In the evening of January 29, 2017, maghrib/evening prayers at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Quebec in Quebec City ended with the piercing sound of gunshots as congregants bowed their heads in devotion and submission to God. A seven year old girl watched from the back of the prayer hall as her father who had led the prayer was shot down in cold blood. Several men immediately covered her to protect her from the bullets that struck her father and and fatally wounded others who had come to a place of love, serenity, and peace only to be met with hate, violence, and death. . This was the first mass shooting in Canada to take place at a house of worship and was dubbed a terrorist act by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Holding back tears, a representative of the mosque told the media:
“Six of our brothers, who were with us only yesterday, who prayed next to us, hand-in-hand … They were shot in the back.”[i]
The victims of this horrific hate crime were Khaled Belkacemi (60), Azzeddine Soufiane (57), Aboubaker Thabti (44), Mamadou Tanou Barry ( 42), Abdelkrim Hassane (41), Ibrahima Barry (39). Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon/We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return.
Though widely suggested, the violence that took the lives of these six Muslim men in Quebec city cannot so easily be attributed to Trump’s xenophobia and the Muslim ban in the U.S. that came into effect a few days before the shooting. Doing so ignores Canada and Quebec’s history of anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia which needs to be highlighted for the way it has set the stage for this act of terror. The current breeding ground for Islamophobic hate is rooted in Canadian policies, practices, and the rhetoric of right wing politicians. The Barbaric Cultural Practices Act and proposal for a corresponding “tip line” by Conservative MP Kellie Leitch, Bill C-51 /Anti-Terrorism Act, Security Certificates, as well as Bill 94 which sought to ban the niqab in Quebec and is now enforced through the Quebec Charter of Values (Bill 60) are among the policies that have cast Muslims as potential threats to national security and as illiberal and antithetical to “Canadian values.”
Recent statistics tell us some facts about the impact of Islamophobic policies and rhetoric in shaping public opinion about the almost one million Muslims in Canada. In a recent public opinion poll, among Canadian adults, 4-in-10 expressed some level of bias, or unfavourable feelings, against identifiable racial groups (41%), with Muslims having the highest negative rating (28% ).[ii] In a yet-to-be-published survey, ordered by the Quebec Human Rights Commission and reported by the Montreal Gazette, nearly half of Quebecers have an “unfavorable” view of religion. But this intolerance is unevenly split: while only 5.5 percent of Quebecers expressed their dislike for the Christian cross, 48.9 percent said they were uncomfortable with Muslim veils.[iii] According to a 2016 Environics poll, “One-third of Muslims in Canada have experienced discrimination or unfair treatment in the past five years due to their religion, ethnicity/ culture, language or sex. Such treatment is most commonly experienced in the workplace, public spaces, retail establishments and schools or universities.”[iv]
According to Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of the Montreal-based rights group AMAL-Quebec, Islamic places of worship and Muslim-owned businesses in Quebec have routinely been targeted by hate crimes in the last three years. A chilling example from last year was when the mosque where the shooting took place had a pig’s head dropped on its doorstep with a card that said “bon appetite.” Bouazzi told the press that:
“Mosques have been set ablaze and vandalised, and schools and halal butcher shops have been shot at, but in many instances, police have not labelled the attacks hate crimes.”[v]
Despite Canada’s well-articulated hate crime laws, Bouazzi’s concerns relate to the fact that victims have had difficulties getting police to investigate complaints, file charges, and following through on prosecutions. Strong anti-hate laws but lax enforcement leads to such crimes going unreported or not prosecuted as hate crimes. In a troubling development, police confirmed there were 14 reports of hate crimes in Montreal in the one week period after the Quebec City mosque shooting.[vi] Across Canada hate crimes targeting Muslims have doubled between 2012 and 2014, even though overall hate crimes were down during the same period.
Fear and moral panic of “radical jihadist youth” in the ‘home grown’ war on terror coupled with the idea that foreigners are changing the cultural landscape of Canada with their illiberal demands and strange barbaric customs create the ideological backdrop for the security state and the profiling of Muslims as potential threats to the nation. While Donald Trump has authorized and legitimized these views south of the border, similar ideas were already being promoted by Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In public statements Harper drew a link between radicalization and mosques. He made the remark when he was answering a question about the Canadian government’s new anti-terrorism legislation. When asked how to distinguish between teens “messing around in their basements” and someone who is radicalized, Harper said “It doesn’t matter what the age of the person is, or whether they’re in a basement, or whether they’re in a mosque or somewhere else.” [vii] Identifying mosques as potential sites of radicalization is an equation that sticks in the public imagination especially given the long history of Orientalist imagery produced in film, literature, and pop culture and now backed by a multimillion dollar Islamophobia industry through which many of these ideas circulate and gain currency.
