Muslims fear backlash over hijab hoax as school takes heat for press conference
After Toronto police concluded that an 11-year-old girl in a hijab was never attacked by a stranger wielding scissors, critics are questioning her school’s decision to hold a news conference where she told reporters her story.
Surrounded by her family, the Grade 6 student appeared in front of TV cameras and answered questions from a throng of reporters at Pauline Johnson Public School in Scarborough late last Friday, hours after she claimed the incident occurred, and after the Toronto District School Board contacted police and her family.
Police initially announced they were investigating the incident as a hate crime, sparking outrage in Canada and abroad as several political figures weighed in, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who declared: “That is not what Canada is.”
However, upon further investigation, Toronto Police Service spokesperson Mark Pugash announced on Monday that the incident “did not happen.”
After that revelation, psychologist Dr. Oren Amitay was among those questioning the Toronto District School Board for giving the media access to the girl.
“I’ve been involved in a number of issues where the school board, acting with the best of intentions but being driven by political correctness and virtue-signalling, has made some wrong calls,” he told CTV News Channel on Monday.
Amitay suggests the story may have been pushed forward by an overeager school official who wanted to do the progressive thing, but didn’t take the time to properly vet the girl’s account.
“This was definitely the wrong call,” he said. “And whoever allowed it to go forward should be held accountable in some capacity.”
Crime specialist and former Toronto police officer Steve Ryan suggested the news conference put the girl in over her head.
“You’re paraded out in front of all these cameras and what is an 11-year-old to do?” he said. “Now she’s committed to this story. How does she now go back on that story when you’re facing all these cameras, and you’re facing all these questions?”
The Toronto District School Board says it did not organize a formal press conference for the girl.
“Our motivation for commenting on the issue at the time was out of compassion, care, concern and support,” the TDSB said in a statement on Monday. The school board said it was doing the same as “many elected leaders” at all levels via interviews and on social media.
Digital media strategist Mark Blevis says the story’s initial popularity, as well as its harsh turn after it was revealed to be false, shows just how quick people are to jump to politically-motivated conclusions.
“With outrage culture there’s this big movement towards piling on,” he told CTV Ottawa.
The revelation touched off a second wave of outrage from critics, with some targeting the girl with hateful comments online.
The backlash has sparked fears among Muslims that it will inspire more discrimination in the future.
“This will probably be used as an opportunity to downplay all the times that Muslims come out and speak out against Islamophobia,” Sabrine Azraq, of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, told CTV National News.
Azraq says it’s important to push back against the anger generated by the false story, saying it should not be allowed to “derail the very serious matters that are happening in this country.”
Human rights activist Amira Elghawaby echoed Azraq’s concerns, adding that she hopes it does not discourage hate crime victims from reporting real incidents.
“When someone feels that they’ve been victimized they should not be afraid to come forward to the police,” Elghawaby told CTV News Channel.
She added that the Muslim community is feeling particularly sensitive at the moment, with the anniversary of the Quebec City mosque massacre approaching on Jan. 29.
“People are thinking about that,” she said. “Unfortunately, we do have true cases that have occurred and this really came at a time when there’s a lot of anxiety.”
Elghawaby also pointed out that the girl is quite young, and children have made up such stories in the past.
“She’s just an 11-year-old girl,” Elghawaby said. “And that’s also something that we have to remember as we try to understand.”
Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, also urged people to take the girl’s age into account. She pointed out that the incident was fabricated by an 11-year-old, not an adult leader in the Muslim community.
“We need to keep reminding ourselves that we are talking about a child here,” told CTV Toronto.
With files from CTV Toronto and CTV Ottawa