Denouncing Islamophobia with the Saleh Family & Mariam Rahman
June 23, 2021
Despite having an array of diverse ethnic backgrounds in Canada's population, the Islam community has faced far too many discriminatory hurdles in recent years. In fact, "hurdles" is a massive understatement - the Islamophobia in Canada is becoming increasingly disturbing and worrisome. A recent survey showed that a large chunk of Canadians disagree with this statement and while 82% of Canadian respondents gave importance to religious freedom generally, only 68% of Canadians gave importance to the protection of the right of Muslims to practice their religion. When it came to welcoming Muslims into their home, 31% were uncomfortable with a family member getting engaged to a Muslim.
These statistics only begin to highlight some of the situations the Islam population in Canada are faced with on a daily basis. The full impact they have can only be described by explaining it first hand, which is why we sat down with Will & Sana Saleh as well as Mariam Rahman - three of our extremely passionate talents.
We launched Education Month here at Dulcedo with the goal of opening up our platform to our talents and listening to their stories and thoughts on these topics. However, the work does not stop here; we have provided additional useful links below to further your education on dismantling Islamophobia. Let's do the work and be proactive.
Will and Sana are a mixed culture couple from Ontario who have grown their following by sharing their love story, faith and their relationship. Mariam is a Canadian-Pakistani blogger from Calgary who has worked her way up to be one of the top beauty bloggers in Canada. One thing they all have in common is their dedication to speaking up and fighting against Islamophobia. The Saleh Family and Mariam spoke to us about their activism, their thoughts on the government's current response to Islamophobia (or lack thereof), advice to their community on how to cope with trauma and more.
What is an assumption/misinterpretation you often see of Islam that bothers you the most?
(Saleh Family) There are too many people that think Islam is a violent and oppressive religion. The media has throughout decades, painted a very negative image of Islam and Muslims. People think of Muslims and instantly associate it with terrorism or extremism. Which is far from the truth. Our faith teaches us not to be extreme in any aspect of our religion as well as our lifestyle. Taking the life of any innocent soul is a major sin as well - so the negative views about Muslims regarding these things are polar opposite to what our faith actually teaches. It’s a stigma every Muslim has to live with - especially here in the west. We are the most peaceful people, we are law abiding citizens and do everything we can to bring peace to our communities. But it’s never portrayed in the media, and it’s contributed to the highest levels of Islamophobia in these countries.
(Mariam) What bothers me the most is seeing the number of people who STILL believe the false notion that Islam encourages and supports terrorism. This dangerous generalization does nothing but normalize Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim violence globally. As someone who has read the Qur’an in its full translation with context, I can attest to the fact that it has taught me to be nothing but peaceful, loving, respectful, and non-judgemental in every aspect of my life. The narrative that Islam is a religion of oppression and terrorism is itself a xenophobic sentiment, often rooted in racism and orientalism. Fighting the “us vs them” mentality that inevitably comes with Western exceptionalism is exhausting, and I wish people would realize how multifaceted the Muslim community is - we’re not as different and scary as the world often paints us to be.
You are a beautiful family of four, including two little ones! How do you navigate teaching them about important values, anti-oppression and acceptance?
(Saleh Family) Thankfully for us, these morals are encompassed within our faith. Which is something we strive hard to practice daily - we fulfill all of the rights of our faith to the best of our ability. We both grew up in different cultures (Pakistani and Canadian) and different religions, as well as eras - we found many resources and inspiration that we took from our upbringing to help raise our children. We teach our children compassion, and seeing the goodness in people while respecting differences. Our children - honestly, at this age do not see colour. They only notice that people have different hairdos and styles of clothing. They are truly so innocent and see the best in everyone.
While at the same time, we show them about the different humanitarian crises happening in the world and they are so empathetic in wanting to do everything they can to help. Whether that’s learning to donate, recycle or stand up for human rights issues.
How do you feel about the Canadian government’s response to Islamophobia? Is there something you would want to see more of from our country in support?
