Evening prayers had just ended when the killing began.
One worshipper, Azzeddine Soufiane, a perpetually cheerful 57-year-old father of three and halal grocer, tried, it is said, to stop the carnage unfolding inside the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City shortly before 8pm on January 29, 2017, by lunging at the alleged assassin, Alexandre Bissonnette. Soufiane was murdered.
Within minutes, five other loving, loyal, hard-working Muslim Canadian men – a butcher, a pharmacist’s aid, a professor, an accountant and a civil servant – forever linked by their faith and history, lay dead, while 19 more were injured, several critically. The killer’s weapon was, by now, empty.
“Quebec City today has been hit by terrorism,” Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said at a press conference that evening. He reassured Muslims that Quebec was their home too. “We are with you; this is your home, we are all Quebecers.”
A day later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined with other parliamentarians to pay solemn tribute to their massacred fellow Canadians in the House of Commons.
“This was a group of innocents targeted for practising their faith. Make no mistake – this was a terrorist attack,” Trudeau told Canadians and the world on January 30. “It was an attack on our most intrinsic and cherished values in Canada – values of openness, diversity and freedom of religion.” No one in Parliament objected.
In early February, then Police Commissioner Bob Paulson publicly described Bissonnette as a “criminal extremist”.
Apparently, Canada‘s prime minister, Quebec’s premier, and the nation’s top police officer were all, in fact, mistaken.
Quebec’s Crown prosecution service did not see, hear, read or, perhaps most importantly, agree with Trudeau, Couillard and Paulson. So, in late January, it charged Bissonnette with several counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder, not terrorism.
Apparently, the assassination of six men, “targeted” because of who they prayed to and where, was not an act of terrorism; the assassination of six husbands, brothers, and fathers at their holy place of worship was not an “attack” on Canada’s “cherished values of openness, diversity and freedom of religion”. Apparently, a Quebec City mosque was not the site of a terrorist attack this past January, and the alleged killer of those six Muslim Canadians was not a “criminal extremist”.
Still, any lingering hope or expectation that Bissonnette would ultimately be charged with so much as a count of terrorism was extinguished in early October when prosecutors announced plans to forgo a preliminary hearing and go directly to trial on the murder indictments alone. (Crown prosecutors have repeatedly refused to discuss why Bissonnette was not charged with any terrorism-related offences, saying only the evidence dictates the charges.)
The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), Canada’s largest and most influential Muslim advocacy group, decried that curious decision as “deeply concerning” since it evinces that not all victims of terror are considered equal under the law.
“The decision not to lay terrorism charges against Mr Bissonnette, who targeted a mosque to commit a massacre, reinforces to the Canadian public the harmful stereotype that only Muslims are terrorists. This is deeply concerning because it will serve to perpetuate the kind of discrimination and violence we have seen carried out against our communities,” Kashif Ahmed, NCCM board chair, said in a press release.
NCCM executive director, Ihsaan Gardee, went further, insisting Crown prosecutors were guilty of a glaring and disturbing “double standard”.
“Pursuing terrorism charges against Mr Bissonnette … would have sent an important reassurance that Muslims are seen as equal victims of terror. By not doing so, the Crown is perpetuating what appears to be a double standard in the application of the law,” he said.
Mr Ahmed and Mr Gardee are, of course, right. Muslims, it seems, cannot be treated as victims of terror under Canadian law – only perpetrators.
Not surprisingly, the NCCM’s objections hardly registered with Canada’s once deeply sympathetic political elites and establishment media, that not too long ago largely agreed that Bissonnette’s lethal actions constituted a prima facie case of terrorism.
Trudeau and Couillard have gone mute: Not a peep about terrorism or Muslims being “targeted”, “attacked”, or, for that matter, welcomed into the comforting bosom of “home”.
Terrorism: the word invoked so often, by so many, in so many places in the raw residue of January 27, has evaporated today in a blurring haze of stories that, in effect, defend Crown prosecutors “for doing the right and proper thing”. The amnesia and revisionism are as instructive as they are appalling.
Quoting the usual stable of “security experts”, reporters have penned “think pieces” to explain away Crown prosecutors’ thinking to pursue murder, not terrorism charges, against a young man with a reported record of rancid right-wing sympathies.
That “thinking” goes like this: Terrorism charges are hard to prove since the Crown must establish a political, religious or ideological motivation. In any event, the penalties for murder are much stiffer than for terrorism.
These sober-sounding rationales raise a theatre marquee-sized question that the “security experts” either weren’t asked or failed to address: Why the need then for terrorism charges at all if they’re so onerous to make stick, and the punishment for murder is decidedly harsher?
This cynical, self-serving pantomime reveals that “terror” laws are essentially a political, not legal construct, designed to assuage the frothing mob – inside and outside Canada’s predominately right-wing press – that demands only Muslim “terrorist” scalps be delivered up in court. Collecting white, male, Christian mass-murdering terrorist scalps is not as compulsory nor, it appears, particularly inviting.
Imagine if a Muslim had walked into a Quebec City church and fired indiscriminately into parishioners taking communion after mass, slaughtering half a dozen. Imagine if the killer was charged with murder, not terrorism. Imagine the cacophony of front-page and top-of-the-newscast outrage that official cowardice and a blinding fealty to political correctness had trumped common sense, decency and the law. It’s not hard to imagine, is it?
But when the defenceless prey of a terrorist are Muslims, there are no hyperbolic broadsides in Ottawa and beyond denouncing cowardice and political correctness and there are certainly no blaring headlines and seething editorials demanding “justice” for the dead.
Instead, there’s only silence and a convenient verdict that six slain Muslim men, the scores of injured and their permanently grieving families are the unfortunate victims of a murderer, not a terrorist.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.