Sulemaan Ahmed was getting out of a meeting when the messages began to pour in.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Thinking of you.”
His phone had been off all day. He didn’t yet know that a terrorist had killed four people in London, Ontario. He didn’t know that the man used a truck to murder a teenage girl, her parents and her grandmother, orphaning her little brother.
The killer did this because they were Muslim.
But Ahmed didn’t know this yet.
“I was having a great day and somewhere out there a family was being murdered,” he said. “It was exactly like the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand. Your phone lights up, and it’s one message of condolence after another.
“And after Quebec City, after Christchurch, you wonder when’s the next time they’ll come for us?”
His instincts weren’t wrong. The week after the London attack, a Muslim woman in Edmonton ended up in the hospital after being assaulted on the street. A few days after that attack, a young man and woman were arrested for threatening to blow up a mosque in Scarborough.
This is the kind of violence that many in Canada have come to expect from their neighbours. It’s what leads so many Muslim parents to sit down with their children and explain what it means to be hated.
But Ahmed couldn’t bear to go through all that again. He couldn’t stand to hear the “thoughts and prayers” from some of the same politicians who, years earlier, refused to denounce Islamophobia in the House of Commons. So he decided to do something about it.
He tracked down every MP that had voted against M-103 — a 2017 motion to condemn Islamophobia — and gave them a second chance to do the right thing. Back then, 91 Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs opposed M-103 on the grounds that the Liberal government used it for political reasons. Others thought “Islamophobia” was a loaded term, used by Islamic radicals to shield themselves from legitimate criticism.
“I’m not naive enough to suggest that the Liberals aren’t politicizing the issue,” Ahmed said. “If they were consistent, they’d be denouncing Bill 21 in Quebec.” That law prevents Muslim women who wear head coverings from becoming public teachers, government lawyers, police officers and more.
“So, you know, ‘thoughts and prayers,’ I’m not interested in that. I want to move forward. I don’t want to play games. I want to appeal to people’s better angels,” said Ahmed.
He wrote 91 emails, addressing the francophone MPs in French, offering his personal cell phone number to anyone who wanted to talk and even agreeing to show up to a meeting at one Conservative MP’s riding to talk about the issue.
Some reactions genuinely surprised Ahmed.
“(Conservative MP) Michelle Rempel, to her credit, gave a thoughtful heartfelt response,” he said. “You can criticize her record but the fact is that, as a woman, she faces a lot of vitriol online. She said she’d change her vote. She said that publicly. Can you imagine how angry the far right must be? They eviscerated her.”
So far, Rempel and her Conservative colleagues Mike Lake, Marilyn Gladu, Matt Jeneroux and John Nater have all told Ahmed they would change their vote on M-103 if given the chance today.
Another MP said she didn’t know whether her vote would change today but that Ahmed had given her pause.
“What happens when people begin to engage with you is that you’re no longer something abstract to them,” said Ahmed. “You’re a person they know, you’re someone they might even start to consider a friend. I know one man who said that when he saw the picture of the family killed in London, he thought about my family and started to cry.
“The difference with London and the Quebec City mosque attack is there were children involved this time,” he continued. “I think it forced a lot of people to say, ‘Maybe this is real. Maybe this stuff that Rebel Media pushes out, the Toronto Sun pushes out, Quebecor and the National Post, maybe they’re not so good. Maybe they’re making things more dangerous for Muslims.’”
The publications Ahmed mentioned have a record of making inflammatory and often outright false statements about Muslims in Canada. One reporter at Rebel Media, for instance, claimed the Quebec City mosque attack that left six men dead was a false flag operation. Quebecor had to turn off the comments section on one of its Facebook pages when a story about Syrian refugees dying in a house fire was met with applause from some readers. The Quebec media giant also admitted, in 2019, to publishing a fake story about a mosque in Montreal not allowing women construction workers near its premises during Friday prayer.
The day after the London attack, Toronto Sun columnist Tarek Fatah wrote that there was no Islamophobia in Canada.
“They weren’t even buried yet and already the Sun was publishing this bullshit,” Ahmed said. “But people are noticing this. And I’ll tell you, that night at the vigil, what encouraged me was that I saw more non-Muslims than Muslims. We have allies in the (non-Muslim) Black community, we have Indigenous allies, Jewish allies and white allies. And that’s how we’re going to win people over.”
Of course, there are limits to Ahmed’s efforts. None of the Bloc Québécois MPs he wrote to even bothered responding. And he concedes that some folks are so far gone that they’ll probably go to the grave with hate in their heart.
“There are some who will never accept us,” Ahmed said. “If I changed my name from Sulemaan to Sully, if I don’t have an accent when I speak, if I dress a certain way, they still won’t accept me. “I don’t want their acceptance.”
Pretty emotional evening in London during the memorial service. I’ve never seen snipers above mosque before. It’s a bit jarring. What gives me hope is the mass of Canadians of all backgrounds & faiths here in support. All Canadians have more work to do. #londonontario pic.twitter.com/spzyHFYMNh— Sulemaan Ahmed (@sulemaan) June 9, 2021
Before the London vigil, a family member shared something that cut deep. Ahmed’s mother, a doctor, said she doesn’t feel safe outdoors anymore. He heard this from other community members too.
“My mom has lived in Canada for five decades, she’s been a doctor, she’s literally saved lives here and now she’s worried about walking outside her own house,” Ahmed said. “That’s what it’s come to.”
Most people will never know that kind of fear. And to honestly consider it might be too bleak an exercise for many of us.
But then, most people wouldn’t write 91 emails to people whose politics negate their humanity.
Sulemaan Ahmed is not most people. Along with his wife, Khadija, Ahmed was part of the Conquer COVID-19 campaign, which raised millions of dollars for frontline workers across Canada. Before that, he was part of an effort to get his son and hundreds of other people across Canada off a no-fly list they were placed on because they happen to share the same names as suspected terrorists.
It took five years of knocking on doors in Ottawa but they ultimately got it done. Ahmed says it’s just not in his nature to give up.
“I can live with losing. I can’t live with giving up,” he said. “I couldn’t do nothing. The way I cope with it is by writing to 91 MPs. The way I deal with the pain is to do something about it. I can’t help myself.”