(Saleh Family) We believe that there are too many policies in effect in our country that have stigmatized Muslims for years. The biggest hate crimes and mass murder in our countries modern day has all been against Muslims and the government did not do anything to help prevent it from happening again. Seeing the London terrorist attack happen was absolutely preventable had the government put policies in place to monitor right wing extremism and white supremacy groups online. Many Canadians aren’t aware but some of the biggest online white supremacy hate groups are mostly Canadians. We need our government to do more when it comes to monitoring these websites as they breed hate groups and contribute to these types of attacks. We want our government to make systemic changes as well as introduce education programs into schools to help combat misconceptions about Islam. Most of the content we create is to dispel these misconceptions and we hope one day we can do it on a larger scale to help people understand what Islam truly is.
(Mariam) What response? We’re sick of the words, the thoughts and the prayers; we want concrete action. Just last week a Muslim Pakistani family, not much different from my own, was massacred in a London Ontario terrorist attack by a white man, leaving a 9-year-old child orphaned in the blink of an eye. They were targeted for nothing but their religious beliefs. Directly afterwards, MPP Mitzie Hunter introduced a motion in the Ontario Legislature that condemned all forms of Islamophobia. Ontario’s government blocked this motion. As appalling as it is, it’s important to remember that this wasn’t a one-off occurrence - there have been countless similar instances recorded throughout history. In Quebec, after the 2017 mass shooting in a Mosque, concrete action was largely resisted by Government officials as community advocates were once again met with empty words and false promises of protection.
Before we can even begin to move forward and feel safe as Muslims in Canada, it is absolutely imperative that the Government remove any policy rooted in Islamophobia. From Quebec’s Bill 21 which barred religious symbols on teachers and officers, to Harper’s “barbaric cultural practice” tip line and xenophobic niqab ban, countless policies have contributed to the rise of Islamophobia in Canada. For us to see real change, this must be addressed at the local, provincial AND federal levels of Government.
Will - you converted to Islam after meeting Sana. Could you both expand on your journey of converting (any pivotal moments, challenges, etc)?
I grew up without religion and without a faith. I wasn’t exactly looking for a religion when I met Sana. I always say “I didn’t find Islam. Islam found me.” One of the most pivotal moments for me was witnessing firsthand the unity Islam promotes. Irregardless of skin colour, ethnicity, etc. I witnessed Muslims from all races and ethnicities stand together shoulder to shoulder to pray and that’s when I knew this was what I was longing for. It was kind of a Malcom X moment - where he saw brotherhood and that Islam was the solution to the race problem in this world. I saw it as the solution to all of the prejudices and misconceptions I grew up with as well. It was that very day that I embraced Islam and have never looked back. It’s brought so much peace into my life - that I never knew my soul was longing for.
Mariam, how has your activism evolved over the years as an artist on social media?
(Mariam) In the early days of Rahmanbeauty, I basically had no filter on what I would discuss on my page. I’d say whatever was on my mind even if I knew others would see it as controversial. Unfortunately I got “less political” in the middle of my career because while my page took off, so did the hate messages and threats, which mentally became too much for me. It was also in this time that I received vague feedback from a large corporation regarding “inappropriate language” used on Rahmanbeauty. So for a while, I pulled back from discussing “politics”. After the horrific murder of George Floyd, we all witnessed corporations exploit Black trauma for profit while it was a trending topic. Incredible how social media activism is criticized by corporations only until it becomes profitable for them. After last summer, promises of meaningful inclusion and anti-racism work were, for the most part, completely broken after Black Lives Matter stopped trending. This was when it really hit me that my values may not align with many brands in the industry, and that’s OK - I can pave my own way. I think my followers truly support me in this.
A few things in particular have fuelled my desire to speak up on Islamophobia right now. Firstly, there has been a sharp rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes, with little to no concrete action taken to prevent them from continuing. Second, we have finally reached a breakthrough in our collective understanding of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. Third, upon reaching this breakthrough, apps such as Facebook and Instagram have been heavily censoring posts about Palestinian liberation and Islamophobia, which does nothing but motivate me to further amplify the message. I decided that I simply do not care if I lose sponsorships and brand deals - I will never apologize for who I am, and I’ll NEVER apologize for standing up for my people while they face discrimination and violence.
