‘The human cost of silence is too great’: Police-board chair Javeed Sukhera on Islamophobia and the London attack

TVO.org speaks with the psychiatrist and activist about fighting hatred and awakening to the racism in our society
By Justin Chandler - Published on Jun 08, 2021
Javeed Sukhera is an associate professor in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Western University. (Facebook)

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In what London police allege was a “premeditated act, motivated by hate,” a driver struck a Muslim family with his vehicle on Sunday, killing four of them. 

Husband and wife Salman Afzaal, 46, and Madiha Salman, 44, died alongside their daughter Yumna, 15, and Afzaal’s 74-year-old mother, whom the family has not publicly identified. Their son, Fayez, 9, is in hospital with serious injuries.

Police say the driver, a 20-year-old London man, hit the family, who were walking in the northwest part of the city, because they were Muslim. The driver faces four charges of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder

TVO.org speaks with Javeed Sukhera — a psychiatrist, an activist, and the outgoing chair of London’s police board — about the family and the need to stand against Islamophobia to prevent future violence.

TVO.org: Since this attack was referred to as a hate crime, many people have been sharing the sentiment that this is more than just an attack on one family — it’s an attack on the community at large. Do you feel that way?

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Javeed Sukhera: Yes and no. I knew the family that was personally affected, so it’s hard for me to not imagine the direct loss that we’re experiencing. But I definitely think this has shattered a sense of what people believe about our community and communities in Canada. Many Muslims have already been living to varying degrees of having to face hatred and being afraid. But this takes it to another level. The level of fear that I’ve heard from community members across Canada about being able to go for a walk or just exist is unprecedented. I’ve never seen it before. So I do think that, to a degree, this has been an attack on the sense of safety for many Muslims in Canada.

TVO.org: Tuesday morning, on Twitter, you wrote that any Muslim waking up this morning should be deliberate and unafraid. What do you mean by that?

Sukhera: I meant that we cannot let hatred win and that we cannot not be who we are. I think it’s important for young Muslims to not let a tragedy like this define them and their place and their existence and their communities. So I think they should be deliberate. Deliberately Muslim. Deliberately active to root out hate and unafraid to live their lives — to be unapologetically themselves.

TVO.org: You also added a message you said was for ‘everybody else’: “Your silence will not protect you.” Can you elaborate more on what you meant by that?

Sukhera: I think we have a culture of denialism and avoidance in Canada when it comes to hatred and racism. We don’t like to talk about it, and we don’t like to discuss it, because it shatters our idealized version of who we are. But I don’t think we can do that anymore. The human cost of silence is too great. And our silence won’t save us. We have to speak up, we have to recognize the ways in which we perpetuate this denialism and avoidance, and we have to fight hatred. We can’t fight what we can’t name. We can’t fight what we can’t acknowledge.

TVO.org: Often after violence is attributed to Muslim attackers, we’ve traditionally seen calls for Muslim communities to increase de-radicalization efforts, for example, or to claim some sense of responsibility. But we don’t traditionally see that when white people are accused of racial or political violence. So is that part of that silence and that denialism?

Sukhera: It absolutely is. I would challenge my friends and neighbours to reflect on what the narrative would be if the tables were turned — if the perpetrator were Muslim and the victims were not — and then ask why that’s the case and what it makes Muslims feel like when we get the sense that our lives don’t matter, when we are consistently demonized by some of the discourses and narratives out there. Our lives should matter. Every single one of us should be able to go for a walk with our children. This was a family that was murdered for being who they are. I do hope that this is an awakening for us as a society that we can’t turn a blind eye and that we need to stare this down and root it out.

TVO.org: I know the issue of racism in London received attention last year following Eternity Martis’s book They Said This Would Be Fun, in which she reflects on her experience as a Black woman attending Western University. She writes that London has seen a lot of increased immigration in the last decade — and that there’s also been an increase in police-reported hate crimes, which she attributes to a racist backlash. Monday, you shared a selection of really vile messages that you’ve received over the past several years for speaking out against racism. When you come up against that sort of backlash, how do you personally deal with that?

