although you’re Canadian, your lifestyle is dependent on how people view you and not who you are,” she says. “The barriers are very much present.”


ADVOCATES, COMMUNITY LEADERS and Canadian Muslims alike say working to redress Islamophobia needs to happen on all levels. Where it’s taken some time for elected officials and the public to catch up, Muslim organizations have been filling in the gaps. Ali’s work at Sisters Dialogue is an example of a local initiative making a difference. Along with offering Islamophobia awareness campaigns and support groups, the organization also recently wrapped up a SafeWalk pilot program, training volunteers to walk with Muslim women who felt unsafe going out alone.

Kitchener-based Abid leads Together Against Islamophobia, a program that aims to empower Muslims through education and connections, advocate for systemic change and engage the larger community to become allies.

Allyship is an especially important term these days. A national study recently conducted by halal meat brand Zabiha Halal and Leger Marketing revealed that one in three non-Muslim Canadians has no interest in being an ally to Muslims. Forty-six percent of non-Muslims, however, feel they could benefit from more significant resources on how to show up for their Muslim neighbours.

The study comes as part of Zabiha Halal’s Sharing Halal campaign, which also includes free public workshops in partnership with the NCCM on the roles and responsibilities of an ally, such as talking to Muslims, learning about Islam and speaking up when witnessing discrimination and hate.

“It’s not fair that although you’re Canadian, your lifestyle is dependent on how people view you and not who you are,” says Ali. “The barriers are very much present.”

For Elghawaby, the fact that nearly half of the respondents to the study want to be better allies is promising. While each Muslim might have their own criteria for how they want to be supported, she says paying attention to what’s happening in our communities and being present for one another is a good start.

“Canadians have shown up during very difficult times for Muslims. After Quebec City, after London, the outpouring of solidarity and support was just phenomenal,” she says, recalling the many phone calls she received while working at the NCCM. The key point for any ally, though, is not to wait for the worst-case scenario.

“There’s a continuum of hate, and it begins with attitudes. It begins with jokes. It begins with what seems like a harmless meme that depicts a Muslim or any other minority in a dehumanizing way,” Elghawaby says. “Left unchecked, it can become more problematic, more harmful, and it could lead to further actions up until the very worst of it.”

Originally published September 2023; updated February 2024