Why the Quebec mosque shooting happened

Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crimes have been on the rise in Quebec and Canada as a whole for years.

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    People attend a vigil in support of the Muslim community in Montreal, Quebec, January 30 [Reuters /Dario Ayala]
    People attend a vigil in support of the Muslim community in Montreal, Quebec, January 30 [Reuters /Dario Ayala]

    "Hey hey, ho ho, we would rather have Trudeau," chanted protesters in an American airport, gathered to challenge the executive order by the US President Donald Trump, effectively banning entry of Muslim refugees and residents from seven countries.

    The invocations of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were likely due to his tweet reaffirming the country's commitment and openness to diversity, irrespective of faith. As many looked to Canada with envy and hope, Canadians relished in a haughtiness that has almost become a marker of national identity.

    So when news broke of a shooting in a Quebec mosque on January 29 which killed six congregants and injured eight others, the country was shaken. In one moment, Canadian smugness was silenced.

    Hatred and antipathy do not grow in a bubble. They fester and grow over years, fed by rhetoric that is, at its core, dehumanising towards the targeted group. Neither Trump's "Muslim ban" nor Quebec's "Mosque shooting" emerged in a vacuum.

    Quebec's Islamophobia

    Anti-Muslim sentiments similar to those Trump has so adeptly encouraged in the US have been present in Quebec City, whose mayor previously spoke of mosques as a hotbed of radicalisation. These sentiments are found across Canada and in Quebec, a province that has, in very recent history, actively enabled Islamophobia.

    In 2007 and 2008, the province debated "reasonable accommodation" of religious minorities (read: Muslims) after an 11-year old girl attempted to wear her hijab while playing soccer. This would catalyse a 2010 bill banning women wearing the niqab (face veil) from accessing public services such as healthcare.

    Canadians must not take words for action and the world should caution to celebrate symbols over deeds.

     

    Together, this debate would reach its most recent zenith in 2013 with the introduction of a Quebec Charter of Values, banning government employees, including teachers, nurses, and bureaucrats, from wearing religious symbols. Though implicating many religious groups, its positioning targeted the Muslim veil or hijab in particular.

    While Canadians generally rallied against this specific notion, the implications persist with the debate resurrected as recently as September 2016.

    Focusing on Muslim dress suggests that Islam and Muslims are at odds with Quebecois culture and values.

    This all set the groundwork for a number of violent incidents focused on Quebec's Muslim communities.

    The Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence reported an increase in reports of right-wing propaganda targeting Muslims and mosques in Quebec, 20 percent of which came from Quebec City alone.

    This includes the delivery of a swastika-covered pig's head to the door of the same Centre Culturel Islamique de Quebec whose congregants were killed on Sunday. Despite frequent targeting of Quebec City mosques, these acts were all considered "isolated".

    Similarly dismissed were the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant posts by Alexandre Bissonnette, the sole person accused of the Quebec shooting, who was written off simply as an "online troll". This persistent lack of serious attention given to anti-Muslim violence in Quebec was similarly felt with the poor media coverage in the hours after the Quebec shooting.

    Fearmongering 

    Beyond Quebec, hate crimes towards Muslims have generally seen an upward trend in Canada. As the total number of hate crimes around the country dropped, those targeting Muslims increased significantly.

    Precipitated, perhaps, by global events in Europe and beyond, the baiting of Muslims has also occurred domestically. The "war on terror" sentiment exists in Canada too as many Canadian foreign policies, especially towards Muslim-majority countries, mirror those of the US.

    Both countries actively participated in the First Gulf War, leading to a rise in Islamophobic acts at home.

    And while Canada was not directly involved in the 2003 invasion of Iraq - an oft-touted example of Canadian peacekeeping - its historic relationship with the US meant key military support was nonetheless provided.

    Both countries also militarily supported the mission to liberate Afghan women, cultivating and feeding a rhetoric that positioned veiling as oppressive and Muslim women in need of saving.

    This rhetoric featured prominently in Quebec's debates on Muslim women's clothing.

    Before the incitements of "creeping shariahacross the US, Canada's largest province, Ontario, had its own episode of fear mongering.

    In 2004, when Muslims sought religious-based legal options long afforded to the province's Jewish and Christian populations, a fury of frightening invocations of stoning, beheadings and religious terror dominated the news.

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    These sentiments continue to exist, where a 2016 poll found that a majority of Ontarians view Islam negatively, perceiving it as a religion that promotes violence.

    Like US anti-terror legislation, Canada's anti-terror law, Bill C-51, provides sweeping powers to state agencies with minimal public accountability, allowing them to take greater unilateral action than ever before.

    Muslims as young as six have been arbitrarily added to Canadian anti-terror provisions such as no-fly lists.

    And although radical right-wing sentiment was identified as a bigger threat to Canada than radical Islam, innocent Muslims continue to be targeted by such legislation instead of white supremacists. Bill C-51 was supported by the then-minority Liberal Party led by Trudeau, despite opposition from Canadian Muslim communities.

    Words only, no actions

    Furthermore, the labelling of the recent Quebec shooting as terrorism by both Prime Minister Trudeau and Quebec Premier Couillard similarly feels empty.

    While naming it an act of terror is an important symbolic gesture of solidarity, how the shooting is adjudicated in the courts and the relationship of right-wing extremism to anti-terrorism laws will be the true test of Trudeau's words.

    If the lack of outrage towards white supremacist terrorism has been any indication thus far, symbols may be all we have to rely on.

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    If the elections in the US are a lesson to anybody, it is to US' northern neighbours. President Trump's executive order led to a frenzy of action in the US: rallies at airports, taxis on strike, immediate fights in court, and millions of dollars in donations to civil liberty organisations.

    By the end of the weekend, the first legal battle had been won and dozens of residents were released from airports.

    Meanwhile, in Canada, openness was declared, tweets were shared, and a gunman in Quebec opened fire on a mosque congregation, killing and injuring Muslims while they prayed peacefully. Canadians must not take words for action and the world should caution to celebrate symbols over deeds.

    Safiah Chowdhury is a community advocate from Toronto, Canada

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policies.


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