Just days after intruders tried to intimidate them, members of Al Rashid Mosque are uneasy but determined to protect their place of worship and their place in the community amid a rise in hate crimes.
“There is the sense of fear and unease,” said Imam Sadique Pathan, the outreach imam at Al Rashid, the first mosque built in Canada and the largest in Edmonton with more than 60,000 members.
“One of the greatest desecrations a person can do is to come into someone’s home, someone who wishes ill towards you, to walk into your home and to tell you, ‘I’m here and I don’t like you … and I will come uninvited.’ That’s how the members of the mosque felt. It really felt like an attempt to invade the most sacred space with clear intentions to intimidate the Muslim community.”
“We’re very well aware that this sort of intimidation is looking for a reaction, where fear will be instilled in the hearts of Muslims particularly, and that somehow we’re going to close ourselves and isolate ourselves,” Pathan said in an interview. “That, for certain, will never happen.”
“We’re continuing to live our lives as normally and as regularly as we can.”
On Jan. 25, two men walked into the mosque around noon – just before Friday prayers with an average attendance of more than 2,000 people – and claimed to want to know more about Islam.
One man, Tyler Hunt, was wearing a toque that read “disbeliever” in Arabic.
The men went into different parts of the mosque, including the women’s area. The mosque director asked them about their hats, but they said it didn’t mean anything and they had no questions. The men then went outside and joined others in an attempt to confront congregants.
“At this point, they started trying to talk and to coax some of the congregants to respond or to react to quite outrageous questions like ‘What do we do with people who commit blasphemy?’ ” Pathan explained.
“What they were trying to engage in is some sort of confrontation. But the Muslim congregation, even outside, didn’t respond in that way.”
Edmonton police arrived and the intruders moved off mosque property. Police say no arrests were made but the EPS Hate Crimes and Violent Extremism Unit is monitoring the activities of the intruders.
Pathan said there have been incidents of hateful emails sent to mosques or attempts at mischief, but this took it to a new level. “We’ve never had an ultra-right wing group come into the mosque and enter in this way with no notice or request of any sort.”
Video of the confrontation at the mosque was attributed to “The Clann Northern Alberta Infidel Division,” and a Facebook posting features images related to the groups Canadian Infidels and Wolves of Odin or Soldiers of Odin.
Pathan said he’d like to see such groups disbanded.
“We’ve done it in other realms. What are we waiting for? Are we waiting for an outright shooting or emboldening somebody else that will say ‘If they can enter a sacred space of worship …’ Then what next? This is where we really have to hold our political elected officials to account and also the police service.”
Security measures at the mosque are being re-evaluated, Pathan said, including the possibility of hiring a security guard. What hasn’t changed is the congregation’s determination.
“There’s even more resolve that we need to advocate on all levels of government, that we need to hold firm the values of our faith that teach us that we continue to engage and that we celebrate our friendships and partnerships with different community members in Canada and Edmonton. That will never stop,” Pathan said.
“We build partnerships and friendships, and we fight the hate machine that’s out there.”
The incident at Al Rashid comes on the heels of an increase in hate crimes targeting people of faith.
Hate crimes targeting Muslims more than doubled to 349 incidents in 2017 compared with the previous year, according to the latest numbers from Statistics Canada published in November of last year. The report goes on to say that crimes targeting faith groups in general increased more than 80 per cent. The Jewish community was targeted the most with 360 incidents in 2017. Crimes targeting Catholics increased to 39.
Of the intruders, Pathan said: “These people were known to have a militia background and a venomous view towards Islam and not only towards Islam but also to Jesus.
“There’s a vile view of people of faith by this group. It’s their way of saying ‘Not only are you going to hear about us. You’re going to see us.’ ”
Noting that the incident came on the heels of the 74th anniversary of the Holocaust, Pathan said it’s a reminder of the real dangers of hate speech.
“This is a stark reminder that the precipitating factors that exist before any mass tragedy or travesty like the Holocaust, it began with ‘Let’s say all these outrageous things and let’s get away with it’ and keep on pushing it until it becomes mainstream,” he said.
“The Muslim community is quite aware that this can’t be dismissed as something to take lightly. Every church, every synagogue, every temple, every place of worship, every safe place that people consider like their homes should never be as ‘Let’s not take it seriously.’ ”
In the wake of the incident at Al Rashid, what has helped the local Muslim community cope is the sense of community, Pathan said.
“Many wonderful Edmontonians, and Canadians at large, have been voicing their support for the Muslim community. That in itself is a great way of responding to what some groups wish to have, and that is a war of cultures or clash of civilizations.”