A pair of West Vancouver brothers are seeking to dispel myths and stereotypes about Islam after experiencing discriminatory comments about their faith in the past.
Kian Lalji, a Grade 12 student at Sentinel Secondary, along with his brother Razaan, who is in Grade 10, hosted a forum called Understanding Islam in a World of Fake News and Stereotypes on Nov. 17.
The idea for the forum came about after the brothers started talking about the misconceptions out there about the Islamic community which they’ve observed during their own daily interactions, even among their own friends.
“People just didn’t know any better. It wasn’t really their fault because Islam’s image is portrayed by the media as mainly negative,” said Razaan, following the forum held at West Vancouver Community Centre. “What we wanted to do was stand up and show them that Muslims aren’t terrorists, and that we actually share much more in common than we think.”
Kian recalled being in Grade 8 and being asked if he was a “terrorist” by a classmate. The comment may have been made in jest, but for Kian it struck a chord.
“I laughed it off at first, but also it wasn’t just the fact that I was called a terrorist, it was also that this could happen to my brother Razaan, or even my youngest brother,” he said. “I realized that people all around the world – in Canada, America, everywhere – would be facing these types of stereotypes.”
The brothers set out to organize an event to educate people about Islam, dispel stereotypes, and invite the public to attend in a setting that encouraged a wide swath of the community to join in.
The pair got in touch with Ali Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim religion and cultures at Harvard University, and after some back and forth got him to agree to speak at their Understanding Islam forum.
Asani spoke about how important it is to accept people of all backgrounds, and that negative comments – even offhand ones – about someone’s race, religion or culture can be extremely “dehumanizing,” according to Razaan.
Commenting on being called a “terrorist,” Razaan noted that one thing that Asani said during his talk at the forum that really stuck with him was the notion of not affixing people with unfair or prejudiced labels.
“‘You label jars, not humans.’ I think that really stood out to myself as well as Kian and the audience because when we see someone who is Muslim, or has a different skin colour as you and you instantly think of terrorism, that’s obviously a terrible image and anything that we do to help lift that image is a good thing,” said Razaan.
Some of the misconceptions about Islam the forum sought to educate people about were “violence in Islam and oppression towards women in Islam,” according to Kian.
The event was attended by around 150 people, a quarter of which were youth, he said.
“We really wanted to have a large variety of people,” said Kian. “Some Muslims brought people that weren’t Muslim, and we thought that that was amazing because we really wanted this to be something where non-Ismailis could learn about the culture.”
Opening remarks at the forum were delivered by West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country MP Patrick Weiler, with B.C. Senator Mobina Jaffer among other special guests who also spoke at the event.
Noting that Islam has similar values to other faiths, as well as values important to Canadian society at large, the brothers said they were encouraged by the well-attended forum.
“Right now what I think is the next step, at least for me, is just to carry the torch and hopefully actually make an impact on the future generations and help make sure that none of them have to go through something like a racial stereotype, or something even similar or close to being called a terrorist,” said Razaan.