Raheel Raza knows that she has undertaken a monumental task. But after spending decades fighting for human rights, speaking up against intolerance, and building interfaith bridges, she is confident that she — a Muslim Canadian woman — is up for this latest challenge. That challenge is to combat global anti-Semitism, or what she describes as the most virulent, pervasive and lethal form of hatred.
Earlier this spring, Raza and a group of like-minded Muslim activists officially launched the Council of Muslims Against Antisemitism (CMAA), the first global Muslim organization dedicated solely to fighting anti-Semitism in all its guises. The council’s inaugural program was a virtual commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Raza lives in Toronto but was raised in Pakistan, where she began to question the status quo and advocate for human rights at a young age after witnessing so much inequity and gender discrimination in that society.
"I was also exposed to people of different faiths as I studied in a convent, so I learned to have a healthy respect for diversity," she says.
Raza brought that respect for diversity and commitment to human rights with her when she immigrated to Canada in 1988, and continued to devote herself to educating others about the values of democracy and pluralism, and of the dangers of radicalization, xenophobia, bigotry and hatred.
A journalist by profession, Raza has authored several books and written countless articles on those topics, been interviewed by major news outlets, lectured at Harvard and Oxford, and addressed the UN Human Rights Commission and several world parliaments. She co-founded the Muslim Reform Movement, and currently serves as president of the Council of Muslims Facing Tomorrow, an organization that opposes extremism, fanaticism and violence in the name of religion.
Creating the Council of Muslims Against Antisemitism was a natural next step for her.
"The reason I have chosen to speak out against anti-Semitism," she says, "is because in my opinion it is the most dangerous and misunderstood form of racism which has become systemic in many parts of the world and, in my faith, is being kept alive by political Islam and Islamists."
"I believe," Raza adds, "the first change has to come from within and being a concerned Muslim, I am speaking out."
Anti-Semitic incidents in Canada in 2020, according to the human rights organization B’nai Brith Canada, rose by more than 18 per cent from 2019. Last year also was the fifth consecutive year in which the number of incidents increased.
Much of that increase is due to rhetoric and attacks by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, but also from what Raza describes as "the unholy alliance between the extreme left and Islamists."
"There has been mass immigration to the West from countries that have institutionalized anti-Semitism and teach hatred for Jews even in their school curricula," Raza says. "So those who have grown up on a diet of hate and conspiracy theories bring this ideology with them."
Still, she contends that considering how close Islam and Judaism are in terms of faith practices — with both following Abrahamic tradition — a push towards understanding between the two faiths is achievable. At the same time, she acknowledges that the response from the Muslim community to the CMAA will likely be slow and require tact and understanding.
"We can’t eliminate years of mistrust and brainwashing overnight but there is always a starting point and we are doing just that," Raza says.
She expects that the response from the Jewish community will be more enthusiastic, although she realizes that it is not sufficient just to talk about eliminating hatred.
"Actions speak louder than words," Raza says. "It’s a monumental task that we have undertaken and our future projects will establish our credibility."
Those future project will include educational, legislative, and policy initiatives, face to face contact, open and honest dialogue, and standing up and speaking out whenever necessary.
"I’ve seen the damage done by extremists and I’ve seen my faith being misused to perpetuate violence which has caused extensive damage to humanity at large," says Raza. "So I speak out because it’s a moral and ethical responsibility to do so."