On the morning of Sunday, Oct. 1, I unlocked my phone and checked Instagram. Among the regular filtered photos of fancy coffee and fall leaves, there was a screenshot of a news article about a terrorist attack in Edmonton posted by one of my Muslimah friends. My thumbs automatically kept scrolling through images until I realized what I had just read—paused—and swiped back. A terrorist attack in my city?!
I was born and raised in Edmonton. I have completed two degrees at the University of Alberta and I know this city’s streets by heart. It’s the place where I feel the deepest sense of comfort and it is also where I felt secure enough to become Muslim at the age of 23. Edmontonians are incredibly open, diverse and talented people. Despite a steady increase in violent crimes over the years, I never imagined that something resembling the terrorist attacks of France, Belgium or the UK could happen in our Canadian community—a place where the weather is one of the most important topics of conversation and people still say hello when they pass each other in the street.
But the news prompted a routine that has become all too familiar to me as a Muslim woman living in North America. The routine started with reading the details of what happened. In this case, I learned that the night before, a 30-year-old man went on a rampage in our downtown core, ramming his car into a policeman and then leaping out of the vehicle to repeatedly stab the officer. Hours later, the same assailant drove a stolen U-Haul truck into pedestrians outside an upscale hotel, which I have walked or driven by countless times on my way to my daughter’s Arabic school, government meetings or wedding celebrations. I was immediately distraught for the victims—Edmontonians like me, who were out celebrating birthday parties or enjoying sporting events. But as I scanned the news articles for the attacker’s name, I silently prayed “Please don’t be a Muslim,” even as I was ashamed that it worried me.
At the time, Abdulahi Sharif had not yet been named, but initial articles stated that he had an ISIS flag in his car. My stomach sank. This single detail: a black flag that bore our declaration of faith, but stood for nothing more than murder and hatred. Panic and rage took over my thoughts – the same turmoil I feel after every suspected terrorist incident. How could he hurt those people? How could he claim this was in the name of our faith? How could he do this to the rest of us who would now have endure yet another wave of anti-Muslim racism?
Meanwhile, text messages and phone calls started to flood my phone—other Muslim women checking in on me and each other. Had I heard the news? Was I going out anytime soon? And the forever-repeated command issued between us: Stay safe, sister.
The Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council that I work with jumped into action immediately, strongly condemning the attack and planning a demonstration of unity with all levels of government and community leaders for that Sunday evening. I helped with the arrangements from home, while I weighed the risks of going out in public. Looking at my closet, I wondered if I could substitute my hijab for an oversized toque and a turtleneck. Or maybe I could wear a hoodie to cover my headscarf in public? I thought about taking public transit to the downtown vigil, planning how I could stand in front of the garbage bins on the platform to prevent being pushed onto the tracks while I was waiting for my train and then sit near the driver, like I usually did. But my pregnant belly, which would make it difficult to run away from potential attackers, sealed my decision. I texted the Council, comprised mostly of Muslim men, and stated that I would be absent for personal reasons.
In the days that followed, as I learned about Muslimahs attacked on the train and refugee mothers scared to send their children to school, I cancelled work and medical appointments and kept my daughter home from school. Sister after sister took to social media to express their fear over having to leave their homes, too.
Allies texted me and other women in my community, insisting on picking us up, but the our reply was often, “Thank you, but I am just laying low” or, “This isn’t about me. Let’s pray for the victims instead.” Articles also reported how Edmontonians had taken the attack in stride, even resisting the “Islamic terrorism” classification. But in private, Muslim women like me continued to go back and forth between grief and fear.
Media reports in the days following the attack said Sharif acted alone and formal terrorism charges would not be laid. But every time something like this happens, whether here in my city or elsewhere in the world, it becomes clearer to me each time that my position as a Muslim woman in North America is a constant negotiation between estrangement and belonging, between genuine mourning and being perceived as a threat. Looking to the future, I pray that such an incident never happens again, but hope that, if it does, Muslim women like me will be understood as members of our communities, sorrowful along with everyone else.