Four years ago a white supremacist walked into a Quebec City mosque and opened fire in a premeditated rampage, killing six Muslim men as they worshipped, injuring and traumatizing countless others, and altering the lives of an entire community forever.

Afterward, Canadians listened as politicians of all stripes made statements and speeches about the tragedy. But the federal government response has involved limited action. Except for passing reference to Muslims in relation to challenging online hate in Canada’s 2019-2022 Anti-Racism Strategy, any targeted focus on addressing Islamophobia appears to have evaporated since the passage of M-103, a non-binding motion condemning Islamophobia, and the ensuing report Taking Action against Systemic Racism and Religious Discrimination including Islamophobia.

Yet systemic, institutional, and societal forms of exclusion remain a daily reality for many Canadian Muslims, in part because the nuances of Islamophobia as a phenomenon remain poorly understood by public leaders and institutions. This is arguably because governments aren’t resourcing nearly enough anti-Islamophobia work led by the people and civil society groups who understand the issue and experience it most severely.

Federal anti-racism funding by the numbers

In 2019, the Department of Canadian Heritage, through its Community Support, Multiculturalism, and Anti-Racism Initiatives program, allocated just 3.7 per cent of $21 million in funding to Muslim-led and -serving organizations. (This excludes funds disbursed through the Community Support For Black Canadian Youth Initiative.)

Just 2 per cent of all funds went to organizations meaningfully led by hijab-wearing Muslim women, 0.4 per cent to organizations led by Black Muslims, and 1 per cent to first-time Muslim recipients of federal funding.

The violence targeting Muslims grounded in faith-based spaces continues unabated.

Statistics from the Anti-Racism Action Program are nominally better, with about 10 per cent of $15 million in funding going to Muslim-led organizations, although the pattern of limited engagement with organizations led by Muslims most likely to experience systemic barriers persists. Just over 3 per cent of funds through this program were secured by organizations meaningfully led by hijab-wearing Muslim women, 1.4 per cent to organizations led by Black Muslims, and 2.5 per cent to first-time Muslim recipients of federal public funding.

Both the Anti-Racism Action Program and Community Support, Multiculturalism and Anti-Racism Initiatives have been shaped by the Taking Action against Systemic Racism and Religious Discrimination including Islamophobia report, which recommends providing resources to communities most impacted by systemic racism and religious discrimination.

This is why it’s concerning that limited funding has made its way to organizations led by the Muslims most impacted by racism, exclusion, and Islamophobia.

Islamophobic violence and exclusion in Canada

In 2018, Muslims were still among those most likely to be targeted by hate crimes, after Jewish and Black Canadians (it’s not clear how hate crimes against persons with multiple and intersecting identities, for example, those who are both Black and Muslim, are classified or captured by Statistics Canada).

Data also shows Muslim women were more likely to be targeted relative to women from other groups, arguably due to the visibility of women who wear the hijab. Additional research shows that Black Muslim women consistently report the highest levels of discrimination among all Muslims across contexts, and Black Muslim men report significant barriers to political participation.

Today, the violence targeting Muslims grounded in faith-based spaces continues unabated. Just months ago, mosque volunteer Mohammed-Aslim Zafis was senselessly murdered outside an Etobicoke mosque, and at least two mosques in Toronto and Edmonton received threats of violence.

Racism is also a theory about who should be trusted with resources and power.

Researcher and scholar Dr. Siham Rayale of the Black Muslim Initiative, an organization dedicated to addressing issues of anti-Black racism and Islamophobia, notes that hate crime statistics underrepresent the frequency of Islamophobic violence in Canada “because the threshold for what’s considered a hate crime directed at Muslims is often so high.” Statistics also don’t account for violence by state institutions, which typically impact the Muslims most excluded in Canadian society, she adds.

Further, “subtle Islamophobia” — which implicitly relies on harmful ideas about Muslims but occurs behind a polite veneer — is more difficult to measure. This is because it is “nuanced and not always a discrete event,” yet it is equally prevalent in workplaces and academic institutions, according to Raihanna Hirji-Khalfan, who has a legal background and expertise supporting individuals navigating human rights redress systems. Hirji-Khalfan notes this can be equally “violent and horrific … in terms of its impact” on Muslim workers and students, particularly those who are visibly Muslim.

Conversations like these highlight the importance of broadening understandings of Islamophobia from an issue of misguided individuals — hate crimes, online hate, and racial slurs — to a challenge that is both systemic and societal.

Why groups impacted most severely should be prioritized

Arguably, trends in who is impacted by Islamophobia and exclusion should drive how funding is allocated.

Research shows that efforts to address inequality led by individuals with lived experience are more likely to achieve and exceed their goals. And funding groups led by those closest to the issues promotes their self-determination and agency, and signals the legitimacy of their work to other public institutions and funders.

In particular, non-Black Muslims have the option to accept a “racial bribe” by supporting the racial status quo.

At its core, racism is also a theory about who should be trusted with resources and power. Orientalism, the racial theory from which contemporary Islamophobia originates, was used to justify European colonization of Muslim-majority societies and their resources, lands, and labour because Muslims were supposedly too barbaric and backwards to govern themselves. Handing resources over to racialized groups most impacted, therefore, challenges Islamophobia at a fundamental level.