Sukhera: I was raised with values that reminded me to never be silenced by people who try to silence me. I will say that I am deliberate and unafraid. I will not let that kind of hatred make me stop speaking up about the need for justice and healing in our communities. But I can’t deny the toll that it takes on me emotionally. I can’t deny the amount of emotional energy that it takes. And I know that, as someone who’s a member of a Muslim community and who’s outspoken, that I will be targeted. But it won’t keep me quiet.

TVO.org: You also mentioned on Twitter that we should starve hatred with love and suffocate it with compassion. How do you do that when something is just so exhausting and so frustrating?

Sukhera: While it’s not easy, I think we have to ground ourselves in self-love and self-compassion before we can start to try to have compassion for others; we need to fill our own cups, and we need to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. 

But when we move to make the world better from a place of love, that’s when something transformative happens. It doesn’t happen through media circuses or politicians and their rhetoric. It happens when we put healing as a priority instead of hurting — and when we create space for ourselves and each other to get to know one another. To recognize what we share as human beings and to build from our common humanity. 

That’s what I mean by moving toward love and compassion. And I think hatred is one of those things that compels people into these cycles, these coercive cycles. And I don’t think that that will help save us. I think we have to heal and focus on healing with each other.

TVO.org: You’re already starting to see efforts toward healing. There are vigils planned, for example.

Sukhera: I appreciate everyone and everything they’re doing. I appreciate that everybody heals in a different way. I can’t say a rally helps me heal. 

Personally, I heal surrounded by family. I heal supporting family and immediate family, friends of the deceased. I heal with my kids. I think everybody has a different definition of how they heal. And we should respect that there’s a diversity of ways that people cope. I would ask those who weren’t directly affected to not just show up to rallies or make statements, but really critically examine the ways in which they uphold racism — particularly anti-Muslim prejudice in our communities — and commit themselves to working every day so that the human cost to this isn’t too great.

TVO.org: I know that, through your work with the London police board and as a community activist, you’ve done a lot of work to engage people with calls against racism and trying to better support communities. Are you seeing change in the city?

Sukhera: I have to say, there are many things I’m proud of in this community. And I’m very proud of the progressive way with which we’ve named some of these problems, the progress we’ve made — starting with carding, which was a common practice until community activism routed it out and eliminated it. And I think we’re doing and will continue to do great work in having difficult conversations, but also in making meaningful and sustainable power and policy changes.

TVO.org: When you talk about those policy changes, are there specific actions that you think could be taken at the municipal, provincial, or federal levels to combat Islamophobia?

Sukhera: Well, I think we can start by making sure that we don’t have political parties who vote against motions that suggest that we need to condemn it. I think that would be a good start. There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen and in a multi-partisan way. And I think that this is a topic that’s been turned into a partisan issue. 

I’m sorry, but our lives are not a partisan issue. We need to see every single political party unequivocally speaking up, acknowledging the problem, and then committing to changes to address it. We have a problem of Islamophobia across our society and many of our institutions, just like we have a problem with anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. So I would hope that governments would do less virtue-signalling and spout less rhetoric, and actually, again, critically examine how their discourse feeds hatred that ends lives. Whether it’s talking about borders being dangerous or taking Canada back, this is dangerous rhetoric, and we cannot let it continue.

TVO.org: You’ve mentioned that this was one of the first families you met in London. Would you be comfortable sharing a little bit about your relationship with the family and what kind of people they were?

Sukhera: I hesitate to say much, because this is a very private family. And I think it’s extremely important that we respect their privacy and the privacy for this young boy who survived, so that he can live a life without being re-traumatized. But I can tell you that these were people with hearts of gold, who, in my head, were always smiling. And they always made people feel special.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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