Kimia Tahaie was an opinions staff writer of the Silhouette from 2021-22. 

The Silhouette: Please introduce yourself.  

Kimia Tahaie: My name is Kimia and I'm a third-year arts and science student. I'm also double majored in communication and media studies. I'm doing a semester abroad in Amsterdam to do journalism courses because that's what I'm going to pursue professionally. 

Could you tell us a short summary of what the situation in Iran is like right now? 

This all started with the brutal killing of Mahsa Amini. It's very important to note that this was not the first killing that happened under this Islamic regime in Iran. This is one of many. With the protests that have been happening in Iran, they're happening within shorter time frames. The gap is getting shorter and shorter. It just shows how sick and tired the people are of living in the regime. They're trying their best to stop us but people have been very persistent and they're protesting and even going out on the streets every night even though there's a very large chance of getting murdered. But there have been consistent acts of protest. There has been a continuous movement. 

It's just been so many years of oppression. I feel like a lot of people don't know the extent of oppression we've been facing during these past years. We are deprived of the simplest rights as a society, men and women. For example, we can't have pets. If you have a dog, the dog will be taken away from you because that's haram. Iranian women can't bike, Iranian women can't sing, Iranian women can't go on the streets without a hijab. So there are so many elements that have just built up to these protests. That's why I am strongly against a lot of Muslim influencers who are coming out and saying that what Persian women are doing is inherently Islamophobic. That could not be further away from the truth. I think what really needs to be understood is that for me, that's not a hijab. For us, it's a piece of cloth that has been forced on our heads for years and years and years. To us, this is a symbol of freedom. We're not saying to ban the hijab; we're saying to give women the freedom to wear what they want and, in the bigger picture, to give freedom to the people of Iran. 

I think what really needs to be understood is that for me, that's not a hijab. For us, it's a piece of cloth that has been forced on our heads for years and years and years. To us, this is a symbol of freedom. We're not saying to ban the hijab; we're saying to give women the freedom to wear what they want and, in the bigger picture, to give freedom to the people of Iran.

Kimia Tahaie

A lot of people think this is a women's movement. This is a human rights movement. Freedom for all. I think in America, Europe and Canada, everyone's very desensitized to Middle Eastern issues. I think this is very well-done propaganda because it groups us as poor people far away — the poor Middle Easterners that we can't do anything about. This can't be further away from the truth. This is not just the Middle Eastern issue: with the freedom of Iran comes the freedom of many countries. This is something I feel like people are forgetting. We have largely funded Russia, meaning that they can bomb Ukraine. This is not "just another Middle Eastern issue". This is way bigger than that. This is a very global issue. If we believe that, it will lead to the freedom of many, many other countries. 

What can people outside of Iran do to help? 

It's so important to not read what's happening in Iran as just another headline. 

My people are literally giving their lives in the hopes of achieving very basic human rights. There’s an Internet shutdown in Iran so don't let [Mahsa Amini's name] stop circulating. Because the day that this dies down is the day that the regime can completely take over. 

A lot of my friends, even those who aren't Persian, have asked their professors if they could have a few minutes to talk about what's happening. Consistently keeping yourself in the loop with what's happening and spreading awareness on social media is the most important thing. Also, just checking up on your Persian friends because they're not okay. 

The City of Hamilton is pursuing a partnership with Cardus, despite concerns from some residents regarding the organization’s allegedly anti-LGBTQ and islamophobic views.  

According to their website, Cardus is a non-partisan, Christian-based think tank and registered charity that provides independent research and commentary on a wide range of topics. These topics include education, health, law, work, economics and spirited citizenship. The organization has recently directed its attention towards the Balfour House, a heritage site currently owned by the Ontario Heritage Trust and managed by the City of Hamilton, with the possibility of using it as their home base.

The historic stone mansion on the Mountain Brow currently requires renovations and is not accessible to the public. However, Cardus has proposed to restore and re-open the Balfour House for their own use and to make it available to the community. 

“Allowing Cardus to cover the costs of restoring and re-opening Balfour House to serve as our head office is a major part of keeping this city’s historical and architectural legacy alive,” said Michael Van Pelt, Cardus president and CEO, in a news release. 

According to Van Pelt, the proposal would restore the Balfour House and save taxpayers $1.5 million in repairs and operating costs over the next 20 years. Moreover, Cardus claims to have the support of David Balfour, whose grandparents once lived in the house during the 20th century. 

