This profile is part of a series called ‘Living in the shadow of 9/11,’ which looks at how the worlds of five extraordinary people changed, twenty years later.
If it’s a question of hatred, David Adeeb Hassan would rather not talk about it. Hatred, says the 68-year-old London, Ont., native, resides somewhere deep within a person and eliminating it can be an exercise in frustration. Hatred is what drives terrorists like Osama bin Laden, or the Norwegian white supremacist Anders Breivik, or Nathaniel Veltman, the man who used his truck to murder three generations of a single family in Hassan’s hometown last June.
Hatred cannot be rationalized or reasoned with, Hassan says. By its very nature it is irrational and unreasonable. Islamophobia, on the other hand, is something else altogether. It creeps into society and infects people who are otherwise open-minded and generous. It can, like all structural racisms, evolve into a pernicious feature of our society.
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Hassan says, succeeded in triggering the rise in Islamophobia that bin Laden had hoped they would. Hassan’s hope, however, is that Canadians, including Muslims, can differentiate between the Islamophobes, who are merely afraid, and those who hate.
Since 9/11, the haters—white supremacists and other right-wing radicals—have been emboldened. They have crawled out of the fringes into the mainstream. But, Hassan cautions, they “are not growing in number”; they are merely “growing in spirit.”
The distinction makes a difference, he says. The key lesson he has learned over the past 20 years is that the vast majority of Canadians are open and accepting of Muslims. The attacks on 9/11 may have triggered fear of Muslims but they also opened up an opportunity for the Muslim community. “We also learned a lesson that day,” says Hassan, who was the chairman of the London Muslim Mosque at the time. “As a community, we realized that pre-9/11 . . . people didn’t know us. The only place they were learning about our religion was on CNN and Fox. Canadians don’t realize this, but Muslims have been in this country for a very long time. My ancestors arrived in London in the late 19th century from the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. We are as much a part of the fabric of this community as anyone. But people didn’t know this. So post-9/11, we opened our doors. We took every opportunity to be out there, to be in the spotlight, to do things we always should have been doing but were perhaps not doing enough of, like giving back to the community, becoming more involved in the community.”
The results, he says, have been encouraging. Community engagement has created a much more integrated multi-faith support network in London. After the June attacks on the Afzaal family, for instance, the outpouring of grief from every corner of London was overwhelming. “From everyday people to the police, there was this understanding that whatever we needed would be provided,” Hassan says. “It was such a moving experience.”
Hassan’s ancestors worked hard to gain the respect of their fellow Canadians, he says. The attacks on 9/11 were a setback, but over the two decades since, the understanding between London’s communities has deepened. And while hate has crawled out of the shadows, Hassan is confident it can be driven back. “What I’ve learned since 9/11 is that hatred thrives when there is fear,” he says. “Groups like al-Qaeda or white supremacists like the Proud Boys need fear to survive. We need to take that away from them.”