02/26/2016 02:52 EST | Updated 02/26/2017 00:12 EST

Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes On The Rise, But Bystanders Sometimes Stay Silent

Young Muslim girls walk along the shopping district wearing Hijab and coats
Douglas Sacha via Getty Images
Young Muslim girls walk along the shopping district wearing Hijab and coats

Two Muslim women are accosted and pushed on a Toronto subway. Another is assaulted and robbed after dropping off her kids off at school.

Incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes are on the rise, according to the Canadian Arab Federation. Since the Paris attacks in November, there's been a sharp spike — enough that the National Council of Canadian Muslims created an online map to track such incidents.

The incidents grab the attention of media, but not always of bystanders who witness an attack.

Sundus, who did not want her last name used for privacy reasons, was riding a crowded bus in Toronto last December when she was verbally assaulted by a woman.

"She told me that I should get raped and go back to my country," the 27-year-old recalls. "There was a bus full of people who did nothing, who said nothing. Not a word."

In a months-long investigation, Marketplace examined how racial and cultural bias affects how we're treated and how we treat one another, including why we intervene — or don't — to defend a stranger.

What would you do?

"We don't support terrorists here. Why don't you go back to your own country!" a man yells at a woman in a hijab.

What would you do if you witnessed such a scene?

Marketplace tested to see how Canadians would react when face-to-face with a verbally abusive confrontation on a downtown Toronto street.

Marketplace hired actors and gave them a script based on interviews with Muslim women. Hidden cameras captured people's reactions.

The scene was repeated five times. Each time, someone intervened in a matter of minutes.

Logan Tafferner and Jillian Robinson were two bystanders who stopped immediately. Robinson said that Tafferner's willingness to intervene inspired her to speak up as well.

People who don't step in are "part of the problem," Robinson says. But she says she can see why people sometimes stay quiet.

"I do hear that kind of stuff sometimes and I'm too afraid to say anything, because people who think that way are insane and you don't know what they're going to do and what they're capable of."

When people step up

Shireen Ahmed is first-generation Canadian born to Pakistani parents and raised in Halifax. She now lives in Mississauga, Ont., with her family.

She says she's been verbally attacked in both cities due to the fact she's Muslim, hearing all kinds of racial slurs.

"Things that have been said to me have been goat f---er, camel f---er, towel head, raghead, paki is very common, terrorist, ISIS supporter," she says.

"When nobody speaks up in a situation like that, I feel really strongly that the perpetrators feel that they can do it with impunity."

It's empowering when people do step up, Ahmed says.

"When people react, I don't think their background or their race or their religion matters," she says. "You just feel that support and that solidarity."

Why we intervene — or don't

In a crowded environment, people often wait for someone else to do something before they decide to intervene. Psychologists call it the bystander effect.

Dr. Theresa Bianco, a psychology professor at Concordia University, teaches students about this social phenomenon.

There are a number of reasons why people don't intervene, she says, including fear of physical harm and public embarrassment.

"There are instances where people will help and times when they won't," she says. "What motivates people is a feeling, some sort of connection with the victim."

People will be less inclined to help if they can't relate to the victim or they hold prejudiced beliefs about their race or faith, Bianco says. Some may even be silently agreeing with the offensive comments.

"In order to want to help someone, you need to feel empathy for that person and the situation they find themselves in," she says.

"When you are prejudiced, there is a greater 'us versus them' divide and you are more inclined to only want to help the members of your own group rather than the outsiders."

How to step up when you see something

There are ways to intervene when someone is in trouble.

The Australian Human Rights Commission launched an anti-racism campaign called "It Stops With Me" and offers a list of ways to deal with a racist encounter.

The group notes that backing the victim up doesn't have to involve confrontation. You could just sit or stand next to the victim, or simply ask if they're ok and if they need help.

If you feel comfortable enough, say something. Tell the person that their words and behaviour are inappropriate and what they said is offensive.

If the conflict seems to be escalating, report it to police.

Based on a Marketplace investigation by Ronna Syed, Janet Thomson, Anu Singh, Lindsay Sample, Asha Tomlinson, David Common and Connie Walker.

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