“Remembering is a Political Act”
On January 29, it will be two years since Alexandre Bissonnette shot and killed six Muslims and injured many others at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Quebec in Sainte Foy, just outside of Quebec City. The incident remains shocking for its explicit Islamophobic violence. Bissonnette went to the mosque to kill Muslims because they were Muslims. Court documents revealed some of his political views; he supported Trump’s “Muslim ban.” He was against the immigration of racialized minorities, including Muslims, because he was worried that white people, like him and his family, would lose their status and privilege as the majority.
These views are not unique; it is that he acted on them that makes this event significant. I have been thinking about why we remember this tragic event every year. We remember for the usual reasons, in order to pay our respects to the dead and to honor their memories. But, we also remember to ensure that the deaths of these Muslims, as Muslims, were not meaningless.
I want to focus on this question of meaning because it is closely tied to remembering. We remember by telling a story about the meaning of an event – what is the story of this event?
On one level, January 29 is a story about Islamophobia and Muslims. It opened up a violent rupture in the relationship of Muslims to the white, western nation. It exposed the superficiality of the rhetoric of vivre ensemble in Quebec and the immigrant-friendly multiculturalism of Canada. January 29 is a story about the connection between political discourses that have demonized Muslims for almost two decades and what happens when people believe these discourses and decide to act to remove Muslims from the nation.
On another level, January 29 is also a story about the subversion of stereotypes. While Muslims were already marginalized as a minority group, this shooting called into question the majority and who they were represented as. It subverted the stereotype of Muslims as the “dangerous” ones. For a brief moment in the national consciousness, the white majority was forced to look at itself, as Muslims were clearly the victims of a white man’s violence. For an even briefer moment, Muslims became human, the recipients of sympathy and support from across the province and country.
But then the moment passed. As I wrote last year, there were continued Islamophobic incidents in Quebec and Canada which reinforced the same suspicions and negative perceptions of Muslims. There was political resistance to recognizing Muslim experiences of Islamophobia, illustrated in the controversy caused by parliamentary motion M103 (which eventually passed). The NCCM call to mark January 29 as a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia did not receive official support from the Trudeau government, nor from any of the political parties in Quebec. The moment where the mosque shooting could have been the catalyst for telling a different story about the relationship of Muslims to the nation passed.
It is in this context now that I am thinking about two current grassroots campaigns that ask the federal government to designate January 29 as a National Day in Canada. They are both efforts to make January 29 part of a national story. They are attempts to repair the rupture by reaffirming a view of Quebec and Canada as “inclusive” and as (implicitly) “good” through fighting “bad” things like hatred, intolerance and discrimination.
They go about this in different ways. The “I Remember January 29” campaign is led by two Quebec-based organizations, the Canadian Muslim Forum (CMF) and Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME). They want to recognize the anniversary of the shooting as “a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia and other forms of religious discrimination.” The campaign draws on the political legitimacy of M103, basing it on Recommendation 30 of the M103 Report by the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. Although the scope of the Report was broad, in terms of studying systemic racism and religious discrimination, it nevertheless included Islamophobia as a distinct phenomenon. The CMF/CJPME proposal follows in this line. It seeks to bridge the rupture between Muslims and the nation by naming Islamophobia explicitly and by recognizing Muslims as a distinct minority group at a national level.
The other campaign is put forward by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), who have changed their position since last year and who are calling for January 29 to be marked as “a National Day of Action against Hate and Intolerance.” The NCCM proposal also situates itself within a national discourse about fighting hatred, intolerance, and discrimination. It calls for standing with other minority communities in this fight. But, Islamophobia is not named directly. It is included implicitly, as interchangeable with the hatred and intolerance aimed at other minority communities. The experiences of Muslims as racialized and religious minorities are not considered to be distinct from other minorities; they are part of one big minority.
This erasure means that Islamophobia is not recognized as a structural issue, and therefore institutional mechanisms to fight it are not mobilized either. Instead, Islamophobia is linked with individual emotions, which call for vague solutions of “love” and “tolerance.” As we have already seen, these are often short-lived, rhetorical statements. Thus, while the CMF/CJPME proposal emphasizes Islamophobia and Muslims, this proposal seeks to bridge the gap between Muslims and the nation by emphasizing the nation.
To come back to the issue I raised earlier, about the relationship between meaning and remembering, what do these campaigns illustrate about the contested meanings of the mosque shooting? They are attempts to shift the focus from “what he did” in the past to “who we are” in the future. They are both efforts towards a form of national redemption; they seek to remember January 29 as a way to redeem the failures of the nation, without naming them as such, in the relationship between Muslim minorities and white majorities. Inevitably, this process also includes some erasures. A National Day requires that we remember enough to be able to be “good” (again) and to act “better” in the future. It overlooks the fact that “what he did” was also already part of “who we are” – the violence of one was never separate from the violence of the other.
Perhaps the bigger question is can we remember Muslims, officially, publicly, politically in Quebec and Canada today? That would require telling a story in which Muslims are valued as Muslims when they are alive, in order to be valued when they’re dead. The possibility of it is an unresolved question at the moment. In the meantime, we will continue to remember them, our Muslims, every year.