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Jew and Muslim touched by shootings unite to speak against religious hatred

Montreal Imam Hassan Guillet says ignorance and unfamiliarity are key drivers of modern religious hatred.
Montreal Imam Hassan Guillet says ignorance and unfamiliarity are key drivers of modern religious hatred.

The target is common people, otherwise pure of heart, but unsure how to recognize and respond to the common tropes of hate propaganda

Several months after his eulogy for victims of the 2017 Quebec City mosque atrocity went viral for its provocative suggestion that the murderer was also a “victim” of hatred, Hassan Guillet took his lawnmower in for repairs.

He is a volunteer imam, a retired engineer and former aviation executive, from Lebanon but in Canada since 1974. He is also a lawyer, and a newly announced federal Liberal candidate in Montreal. But on that day, out where the South Shore suburbs give over to farmland, he was just a guy with a busted machine, chatting with a mechanic he has known for years.

The mechanic was keen to talk to Guillet about seeing him on TV, and to ask his thoughts about another Muslim customer. By coincidence, this customer was also an imam but, as the mechanic described it, he had become so overwhelmed by a climate of ignorance, mistrust and bigotry that he decided to close up his synagogue.

“I said, ‘What?’” Guillet recalls, laughing because synagogues are Jewish, and the mechanic clearly was grasping in vain for the word “mosque.” “Imagine! The guy’s not stupid.”

What he discovered in this awkward moment was more than just a winning anecdote. It was an opportunity for outreach and education, something he has pursued in other improbable locations, such as when a man recently approached him in a supermarket to confess his ignorance and curiosity about Islam, and got a five-minute crash course right there in the aisle of the Super C.

There is a rare power in this friendly approach to interfaith outreach and anti-hate activism, which Guillet will speak about next week at Holy Blossom Temple, an actual Jewish synagogue in Toronto. He will be in dialogue with Marnie Fienberg, an American woman with a painfully personal experience of intolerance who is pursuing a similar goal from a Jewish perspective.

Both have identified ignorance and unfamiliarity as key drivers of modern religious hatred, especially against Jews and Muslims. Sponsored by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims, and JSpace Canada, “Moving from Hate to Hope” aims to foster interfaith understanding as a means of reducing hatred and violence.

It is a more genteel sort of anti-racism activism than the average street protest. The target is not those who have already slipped into the fever swamps of online hatred of the sort that inspires attacks on synagogues and mosques. It is common people, otherwise pure of heart, but unsure how to recognize and respond to the common tropes of hate propaganda, to which modern Jews and Muslims are especially attuned.

“Many people forget that we are all brothers and sisters,” Guillet said. They fail to see that an existential danger to one is a threat to everyone. “This is the mission I gave myself, to teach people you are not alone.”

The idea is that familiarity protects against dehumanization.

Guillet said his strategy against Islamophobia also takes some inspiration from the #MeToo movement, in which some people came to a heightened awareness and sensitivity to the suffering of others. Many realized how their own ignorance or inattention had allowed injustice to continue, even if they themselves never felt or displayed any malice.

“I feel that most people are like that,” said Marnie Fienberg of Washington, D.C., who shares top billing with Guillet. She means good people, uninformed but curious for decent reasons, not looking to validate their own predetermined hatred with conspiracy theory.

She is a former business consultant for the U.S. federal government, working on strategic communications for Homeland Security and NASA. But she found herself unable to work after he mother-in-law Joyce Fienberg, 75, was among the 11 murdered in Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October.

“I was too upset. I couldn’t focus,” she said.

She was keen to put her energy toward fighting anti-Semitism, but found there were few opportunities for the average volunteer, someone who was not a security professional or a Holocaust survivor with a story to tell.

She came up with her own, a campaign called 2forSeder, in which Jews invite non-Jews to the Passover meal, at which foundational questions about Judaism are traditionally asked and answered.

She has found it filled a void, and has caught on in Canada as well, with a strong majority of guests identifying as Christian. As usual, food makes a good cultural bridge. Her neighbour in Washington, for example, is a conservative Republican gun enthusiast with a heart of gold. His interest in Judaism after he was moved by a memorial service for Joyce Fienberg inspired 2forSeder. Here was a potential ally, who would push back against hatred if he were only able to recognize the many insidious forms it takes, the classic tropes about fanatical bloodthirsty Muslims or greedy, manipulative Jews.

“He might stand up for it the way he stands up for gun rights. He just needs the data. He’s an upstanding guy. He might even swear,” Fienberg said. “I feel that most people are like that.”

Guillet, retired as a lawyer, said Canada’s laws that respond to hate are “practical and useful,” but capable of being improved. He said one problem with criminal responses to hate is the unwillingness of judges to actually use them. And he said he agreed in principle with non-criminal sanctions, such as the proposed online hate law under the Canadian Human Rights Act that has lately been the subject of a parliamentary committee review.

“These are two communities that need to speak to each other,” said Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. For too long, Jews and Muslims “have travelled two separate paths,” he said. This event aims to bring the broad mainstream of both faiths together, mindful they have suffered similar atrocities in houses of worship, “to comfort each other and find ways to work together.”

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