This shows that resourcing the Muslim organizations led by persons who experience Islamophobia and discrimination most intimately is not just the right thing to do. It will also make our fight against Islamophobia in Canada more effective.

Historic resource inequities influence access to funding

With a relatively young and largely immigrant presence in Canada, Muslims here statistically have lower incomes, although they are more educated on average than other Canadians.

So it is unsurprising that many Muslim-led organizations are small and “don’t always have the organizational capacity — knowledge, relationships, time, and staff resources — to write successful grant applications,” says former Ontario human rights commissioner Rabia Khedr, now CEO of DEEN Support Services, a charity founded by Muslims with disabilities. This offers one explanation for the limited number of Muslim-led organizations funded under the two federal programs.

Additionally, many Muslim-led organizations “are new and it takes time to build up a history of projects to qualify for consideration by governments and foundations for funds,” says Muneeb Nasir of the Olive Tree Foundation, a Muslim-led philanthropic organization.

Public institutions resourcing anti-Islamophobia work need to broaden their understanding of Islamophobia.

Nasir adds that the few Muslim organizations able to secure funding are usually “well established and have [full-time] staff and connections to governments” as well as an ability to forge partnerships with registered charities, historically a requirement to access public funding. This highlights that organizations often need pre-existing resources to access public funding.

Recently, however, access to funding for Muslim-led groups has been improving, say Naeem Siddiqi, Olive Tree Foundation vice chair, and Dr. Katherine Bullock, a lecturer at the University of Toronto and researcher on the lived experiences of Muslims in Canada. In particular, Siddiqi notes that second-generation Muslim organizations that are “more sophisticated” and not faith based are often more successful in securing government grants.

It thus appears that while certain Muslim-led organizations have better access to public funding, barriers for others who face Islamophobia first-hand may persist because of resource and capacity constraints, as well as connections to faith-based spaces. But if we are to ensure those most impacted by Islamophobia, racism, and exclusion are able to lead anti-Islamophobia work, these issues of access to funding will need to be addressed.

‘Good Muslims,’ privilege, and access to public funding

As statistical data and multiple accounts by scholars and practitioners illustrate, not all Muslims experience Islamophobia and social exclusion in the same ways. Further, not all Muslims are willing to meaningfully challenge Islamophobia.

In particular, non-Black Muslims have the option to accept a “racial bribe” by supporting the racial status quo, which subordinates Black, Indigenous, and racialized people in society. “It benefits them financially, socially, it’s essentially self-interested,” says Dr. Rayale.

No intersectional analysis of how public funding is allocated is currently conducted.

Muslims who are visible and grounded in faith-based spaces, however, are less able do this because they are “not perceived as neutral and … already perceived as people with an agenda, and that agenda is not agreeable” to liberal institutions, says Hirji-Khalfan.

She cites an experience on a public board where a Muslim man “challenged me as to whether or not racism actually exists [in Canada] or people just play the race card” as an example of how sometimes Muslim people with power can play the “good Muslim,” upholding whiteness and contributing little to advancing conversations about racism and discrimination in society.

These nuances — visibility, connections to faith-based spaces, social class, and race — impact how Islamophobia is experienced and challenged, and are important considerations when allocating funding for anti-racism initiatives.

Addressing the challenge of underfunded Muslim groups on the front lines

If we are to meaningfully advance the fight against racism and exclusion in Canadian society, public institutions resourcing anti-Islamophobia work need to broaden their understanding of Islamophobia, from hate crimes and online hate to a form of systemic racism that can be implicit or overt and that exists in institutions too.

Public institutions need to prioritize funding for those most impacted. And as shown by the recent controversy in which the Somali Centre for Family Services was denied public funding, those reviewing grant applications must have strong knowledge of local communities and the organizations that serve their needs, and for public officials to build strong relationships with groups on the front lines as well.

Handing resources over to racialized groups most impacted, therefore, challenges Islamophobia at a fundamental level.

Further, public institutions should design funding opportunities through an anti-racism and equity lens — recognizing that those most impacted by exclusion may be running smaller, never before funded organizations and may not have grant applications that are as competitive as those from organizations with resources. Nevertheless, these small organizations may be more innovative and nimble, and have deep roots within an impacted community that can contribute to the effectiveness of their work.

Making capacity-building funding more accessible, so that small Muslim-led organizations doing critical work with limited resources can grow their infrastructure and become competitive, will also help address the challenges of underresourced anti-Islamophobia work.

Finally, while the names of recipients and the amount of federal public funding they receive is published, no intersectional analysis of how public funding is allocated is currently conducted. This data can be a helpful indicator of how the fight against racism, Islamophobia, and exclusion in Canadian society is progressing.

By taking decisive action in these ways, government and civil society organizations led by Muslims with first-hand knowledge of the issues can work hand in hand to challenge the roots of racism, exclusion, and Islamophobia in Canada. In so doing, we can ensure we put an end to national tragedies, as well as systems and structures that exclude and dehumanize.

Sanaa Ali-Mohammed is a community engaged researcher, organizer and human rights advocate based in Dish with One Spoon Treaty Territory. She sits on the board of Urban Alliance on Race Relations, which trustees the grant the Black Muslim Initiative received from the Olive Tree Foundation.