Scott Douglas Jacobsen
Muslims were murdered. They were murdered by a young adult Canadian man on June 6, 2021. A male named Nathaniel Veltman. Hatred kills. This matters to the humanist community. CFIC and a number of humanist organizations in Canada matter to the lives of humanists for equality, dignity, respect, and advancement of scientific thinking. Our work applies here too.
In some frames, the work of humanists matters more for ethnic minorities and other philosophical minorities in the nation, because of the emphasis on human rights and empirical philosophy as a foundation for equality in a democratic system of governance. The sociopolitical sphere, also in theory, should follow from this equality: No one skips the line. The rub in multicultural, multiethnic, religiously pluralistic societies is, precisely, that: cultures, ethnicities/‘races’, and religions differing & coexisting.
Humanists, like anyone, can encounter discrimination. Simply look at the Humanists At Risk program from Humanists International. This should give humanists a sensitive gauge on hate movements and their effects. I’ve interviewed a fair number of non-religious people. There are trends.
Two interviewees within a half of a day to three days have been taken into jail with, at least, one given a confirmed death penalty in Pakistan — halting any interview coming out. A third happened, recently, in Ghana, who works on LGBTI rights.
I took this moment to reflect. When I was working with Muslim colleagues, I encountered anti-Muslim sentiment within the secular communities, simply for collaboration with Muslims. It’s real — duh.
To our credit, often, I don’t see this in the secular communities much if at all; however, the moment sticks in memory. I argue the vast majority, if not all, humanists condemn the taking of innocent life. This extends to the murder of an entire family: Salmon Afzaal (46), Madiha Salman (44), Yumna Afzaal (15), Talat Afzaal (74), were murdered, and the 9-year-old son who survived with injuries.
Veltman’s trial, as reported in the BBC, Al-Jazeera, CBC News, and Associated Press, is revealing. This was a premeditated murder of Muslims by a young Euro-Canadian male. Why?
The 22-year-old young man was “inspired by white nationalist beliefs” and “acted deliberately… with premeditation. ”Prosecutor Sarah Shaikh said, “…[Veltman] left his home with a specific purpose in mind: to find Muslims to kill.”
Veltman wrote a manifesto self-identifying as a White Nationalist. He planned for 3 months, bought a Dodge Ram two weeks before the attack, and then rammed into and killed the majority of the family except one injured. This 9-year-old Afzaal son will be left with this trauma for the rest his life, and living as such without his immediate family, in echo, for the rest of his life.
If there is anything resembling a religious impulse in humanists, it’s a sense of moral duty to protect other human beings from harm, especially life-and-death harm.
According to prosecutor Shaikh, Veltman told police after the attack, “I know what I did, I don’t regret what I did. I admit that it was terrorism. This was politically motivated, 100%.”
Allegedly, he told investigators that the purpose of using a truck was to send a message to others that trucks can be used to kill Muslims. In a wider sense, this can be seen as premeditated dehumanization with premeditated political purpose, white nationalist and white supremacist purpose.
Veltman pleaded not guilty to four charges of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
For the purposes of this article, I asked two Muslim colleagues of note, Dr. Kathy Bullock and Imam Syed Soharwardy to comment. Imam Soharwardy is the founder of Islamic Supreme Council of Canada. Dr. Bullock is the past Chair of Islamic Society of North America-Canada (ISNA-Canada) and lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, and the president of Compass Books. Imam Soharwardy was born in Karachi, Pakistan; as it happens, the Afzaal family were Pakistani-Canadian. I asked Imam Soharwardy and Dr. Bullock about anti-Muslim bigotry.
Soharwardy said: “The awareness of anti-Muslim bigotry will not only help violence and hate towards Muslims but it helps reduce racism and discrimination against other visible minorities. It will help in developing a better and more cohesive society for everyone.”
Dr. Bullock said: “If we want to tackle an issue that harms parts of our community, we need to be aware it’s happening. We need to understand what it looks or feels like to the affected members. Ignorance of the problem of anti-Muslim bigotry, or denial that it exists, leaves those on the brunt of it to cope by themselves.”
Awareness takes effort on the part of the wider community, because anti-Muslim bigotry (or bigotry of any kind) is often invisible to those who don’t experience it. Since it seems invisible, it can be hard to believe it’s there. We have to understand it through vicarious means. We need to amplify Muslim voices. And we have to be careful not to accept narratives about Muslims written by others, especially in the media. Media is, in the end, a business, and it can trade on easy negative stereotypes. Historically, Muslims have been imagined in the West via a host of negative images, including violent men who oppress women and submissive women who threaten women’s empowerment.
We often feel that government is unreachable and that it’s difficult to bring positive change. Yet we can always work within the circles of people who are closest to us. If we don’t sit in silence while someone makes a racist comment, if we speak up against it, or if we simply leave the room to show we are not part of it, we can bring about positive change that will reduce anti-Muslim bigotry — indeed, bigotry of any kind.
I asked about anti-Muslim bigotry spilling into different denominations and minority religions.
Dr. Bullock said: “Anti-Muslim hate is directed to anyone who fits a narrow stereotype of what the dominant community thinks a ‘Muslim’ looks like, whether or not the recipient is actually Muslim. For men, the turban and the beard are signifiers. For women, a headscarf. Hate also reflects racism connected to skin colour. The more one is ‘white’ or ‘white-passing,’ the less hate one receives. Hindus experience anti-Muslim discrimination because of skin colour and Sikhs because of skin colour and turbans. White Muslims, especially women in headscarves, experience racism, as the clothing erases their ‘whiteness.’ It’s more about the connection to whiteness than about denominations of Islam.”
Imam Soharwardy said: “The anti-Muslim bigotry encompasses all Muslims regardless of their denominations or sects. In fact, anti-Muslim bigotry spreads out toward Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and other visible minorities including visible Christians (e.g., Pakistani, Indian, or Middle Eastern Christians).”
I didn’t want to waste their limited time, so I limited the questions to each to three. I finished by asking about a conference or alliance-building with awareness of these kinds of bigotries.
Imam Soharwardy said: “Yes, unity conferences are the most important step. Islamic Supreme Council of Canada holds such conferences across Canada multiple times of the year, especially during Ramadan, Christmas, and Hanukkah.”
Dr. Bullock said: “Absolutely yes. And these kinds of conferences and gatherings are happening. More are needed. I’ll send you a flyer for one in Winnipeg this coming weekend that I’m flying over to.”
This is an important, historic case in Canadian law and culture. Humanists have a moral role to play here.