Nearly 500 local residents attended the Fraser Valley’s first Open Mosque Day on February 11. The community was invited to visit the Abbotsford Islamic Centre, meet our Muslim neighbours, and learn. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., shoes of all sizes were piled around and crammed into the shelves at the front door.

On the main floor, tables and displays were set up on various topics, including Islam, Muslim demographics, women, science and Islam, and islamophobia. At each display, a knowledgeable volunteer was available to answer questions, and many tables were surrounded by groups of people engaged in positive discussion. Downstairs, guests could enjoy samosas, fruit, and desserts; try on a hijab; and have henna done. Guests were also invited to observe a prayer at noon.

The focus of the event was to address ignorance and work toward understanding; it was clear from the tone of conversation and feedback that it was also a community-building event, and that many people have only been waiting for an opening.

“What we wanted to do is bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims,” explains Adnan Bhat, who founded Bridging Gaps, an organization dedicated to promoting community tolerance initiatives. When Bhat first came to Canada, he was unprepared for how wide that gap would be.

“I’ve lived in other countries, and I’ve always found that there is a gap between Muslims and non-Muslims,” Bhat says. “When I came to Canada, I didn’t realize there was such a huge gap. Canadian culture is known to be very polite, very kind, and that’s true. However, that gap still exists — in a very subtle manner sometimes.”

Khalil Belabbas expressed a similar observation after the January 27 shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City. Belabbas lost close friends and acquaintances to the attack, and told BBC World News that there was “‘a certain distance’ between Quebec Muslims and the broader community.”

Bhat says the attack came two days after the Abbotsford Islamic Centre decided to open their mosque to the community. “So people found it more relevant to attend the event.” Condolences, flowers, and notes of solidarity were delivered to the Islamic centres in Abbotsford and Chilliwack. The open mosque organizers posted on the event page:

“For most of us living in Canada, this is something we would have never imagined in our worst nightmares … With acts like these, one questions — am I safe at my mosque? Am I safe at my home? To those who worry in Canada, we say, look around you. There are more smiles than bullets, more compassion than hate, and more friends than foes.”

At the display on islamophobia, the photos of the six men who died in the Quebec shooting were posted alongside a range of news stories about islamophobia and related incidents, and prompts to identify and disarm fear and ignorance.

While islamophobia and proactive efforts to bridge gaps are relevant everywhere, Bhat says the need to assess our own opinions and reach out is especially important in a place like Abbotsford, which has a high Muslim population. He points out that everyone has an opinion about Islam, but we need to reflect on the basis of those opinions: in fact or fear.

Rather than basing our opinions solely on what we read, Bhat suggests an approach that is more oriented in community-building: talking to and getting to know Muslims, and developing an understanding of Islam in general: how and why people practice it in their daily lives.

“At the end of the day, we can all disagree,” Bhat says, noting that understanding is not the same as agreement. “But our disagreements should still have understanding.”

Bridging Gaps and the Abbotsford Islamic Centre are open to talking with the community and answering questions. Bhat asks community members not to wait until the next open mosque—and there will be one, he says—but to email, phone, or visit.