Muslim-Canadians decry attacks amid backlash

Fears of rising Islamophobia and racial profiling after two soldiers killed in separate incidents.

Shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was first identified as a South American and then an Aboriginal [Reuters]

Montreal, Canada – As more details emerge about separate attacks on soldiers and government institutions last week in Ottawa and Quebec, Muslim leaders are urging Canadians not to typecast the entire community amid fears of a backlash.

Corporal Nathan Cirillo was shot dead at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Wednesday, while a hit-and-run vehicle attack in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec days earlier killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and wounded another soldier.

Many local media reports described the perpetrators – Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa, and Martin Couture-Rouleau in Quebec – as Muslim converts with some inferring the men supported the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper described Couture-Rouleau as “an ISIL-inspired terrorist“, while much media attention focused on Zehaf-Bibeau’s Libyan father, and attempts he made to renew his Libyan passport.

Muslim groups reacted immediately by saying religious beliefs should not be tied in to the discussion.

For anything that happens … where Muslim identity is evoked, what happens to the rest of the Muslims is they get pushed.

by - Yasmine Jiwani, Concordia University

These acts of terror have no basis in any religion,” the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at Canada said in a statement. “As Canadians, we pray that God Almighty protect all Canadians from harm, and that these terrorists are brought to justice.”

Widespread condemnation

Several Muslim groups in Canada came out to condemn the violence and pay respects and condolences to the families of the two soldiers. The Muslim Association of Canada denounced the shooting in Ottawa and said the organisation was drawing “on our collective national character to seek that Canadian sense of resilience“.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims, meanwhile, said it stood “firm with fellow Canadians in upholding and protecting the safety and security of our country”. The events highlighted an “urgent need” for cooperation between Canadian law enforcement, the government, and communities to fight “violent extremism”, it said.

Al Jazeera contacted the Al-Imane cultural centre, an Islamic centre in St-Jean that Couture-Rouleau frequented. Al-Imane sent condolences to the family of the deceased soldier, and said Couture-Rouleau hadn’t visited the centre in two months.

“The [Muslim] community firmly condemned this [event] and affirms that this type of crime doesn’t have a religion, or colour, or country. In general, our co-citizens in the town of St-Jean were able to take a step back from this event and disassociate the criminal act from religion,” the centre said in an email.

“The mosque doors are open to everyone. Mr Martin came to do his prayers sometimes without having much contact with the other worshippers; he was a reserved person who appeared sympathetic and who stayed relatively discreet.”

But the denunciations also raise questions about why Muslim leaders believe it necessary to condemn crimes perpetrated by fringe members of their communities, while other religious groups are not held to the same standard. This same debate was the centre of a recent social media campaign that rejected demands for Muslims to condemn ISIL, called #MuslimApologies.

A man is comforted by soldiers after placing flowers at a memorial for slain Canadian soldier Nathan Cirillo [AP]

‘Discourse of justification’

Muslim-Canadians have been “called upon to defend Islam”, explained Yasmine Jiwani, a communication studies professor at Concordia University in Montreal.

“For anything that happens … where Muslim identity is evoked, what happens to the rest of the Muslims is they get pushed. It’s a discourse of justification or a discourse of denial,” Jiwani told Al Jazeera.

“All of the different paths within Islam are collapsed into one monolith … For the Muslims watching this, one more time, [they] have to say, ‘No, they’re different from us.'”

Adil Charkaoui is the coordinator of the Quebec Collective against Islamophobia

“These people [apologising] without being conscious of it are placing responsibility on the [Muslim] community, which in my view shouldn’t be placed on it,” said Charkaoui. “Muslims are not responsible for these actions. They didn’t have to apologise.”

Charkaoui told Al Jazeera his organisation has documented at least 30 complaints of Islamophobic harassment in Quebec since the violence in St-Jean took place last week, including death threats being levied at people online.

“We can see very clearly that a climate of suspicion is setting in,” said Charkaoui, pointing to the authorities’ call for citizens to be vigilant and report any emergencies or crimes contributing to racial profiling.

“Is the fact of seeing a woman with a headscarf or a man with a beard, is that a suspicious profile?” he asked. “We’re seeing a discourse that has a tendency to encourage racial profiling and a discourse that does not give clear guidelines to the police and the population.”

A mosque in Cold Lake, Alberta was vandalised on Thursday and the words “Go Home” were spray-painted on the outside of the building. A few hours after the attack, local residents arrived to fix the damage and hung signs reading “Love your neighbour” in support of the Muslim community.

In Toronto, Munira Abukar, a candidate in the upcoming municipal elections, reported that a delivery truck driver shouted “terrorist” and threw garbage at a group of campaign volunteers.

Abukar, who wears a headscarf, also had campaign posters defaced with graffiti reading “Go Back Home” earlier this month.

“Because one idiot with a gun committed a treacherous crime yesterday we are all suddenly terrorists?” she later tweeted.

Media increases alienation

Canadian media reports on the events have also contributed to fears within the Muslim community, according to Jasmin Zin, a professor in the sociology department and researcher on Muslim-Canadian youth identities at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“Whenever the perpetrator is someone that’s racialised, it’s something that an entire world community becomes accountable for, and something that impacts the way other members of that community [feel],” Zin told Al Jazeera.

Early media accounts as the events in Ottawa were unfolding described the shooter as South American, then Aboriginal, and later Muslim. Several outlets also reported that Zehaf-Bibeau was wearing a black-and-white “Arab scarf”.

These descriptions “served only one purpose – to rationalise tragic violence as outside of the realm of the white-colonial state”, the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians wrote in a statement.

The term “radicalised” has also frequently been used to describe Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau to the detriment of Muslim communities in Canada, Zin said.

“When you’re constantly using terms that aren’t very well understood in the public, but immediately create facile equations in their mind, that affects on the ground how a lot of Muslims, particularly young men, feel in respect to their own identity,” she said.

“This new incident is giving renewed impetus to the existing trend, whereby Muslim youth are feeling labelled and pathologised by the way they are represented in the media. That gets reinforced in feeling further alienation … It doesn’t help the dynamics.”

Follow Jillian Kestler-D’Amours on Twitter: @jkdamours

Source: Al Jazeera