In Quebec, calls for unity amid rising Islamophobia

In the wake of a deadly shooting at a Quebec mosque, we ask if Islamophobia and racism has been on the rise there.

Police officers patrol the perimeter near a mosque after a shooting in Quebec City
Police reported hate crimes against Muslims doubled in Canada between 2012 and 2014 [Reuters]

Mohamed Labidi was at a loss for words.

After only a few minutes at the podium, the former president of the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City, where six worshippers were killed as they prayed on Sunday, was unable to hold back his tears.

“I can’t express the great pain that touched our community with this tragedy that took place in a place of worship, against people who were praying,” Labidi said during a press conference in Quebec City on Monday morning.

“We are touched by this solidarity … and it diminishes our pain,” he said, his voice breaking.

It was an emotional response echoed by many members and representatives of the Muslim community across Quebec, as they continue to grapple with the impact of the deadly shooting at a popular mosque in the provincial capital.

At least one gunman entered the Islamic Cultural Centre in Ste-Foy shortly after evening prayers, spraying the room with bullets as worshipers prayed, read the Quran and chatted.

Six people were killed, and another eight were seriously injured, in the attack.

“Six of our brothers, who were with us only yesterday, who prayed next to us, hand-in-hand … They were shot in the back,” said another Muslim community representative in Quebec, who was also holding back tears, on Monday.

The attack was unequivocally condemned by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and almost immediately labelled “a terrorist act” by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard.

READ MORE: Dutch mosques lock doors at prayers after Canada attack

“This was a group of innocents targeted for practising their faith. Make no mistake, this was a terrorist attack. It was an attack on our most intrinsic and cherished values as Canadians, values of openness, diversity and freedom of religion,” Trudeau said in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Monday afternoon.

“To the more than one million Canadians who profess the Muslim faith, I want to say directly: We are with you. Thirty-six million hearts are breaking with yours.”

‘A centre of Islamophobic sentiment’

At around midday on Monday, Quebec police said they had arrested one suspect, a Quebec man in his late 20s. Another man, who police originally named as a second suspect, is now considered a witness, the provincial police said.

While few details are known about the suspect’s motives, Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who tracks right-wing extremist groups, said Quebec can be considered a centre “of Islamophobic sentiment, both from a political perspective, but also a popular perspective”.

“It certainly seems, over the last couple of years, that it’s also been the centre for racist and xenophobic and anti-immigrant organising,” Perry told Al Jazeera.

Make no mistake, this was a terrorist attack ... To the more than one million Canadians who profess the Muslim faith, I want to say directly: We are with you. Thirty-six million hearts are breaking with yours.

by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

She pointed to Pegida, the far right, anti-immigrant group founded in Europe, getting its first Canadian chapter in Quebec, as one example.

Former Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’ proposal to institute a Quebec charter of values, which would have included a headscarf ban for public sector employees, and the heated debate about a decade ago over the “reasonable accommodation” of new immigrants in the province, are others.

More recently, instances of anti-Muslim hate crimes have also become more widespread, including a pregnant woman whose headscarf was ripped off as she waited to pick her daughter up from school in Montreal.

Hate crimes targeting Muslims – who number approximately one million people in Canada – doubled between 2012 and 2014 across the country, even though hate crimes were down overall in the same period.

The mosque where the shooting took place on Sunday was targeted once before in an Islamophobic attack. Last year, a pig’s head was left on its doorstep, alongside a note that read, “bon appetit”. Eating pork is forbidden in Islam.

According to Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of the Montreal-based rights group AMAL-Quebec, the list of Islamic places of worship and Muslim-owned businesses in Quebec that have been targeted by hate crimes in the last three years is endless.

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, Bouazzi said.

“There are institutions, whether they are political or security-based, that closed their eyes to, that under-estimated, and that even in some cases were complicit with, an absolutely unacceptable situation for a religious minority in Quebec,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We hope that what happened [in Quebec City] will be a wake-up call for everyone, that finally, we will take this situation more seriously.”

The alleged attacker reportedly shared links on his now-deleted Facebook page to the website of the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, according to a report in Montreal newspaper La Presse.

He was also well-known among a local refugee rights group for being an online “troll” who would post comments against foreigners and feminists, the newspaper reported.

‘When hate dominates the political agenda’

Perry said the wider political context in Canada cannot be discounted as a contributing factor in the violence, nor can “the emboldening” of racist ideas, which have become more mainstream as a result of US President Donald Trump’s election campaign and victory.

“It’s no coincidence that this occurred on the weekend that he signed the executive order that effectively banned Muslims from so many countries … It really sent a very powerful message,” she said.

Alex Neve, executive director at Amnesty International Canada, told Al Jazeera that while he would not draw a direct line between Trump’s executive order and what occurred in Quebec City, messages of hate do nothing to stem violence and racism.

“It’s certainly important to remind ourselves that when messages of hate dominate the political agenda, and when we see policies that are divisive and blatantly fuel bigotry, as we have seen in the United States over the past week, that certainly does nothing to counter violence and address the sentiments of hate and xenophobia,” Neve said.

He told Al Jazeera that it is important for Canadians to show solidarity with Muslim communities across the country at this critical time.

“It’s absolutely vital that we reassure and reconfirm that we stand against hate, we stand for tolerance, we believe in diversity, and we believe in human rights,” Neve said.

Messages of love and support 

Vigils were held across Canada on Monday evening, including in Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, and a small rally was even held in Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic, earlier in the day.

Flags have also been flying at half-staff in front of the Quebec legislature and at the Ottawa and Montreal city halls.

Bouazzi said he has been flooded with messages of love and support since the attack, which is a positive sign for Muslim communities that feel “completely traumatised” and “absolutely afraid and in shock” since the attack.

He said it was important for the community to organise a vigil that could bring together Quebeckers of all faiths and backgrounds, and would demonstrate that Quebec “refuses hatred, refuses Islamophobia [and] refuses acts of terrorism”.

“We hope, and we know, that the Quebecois people, the Quebecois nation, will be there.”

Source: Al Jazeera