You use your platform so effectively in spreading awareness for what has been going on in Palestine. With an issue that seems to be so polarizing, how do you cope with all the hate comments and spreading of misinformation on social media?Where do you find the strength?
(Saleh Family) We have always been activists. Long before social media was even a thing. We had done fundraisers for Gaza way back around the time we got married when the humanitarian issues in Palestine did not have hashtags or any content online. We are gifted with an online platform and also gifted with the opportunity to educate our community. When it came to the Palestine humanitarian issue - we didn’t even think twice. We believe in the age old saying “the truth shall set you free” and anyone who looks at the issue prospectively and understands what happened throughout history will understand how much imbalance there is to the coverage we see online.
We believe the Palestine movement was SO big this time because we have social media now and the videos of what was happening there were being shared directly from eye witnesses. The world was not silent this time - millions of crowds came out in the streets during the pandemic in every major city in the world to share their solidarity for the people of Palestine and it was an amazing sight. Especially for us since we have been active in the cause for years. When it comes to getting hate online from people who do not support the cause - we honestly use our judgement and will block anyone that leaves disrespectful comments.
Our goal is to create awareness and fundraise for people who are less fortunate than us, and anyone that has a problem with that is generally never going to change their views. Our content is for those who have an open heart and for those who want to learn and stand in solidarity. At the end of the day, we can never make everyone happy but what we can do is use the platform we have to be a voice for the voiceless.
(Mariam) Every few years, we protest again - it’s a cycle that’s been continuing since the occupation of Palestine in 1948. This time, the movement was able to break barriers and enter mainstream social discourse because of the efforts of the freedom fighters and journalists on the ground who are unifying to resist occupation. Palestinian journalists and influential social media figures fearlessly document the occupation forces’ war crimes despite being brutalized, shot, and jailed for it. That’s where I get my strength, by seeing and feeling the resilience of the marginalized people that we’re fighting for. Palestinians will literally take arrests and beatings with smiles on their faces because they know they’re fighting for truth, for love, for the liberation of their parents and their children. They’re fighting for what’s right. THAT’S who I aspire to be. I’ll happily take censorship and professional losses in order to spread the message being sent by these resilient, beautiful people. The only time Palestine is ever in mainstream news is when they dare to defend themselves against this illegal siege, and I’m tired of it. Pro-Palestine and Palestinian-run social media accounts are continuously reported and censored. As creatives and as “influencers” it is absolutely our responsibility to share this information with the world and demand an end to this censorship and violence against Palestinians. After all, we help fund this mess with our tax dollars.
As Professor Noam Chomsky highlighted recently, Israel’s settlements are illegal under international law, which makes any aid to Israel illegal under international law as well. Canada and the USA are openly supporting this illegal occupation and we must demand that our elected officials vote to STOP its funding and support. Canadian journalists have not covered this because those who demand fair reporting on Palestine are continuously doxxed and barred from reporting on the topic at all. I don’t really pay attention to name calling and slander when it’s directed at me as an individual because I know my heart is in the right place. I guess my overall answer to this question is that I have faith. I know that I’m fighting on the right side of things, I literally feel it in my heart. Whatever I may lose due to speaking up will come back to me in other ways, God willing. I truly believe it.
For those going through similar attacks, do you have any advice on how to do so in a way that educates them while also defending and protecting yourself?
(Mariam) Absolutely. NEVER apologize for speaking your truth and do not doubt yourself. You’re valid and so are your unique life experiences. Nobody can change that.
I want to remind my Palestinian brothers and sisters that you do not carry the responsibility of educating people in the midst of this heavy trauma. The rest of us are responsible to do what we can to amplify their voices and their truth. Whenever I find a great piece of balanced journalism I share it on my stories to educate those who follow me while I educate myself. I keep discussions factual and respectful, while always citing sources for people to follow up on. I think this is the best way to teach people about polarizing issues on social media while preserving your energy.
Hateful messages aren’t usually sent because of some sort of misunderstanding, and I had to learn that the hard way. When it comes to straight up racists and xenophobes, do not engage with them, and protect your energy instead. Block and ignore them. If someone doesn’t see my life as equal to theirs, we cannot have a discussion. It’s really as simple as that.