Khawlah Noman, an 11-year old resident of Toronto, captivated the Canadian media last Friday with her account of assault. She recounted events where a man, armed with scissors, accosted her on her way to school and twice attempted to cut off her hijab. Left with a footlong cut in the fabric, she tearfully told the story to the press, flanked by her mother, brother, and members of the Toronto District School Board. Police were contacted, an investigation began, and the cut hijab was taken into evidence.
The condemnation from all levels of government was swift.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement and tweeted:
My heart goes out to Khawlah Noman following this morning’s cowardly attack on her in Toronto. Canada is an open and welcoming country, and incidents like this cannot be tolerated.— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 12, 2018
He was soon followed by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn who offered this message:
This is a cowardly act of hatred, and it has no place in Ontario. This does not represent who we are. We must stand firm in our support of this young girl who was assaulted simply for wearing a hijab.— Kathleen Wynne (@Kathleen_Wynne) January 12, 2018
Toronto Mayor John Tory also issued a statement containing, among other things, that “No child should ever be afraid walking to school in Toronto because of what they are wearing.”
It is difficult to encapsulate how totally this story occupied the Canadian national psyche on Friday. Every major national newspaper ran with it as a frontpage story. It appeared on every news broadcast. The message was clear. Canadians will not stand for religious intolerance.
The only issue is, none of it ever happened.
Toronto Police released a statement early yesterday which concluded that, “After a detailed investigation, police have determined that the events described in the original news release did not happen," the reported added, "The investigation is concluded."
Details surrounding the case are still scant, but will doubtless be exposed in the next few days.
Much of the ensuing reporting and social media activity has called the incident a hoax. It has called into question the veracity of the televised statement Noman gave, has raised tabloid suspicions about whether the entire incident was engineering by her family to advance an agenda. This is stupidity of the highest order and warrants some debunking.
First, in order to be a hoax, it would have to be a deception devised for the purpose of disrupting the peace or exposing a flaw through humor. While some will disagree and point to a rising (if imaginary) tide of politically correct Islamic apologetics or some plot to make the criticism of Islam illegal in Canada through motions like M-103, these are groundless accusations.
Kids ruin their clothes. Kids also lie to their parents about how those clothes got ruined.
This was a little girl who lied about how her hijab came to be ripped to avoid consequences. If the article of clothing in question were not a religious symbol, this account of assault and the ensuing police investigation would have passed quietly. It is not responsible to blame an 11-year old for lying about ripped clothing as if she understood the consequences of the story she fabricated.
Second, is it reasonable to assume that the Noman family fabricated this story and coerced their son and daughter into recounting it, only to have the whole thing debunked days later? To what end? For what purpose? It is frankly irresponsible for any publication to level these claims without any supporting evidence or sourcing.
These notions of a hoax also belie a reality that Muslims are disproportionately the targets of hate crimes in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, Muslims were the target of a quarter of all racial and religiously motivated attacks on Canadians in 2016.
While the Jewish community is still the largest target of hate in Canada, crimes against the Muslim community have grown dramatically. Over the last five years, hate crimes committed against Muslims have increased by 250%, particularly against women who wear the hijab and are more easily identified.
So, while the inciting incident may not have been real, the concerns and crisis most certainly are.
It should give every Canadian pause that a false report concocted in the mind of an 11-year old contained enough truth to captivate the national imagination.
Where did she source the basic ideas of her fiction?
While it could be cynically concluded that she was coached through it all, the more likely explanation seems to be that she understands the ill-will towards Muslims and Islam that lingers in the national zeitgeist.
I am not claiming that Canada is a racist nation, or that it harbors definite and actionable ill will towards its Muslim citizens, but when a whole nation swallows a story about a hate crime without any corroborating evidence or investigation, that has to be symptomatic of a larger problem.
While I can offer no solution, I can point to a community which is working on Islamophobia in Canada. The National Council of Canadian Muslims is petitioning the government to have January 29th - a day last year when an attack on a Mosque in Quebec City left six dead – designated as a day of remembrance. Executive Director Ihsaan Gardee said, "We must not allow voices of hate, even ones that initially appear to be on the margins, to permeate our public discourse and damage our social fabric."
Wouldn’t Canada’s time be better spent focusing on how to ensure communities where hate crime is unthinkable, rather than wondering what motivations a little girl might have had for telling a tall tale? Maybe that’s just the world I want to live in.