Montreal, Canada – Like so many others have done during the coronavirus pandemic, the Afzaal family was out for an evening walk. But on Sunday, as they waited to cross a street in London, Ontario, they were run down by a driver police say was motivated by anti-Muslim hate.
For members of Muslim communities across the country, the Islamophobic attack that killed four people, including a teenage girl, and seriously injured a nine-year-old boy, harkens back to painful memories of a deadly assault on a Quebec mosque more than four years ago.
It is also a sign that something is terribly wrong.
“The sentiment that I’m hearing across the board, and I think everybody is feeling, that it could have been any one of us,” Selma Tobah, a 31-year-old graduate student at Western University who has lived in London for more than 10 years.
“They were just out on an evening walk. I take evening walks all the time with my friends and family. I wear hijab – my mom, my sisters, my friends. So it literally could have been any one of us.”
London police told reporters on Monday that three adults and two children were hit in “an intentional act” about 8:40pm local time on Sunday (00:40 GMT on Monday). “We believe the victims were targeted because of their Islamic faith,” police chief Steve Williams said.
The slain victims – a 46-year-old man, two women aged 74 and 44, and a 15-year-old girl – were all members of the same family, police said. The boy is in hospital with serious injuries, but is expected to recover.
A 20-year-old London man, Nathaniel Veltman, was arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
“There’s no question that we’re aching, we’re in pain. Our hearts are broken, our minds are numb,” Abd Alfatah Twakkal, a Muslim community faith leader in London, told. “At the same time, there are concerns and feelings of fright, fear – because of the egregiousness of this horrific act and crime, which had the impact of instilling terror within our community members.”
Twakkal said London’s Muslim community – one of the oldest in Canada – has received an outpouring of support and solidarity, which provides some comfort. But he urged concrete action to address rising Islamophobia and racist vitriol that is often spread online.
Statistics Canada said in March that police-reported hate crimes targeting Muslims “rose slightly” to 181 incidents in 2019 – the last year for which the data is available. That is up from 166 incidents the previous year.
“It’s not enough just to say we reject Islamophobia, we reject xenophobia, we reject racism, discrimination… but it’s also even more critical that it doesn’t stop there,” he said. “Steps need to be taken for people to say that we don’t accept it. When they come across it, to reject it, to call it out, to say that this is not acceptable.”
London Mayor Ed Holder said in a statement on Monday that three days of mourning would be held in the city after the attack. “Let me be clear: This was an act of mass murder, perpetrated against Muslims — against Londoners — and rooted in unspeakable hatred,” Holder said.
A moment of silence was also observed on Monday in Parliament in the capital, Ottawa, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the deadly violence as “a terrorist attack motivated by hatred in the heart of one of our communities”.
“Unlike every other night, that family never made it home. Their lives were taken in a brutal, cowardly and brazen act of violence. This killing was no accident,” said Trudeau, promising to take stronger action against far-right groups in Canada.