It isn’t every day that I get spat upon. Then a stranger quietly muttered, “Muslim.”
I was heading out for a walk on my lunchbreak in downtown Ottawa. The saliva landing on my arm jolted me out of my thoughts. For a moment I just stood and stared, trying to make sense of what had happened. An adult was actually spitting on me. The thing is, I am not even Muslim.
Flashback to a Calgary parking lot, 1991. A small cluster of young, rowdy men are hollering at me: “Go back to Iraq!” Those were the days of George Bush senior’s Gulf War invasion and I wondered (as so many have wondered before) exactly how I was supposed to “go back” to a place I had never been. Couldn’t they tell I was born in a small town in British Columbia?
The Gulf War, 9-11, Afghanistan, the shootings on Parliament Hill are all stoking something ugly in us. Surreal feelings of shock and grief turn to fear, to frenzy, and then to hate. The media and politicians conspire to construct an image of “the enemy.” People take positions and suddenly the enemy is closer at hand. Nuance is lost as imperatives of self-preservation take over.
As we rightfully mourn and condemn the passing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, there remains a creeping sense of collective, grief-striken panic in Paris. In the fog of this mourning, Parisians have sacrificed their civil liberties without blinking an eye. Democratic rights have become some kind of luxury. Is it imperative that such acts make democracies collapse in the arms of a strong man—a Harper, a Bush, a Putin—who wants to take us into deep war?
Arabs and Muslims have been suffering in France for generations now. Wouldn’t this be the perfect time to try to understand and address the many forms of discrimination that Arabs and Muslims face daily? And, after the respectful hommages that the killed employees from Charlie Hebdo deserve, shouldn’t we be able to address the debate that this publication’s juvenile cartoons raise about censorship and the ramifications of stereotypical images in a purportedly welcoming, inclusive society?
FYI to the guy on the street: I have decided that today I am Muslim. And I am Black, like the people in the offices of the NAACP who were bombed the same day that Charlie Hebdo was attacked. And I am Jewish, like the people killed in the Kosher grocery store. As for tomorrow, I’ll be anything else that frightened, intolerant men choose to pick on next.
Sujata Dey is a newly converted Ottawa-Montreal Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Black, Aboriginal. She works in communications for a national NGO and is former books editor of Rover.