A powerful reminder of how these tropes shape and inform Islamophobic imaginaries was after the mosque shooting when a Moroccan man who witnessed the attack was mis-identified by police as the shooter who was in fact a white male. This raises the question as to why it was so easy to assume that a Muslim man was the culprit? Yet it’s not so surprising when we consider how Muslims are signified within the public imagination as violent terrorists so that even when they are innocent bystanders they can be mistaken for villains. The demonization of Islam and stereotypes about maniacal Muslims hell-bent on the destruction of the west have made these dangerous assumptions appear as common sense equations in the algebra of violence wrought by the ongoing “war on terror.” In this political and discursive landscape, racial fears, anxieties, and national paranoia become projected and personified as a “Muslim threat.” Not surprisingly Trump wasted no time using the mis-reported example of a Moroccan Muslim terrorist being implicated in the Quebec shooting as support for his xenophobic ban on Muslim immigration.[viii] When Fox News failed to correct the information on social media they received a message from Prime Minister Trudeau’s Office demanding a retraction.[ix] In this vicious cycle of physical and epistemic violence a devastating tragedy for the Muslim community was used to telegraph further anti-Muslim hate and propaganda in service of the unrelenting neo-fascism of racist border controls.
The actual shooter, Alexandre Bissonette a 24 year old white male student from Université Laval with troubled ideological views will no doubt be cast as a solitary deviant whose crime has no bearing on his race or religion. The hallmark of white exceptionalism is to be treated as a unique individual rather than as one dimensional caricature based on the worst fears your racial group. Yet seemingly under the radar of the security communities, White supremacist, and anti-Immigrant groups are gaining traction in Canada. At least 100 right-wing extremist groups have been active in recent years including Golden Dawn, Sons of Odin, and Pegida. They are concentrated in Quebec, Western Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. While some members have engaged in random acts of violence, others have carried out targeted attacks on Muslims, Jews, people of colour, aboriginals and LGBTQ people. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has acknowledged the presence of right-wing extremists, but they do not appear to be regarded as a high priority or threat. According to a CSIS spokesperson: “Right-wing extremist circles appear to be fragmented and primarily pose a threat to public order and not to national security.” And yet in late 2014, a lieutenant from the Sûreté du Québec division that investigates domestic terrorism told a parliamentary committee, “a majority of the service’s active files deal with the extreme right.” Social media foments virtual spaces for radical right-wing extremists find solidarity and support. Sub-forums of the white supremacist website, Stormfront.org, are among the most popular. Topics of recent discussion threads included “Brown people are still invading” and “I am sorry but only white people are Canadian.” [x] University campuses have also seen a rise in right wing, white supremacist and Islamophobic propaganda. Last year posters with slogan “Make Canada great again” were plastered across the campus of McGill University in Montreal.[xi] Canadians do not need to look south of the border for the impetus for Islamophobic violence since it’s already in our backyard.
The lessons of the Quebec massacre and the social and political factors that built up to that tragic moment point to the need to address the radicalization of white men who have been main perpetrators of mass killings in Canada. In taking stock of the Quebec massacre and the Muslim ban in the U.S Canadian journalist Neil Macdonald reminds us of the home grown phenomenon of white radicalism and extremist violence:
“In the pantheon of Canadian mass murderers, Mr. Bissonnette is entirely unremarkable. Just about every single one in our modern history has been a Canadian-born, Canadian citizen, and usually white and Christian, meaning extreme vetting of immigrants from places like Yemen and Iraq wouldn’t have done a thing to prevent their predations.”[xii]
It is easier to assign qualities of inherent racial and religious degeneracy to those we deem as outsiders, suspect citizens, dangerous foreigners and yet when the actual menace is closer to home, one of “us” it shatters the myth of exceptionalism and racial innocence. The Quebec massacre brought home for Canada the fact that racial terror is bred on its turf and that hate thrives amidst the veneer of liberal multiculturalism.
There has been outpouring of grief and support for Muslim communities in Quebec and across Canada since the mosque attack. Yet in Quebec’s National Assembly following a minute of silence for the six Muslim men killed in the massacre, the opposition refused to refrain from a discussion on Bill 62, that would ban veiled women from giving or receiving government services. The tragic irony is that the same discourses and policies that have sown the seeds of Islamophobic fear and hate and created the ideological backdrop for this act of terror were immediately back in play after the 6o seconds of silence to commemorate the victims. This tells us that when it comes to Islamophobia, it’s back to ‘business as usual’ in Quebec.