While the apparent financial benefit of Cardus’ proposal has captivated several city councillors, many Hamiltonians believe that the negotiations have given public space to anti-LGBTQ views.

“There is little doubt in my mind that some of Cardus’ publications could be interpreted by many as homophobic, Islamaphobic and transphobic. However, there [were] also many other publications that demonstrated acceptance of Canada’s pluralistic, multicultural and religious diverse society,” said Brad Clark, Ward 9 (Upper Stoney Creek) city councillor, in an interview with CBC news. 

The possibility of a partnership between the city and Cardus may allow for other recent discussions about hate in Hamilton to resurface. This past year, Hamilton’s city and police were criticized for how they handled violence at Hamilton’s Pride festival in June. More recently, yellow vesters, members of a xenophobic far-right hate group, are gathering weekly to protest in front of city hall. 

https://twitter.com/sarahjama_/status/1174981361557336066

“I’m no expert, but it seems like if Cardus were to exist in #HamOnt it would scale up, build upon a foundation of, and add a false sense of sophistication to the levels of white supremacist organizing in our city,” tweeted McMaster alumni and community organizer Sarah Jama. 

However, explicit evidence of Cardus’ alleged anti-LGBTQ and islamophobic views is hard to find. It is difficult to identify any overtly hateful content in the numerous articles the organization has published, instead appearing to focus on the freedom of religious expression.

While some articles are critical of these communities, others such as The Positive Difference of Islam and Enriched by Difference suggest the opposite. 

Van Pelt recently sent a letter to city councillors, stating that Cardus complies with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Ontario Human Rights Code, Ontario Employment Act and the City of Hamilton Equity and Inclusion Policy. 

“I would like to add that Cardus has an impressive record in terms of building an open and tolerant society in Canada . . . [Cardus leads] some of the most respectful and thoughtful discussions on faith and public life in the country, ” said Van Pelt in the letter. 

Hamilton’s City Council voted 13-2 to continue negotiations with Cardus. The majority of city councillors seem to agree that a partnership with Cardus may be in the city’s best interest as it will save on public expenditure, regardless of the potential impact on community groups. 

 

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By Anonymous

On Sept. 22, the Student Representative Assembly decisively voted to revoke club status for the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, ending months of disgraceful inaction from the McMaster Students Union board of directors and clubs department.

As a Chinese student, I applaud the SRA’s decision to stand up for student safety. The CSSA — which is linked to the Chinese Communist Party — has openly admitted to reporting people on campus to the Chinese government. By policing people and reporting them to a totalitarian dictatorship, the CSSA seriously endangered students who criticize the Chinese Community Party — especially Chinese, Tibetan and Uyghur students with family in China, given the Chinese government’s extensive human rights violations.

Many of us oppose the genocides in Tibet and Xinjiang, object to police brutality and rising authoritarianism in Hong Kong, and ultimately yearn to one day see freedom and democracy in our ancestral homelands. For us, the SRA’s monumental decision represents a strong affirmation of our right to exist safely on campus, and a rejection of Chinese Communist Party attempts to surveil and intimidate students.

Beyond my own opinion, the SRA has received sweeping praise. Rukiye Turdush, the Uyghur speaker condemned by the CSSA, applauded McMaster student representatives for standing up for our rights. Zhou Fengsuo, a famous Chinese human rights activist, called the vote momentous. Former Canadian ambassadors to China, David Mulroney and Guy Saint-Jacques, strongly commended the SRA’s move.

However, we should not let widespread approval obscure an important nuance: the SRA’s decision to de-ratify the CSSA was long overdue because of inaction from the MSU board and staff.

The SRA’s decision comes seven months after international media first reported on the CSSA in February. However, the MSU board and staff caused most of the delay, as they were occupied with speculation about lawsuits and fretting over potential backlash, instead of actually addressing the issue.

For starters, at the March 24 SRA meeting, then-MSU President Ikram Farah stunningly claimed that there was mere “speculation” about what happened — despite numerous detailed reports from international media and Human Rights Watch.

“We look at federal, provincial, municipal, and university [policies], and … based on the information we currently have, none of that had been infringed upon,” stated Farah in the Mar. 24 SRA meeting, oblivious the reason why international media sounded the alarm in the first place.

Beyond replying to SRA members who questioned them, the MSU board of directors did nothing to address concerns. There was no public response to the international news articles or Human Rights Watch recommendations. Meanwhile, the clubs department took no action either.

Finally, even immediately prior to the vote, the board of directors continued trying to avoid the issue in the SRA meeting on Sept. 22. Alexandrea Johnston (vice president finance) suggested moving the CSSA motion to the next meeting. Sarah Figueiredo (vice president administration) and Shemar Hackett (vice president education) refused to vote on the deratification motion. MSU President Joshua Marando had conveniently left the meeting earlier.

The board’s persistent attempts to avoid touching the CSSA fueled rumours of intentional efforts to hush this issue, or self-censor, due to pressure from university administration and fear of Chinese government retaliation. Although these rumours are speculation, the MSU’s ominous silence on social media so far (in contrast to Marando’s dramatic public statement excoriating the Dominion Society, another de-ratified MSU club) does nothing to reassure concerned students.

Faced with such cowardice from the MSU board and staff, the SRA cut through the nonsense and did what’s right. While the board and staff buried their heads in the sand for seven months, it was SRA members who gathered evidence, made a presentation, and motioned to de-ratify the CSSA.

Moving forward, SRA members should continue to keep the board in check. Evidently, the board’s approach is not always correct, so having the SRA hold the board accountable makes for a better MSU.

Marando, however, needs to show better leadership. Similar to his strong condemnation of white supremacy, Marando should publicly and unequivocally make clear that the MSU will not tolerate attempts to police marginalized students; efforts to surveil and control Chinese, Tibetan and Uyghur students on campus; or the hateful ideologies that enable genocide in Xinjiang. His silence so far on these concerns is deeply worrying.

The SRA has taken a bold first step in making campus a safer place, especially for students with family in China. Now it is time for Marando and the rest of the MSU board to stop twiddling their thumbs, match the SRA’s courage, and speak out against the threats and intimidation that students face.

 

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Canadian universities are supposed to be diverse and inclusive.

But just a few weeks ago at Ryerson University, a student union vice-president candidate had his poster defaced with “ISIS for life” scribbled across.

This incident of religious discrimination is just one among many across North America, like Swastikas sprayed outside Jewish fraternity houses and shootings of Muslim students near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It’s easy to be apathetic about these events as they seem to pass quickly through the news cycle, simply appearing as a blip on your Twitter feed, just another event happening over there, to other people.

But these events are symptomatic of a wider pattern of religious discrimination and xenophobia that also appears at McMaster. Although many of us may not even notice it, religious discrimination is embedded in our university.

The Silhouette talked to four students to better understand the lived reality of religious discrimination.

Although many of us take freedom from religious discrimination for granted, some students experience it so much that they almost become immune to it.

“As a Jewish person you kinda grow up used to it and you become immune to it,” said Sean Haber, a fourth-year student at McMaster and an active member of the Jewish community on campus.

“Thank god [anti-Semitism] here hasn’t reached the levels it has reached in Europe and some campuses in the states. There has been anti-Semitism on campus, in some ways it’s subtle, in some ways it’s a lack of the university trying to understand the needs of Jewish students,” said Haber.

This subtle discrimination is also a reality for Muslim students.

Sabeen Kazmi, a fourth-year student and active member of the Muslim community says up front personal discrimination is somewhat rare. “Overall generally in my day-to-day life, I don’t really feel like I’m being discriminated against because of my religion. For the most part people have been very interested in learning about me and my religion.”

Institutionalized discrimination

But religious discrimination does not only manifest in person-to-person interactions; it is also woven in to our academic system.

“On an academic level I’ve seen a lot of content that’s been oppressive in many ways. A lot of times professors will teach you things that are not okay. And you can tell right away they don’t have a training that allows them to be anti-oppressive,” explained Kazmi.

“The content, and materials and courseware can sometimes also be very limiting and restrictive, and you don’t really find your own ethnic group represented adequately in most course wares.”

Discrimination can also manifest in the form of not accommodating religious holidays.

“There are accommodations to deal with exams if exams fall on the Sabbath or on holidays. A lot of time that goes teacher by teacher. I can tell you I almost failed first year chem because my midterm was on a holiday and at first he was going to make me just fail it, and after fighting with him for a long time he let me put [that percentage] on the exam,” said Haber.

The problem is that students don’t always feel comfortable reporting this.

“Generally students would kinda be hesitant to go to someone from administration because they’re worried about how it will be handled or if they’ll face repercussions, so they’ll generally come to us and we’ll try to talk to administration, so it’s just important for us to keep those avenues open,” said Ammar Ahmed, President of the McMaster Muslim Students Association.

When asked whether she feels comfortable on campus, Hayley Goldfarb, a third-year student and member of the Jewish community said, “in general yes [I feel comfortable] but there have been specific instances where I definitely didn’t feel comfortable clearly identifying as Jewish on campus, whether that be wearing a Star of David or wearing a shirt with any kind of symbolism on it.”

There is also variation in tolerance and understanding based on faculty.

“From one faculty to the next there might be some differences, because in social science people are more aware of racial discrimination and gender based discrimination,” said Kazmi.

Systemic discrimination also manifests in terms of fewer food options.

“[Kosher food options] are not good at all. There are a few kosher snack options on campus, and bridges has a kosher salad bar,” said Haber.

But although these students say more overt discrimination is rare, McMaster has not been completely exempt.

Overt Discrimination

More intense anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have existed at McMaster, when triggered by specific events.

For instance, Kazmi, a peace activist, says in her role advocating for social change, people critique her because of her religion, rather than her ideas.

“That kind of hate has only happened when I’m in a very particular context at the university… For example, I would be called ignorant, ‘your people are barbaric and therefore I am barbaric too and I should just be thankful that I’m in Canada, and stop stirring up trouble.’ Those are very targeted in that they are talking about my identity as a Muslim and they are not criticizing what I’m advocating for.”

But Kazmi was quick to add that many activists face some kind of discrimination.

“This isn’t something that is unique to my experience as a Muslim woman. I think that most activists or people that are advocating for something out of the norm experience it too,” she said.

Discrimination being triggered by specific events or contexts is part of a wider pattern.

“A lot of anti-Israel action on campus will lead to the silencing bullying and harassment of Jewish students,” said Haber.

In particular, Jewish students experienced anti-Semitism in relation to the Boycott Divestment Sanction vote at last year’s MSU General Assembly.

“I received anti-Semitic messages because of my support for Israel, from strangers. One of them calling me Jewish scum or Zionist scum or something like that and it was all connected to the BDS vote,” said Haber. “That’s a pattern that you see not only at McMaster but at campuses around the world.”

Muslim students also face discrimination when advocating for peace.

“When I’m advocating for anti-war initiatives that’s when people have been really aggressive towards me, and I don’t know why, but somehow it just feels like when I turn on that identity of mine, I become a free target for all, to come and say whatever they want to me,” said Kazmi.

However, preventing discrimination does not mean that critical discussions cannot happen.

“You can criticize the government of Israel and criticize Zionism but it is not okay to criticize people simply because they are Jewish,” said Kazmi.

Fostering religious inclusion

Ultimately, students will need to feel empathy for their peers of different religious beliefs in order to foster a safer environmental for all.

Mac Hillel and the McMaster Muslim Student Association have already worked closely together to combat these issues.

“Hillel and the MSA have a great relationship, and that’s something that needs to go forward when combatting anti-Semitism and islamophobia,” said Haber.

In fact, Haber says there are many commonalities in religious discrimination.

“One of the reasons we’re targeted just in general is because we are different. We stick to our own customs and our own rules… We should be proud of how we make ourselves different and how we stick to whatever religious ideology we have,” said Haber.

The dynamic with interfaith collaboration can be positive and fulfilling.

“We do some work with Hillel, with P2C [Power to Change], and we’re having an event in about a week or so with the Atheist group. The thing is, when you’re working with groups everything is really good because everyone is on the same level ,and we all kind of get it and we like to discuss these topics,” said Ahmed.

“In general, as a student and as a member of society, it’s everyone’s responsibility to look out for everyone. So as a Jew I want to make sure all of my fellow students are comfortable whether that’s in their religion or political beliefs. So in the same way, even if you’re not Jewish, I hope that you would support those who are and hope that they feel comfortable,” said Goldfarb.

Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are not just minor problems; they are barriers to student success.

“For a student that is kind of facing this issue day in and day out it becomes a very suffocating environment for them. They can’t focus entirely on their academics anymore, they are more worried about these other things just because that environment is weighing down on them. It’s honestly a very serious concern if a student is going through that, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly,” said Ahmed.

Religious intolerance is not something you may expect to find at a university like McMaster. But as these students have shared, it is a reality many students do in fact face.

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