Canada faces hard questions about the broader climate after a far-right white supremacist killed Muslim worshippers at the Quebec City mosque last week. To what extent has Canada's own public debate helped to stigmatise Canadian Muslims?
QUEBEC, Canada — The murder of six Muslims at an Islamic Center in Quebec City has generated much public outcry. Khaled Belkacemi, Azzedine Soufiane, Aboubaker Thabti, Abdelkrim Hassane, Mamadou Tanou Barry, and Ibrahima Barry were praying in their spiritual sanctuary when 27-year-old suspect Alexandre Bissonette allegedly shot and killed them. A number of people have associated the tragic act with the rise of US President Donald Trump's hate theatre. They are not wrong. But that is not the entire story.
What happened on Sunday might be the actions of a so-called lone wolf. But to me, this attack is inherently linked to the broader public debate that has taken place over the last decade in Quebec.
Bissonette and I are the same age. We are part of the same generation. I was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec to Palestinian parents. They settled in a francophone (French-speaking) suburb of the city, Ville Lasalle. I am a child of Bill 101, meaning I had to go to school in French under the pretext of protecting the language and the culture of the "original" people of the land. No, of course am not referring to the indigenous people of Turtle Island. I am referring to the descendants of the French colonialists. That culture.
Many Muslims in Quebec, both of Arab and non-Arab descent, are children of Bill 101. Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Guinea, the countries the victims were originally from, are also part of the "La Francophonie". My generation – the children of immigrants – embraced French. We appropriated the narrative of the Quebecois culture being colonised by the hegemonic English culture. We built a sense of solidarity around the struggle to keep the French language alive and well. But that was not good enough.
In 2007, a commission was set up to consult Quebecers to find out their views on what were "reasonable cultural and religious accommodations". It was called the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. I remember thinking that it was such a ridiculous exercise – to go around the province and ask people: what and who do they think "deserved" a space in the public sphere. I remember watching the forums being broadcast nationwide in the evenings. The things people seemed so comfortable saying were outrageous and still register in my memory: "How many immigrants are there really in Quebec? Must be more than 20? Get the Hell out! Take your rags and garbage with you!!" Every night, it was a different city. Every night, new hateful comments were given space to exist on television.
For the first time in my life, I had to prove that I was worthy of being called a Quebecoise. I was a first-year student at Dawson College at the time, and so naive, I took up the insidious challenge. I volunteered to be a fixer for a Radio-Canada show for young children and early teenagers. I would go around the city looking for teenagers from immigrant parents to talk about how the reasonable accommodation debate affected them. In reality, we were all mostly trying to prove how Quebecois we really were, despite our hijabs, our olive skin tone, and strong belief in God.
The following year, the commission published a "comprehensive" report at the end of the saga called Building the Future. The future that would follow was bleak. The entire exercise was only productive in disseminating social anxiety.
On more than one occasion people stopped me in the street, telling me I don't need to be wearing "that thing" on my head. Once a bus driver told me that he would never force his daughter to wear a turban (my hijab), while others stared as I tried to convince the bus driver that this was my choice.
The very fact that I felt the need to justify myself to a stranger is testament to the kind of pressures people who looked like me faced. While working weekends at Tim Hortons, a Canadian coffee and donut chain, I had people refuse to be served by me. I had people call me a terrorist. I had people dismissing the fact that I spoke perfect French and used their hands to gesture how many creams and sugars they wanted in their coffees because they assumed I couldn't understand them. I was infantilised and ostracised. I left Quebec for Ontario four months after the Commission published it is report.
The public conversations continued on television and radio, and in newspapers. I would look every now and then at the news. The comfort and casualness that politicians, television personalities and writers demonstrated in making Muslims feel horrible about themselves was so strong that even in the nowhere town in Quebec of Herouville, locals called on their municipality to ban stoning. Stoning was something that has never even happened in Quebec, let alone Canada. Nonsense was given a serious place in public discourse. It was ridiculous, and it was growing.
In 2013, I moved to Turkey. That year, Pauline Marois of the anti-immigration and pro-independence Parti Québécois opened her mouth, and all hell broke loose. She and her entourage came up with a sequel to the reasonable accommodation saga, only with a new name: "ostensible symbols". While being articulated in Quebec, the rhetoric was plagiarised from France. For those of you who have lived in Quebec, you might know about the fetish certain Quebecers entertain over their desire to be like France. Some of the Quebec intellectual elite, in a desire to mimic the French model of dogmatic secularism (laïcité), decided they wanted the same for Quebec. People like me were paying the price.
They focused on women, like me, who wear the hijab. Committed to policing our bodies and our choice of dress, Pauline and friends meticulously constructed the debate around symbols under the guise of protecting her much vaunted "Charter of Values". Imposing her neo-liberal white feminist ideology, Pauline helped make Muslim women the target of violence. Bissonnette and I both experienced – in a fundamentally different rhythm and beat – the progression of the discourse of othering around Muslims in Quebec. He was taught to fear people like me, and I was taught to feel guilt about myself.
Islamophobia in Quebec is not new. It exists in Canada more broadly, but it is especially hurtful in Quebec. It hurts because Quebec perceived itself as more progressive and supposedly in tune with struggles of social justice and equality. But the violent crescendo emerging from inconsiderate comments made by politicians and mainstream intellectuals allowed people who consider themselves "original" Quebecois to feel comfortable making people like me feel unwelcome.
Despite the current rhetoric, this discomfort has not uniquely been targeted toward Muslims. I watched a documentary some weeks ago called Sisters in the Struggle (which is celebrating its 25th anniversary). In the film, Haitian social worker and activist Amanthe Estiverne-Bathalien makes an important observation about Quebec society. Though both Haitian and Quebec history have a lot in common, she says: " [I] believe the Quebecois society has an unease toward the Haitian community because they [Haitians] are people of the Third World, because we are black … so we are judged as non-integratable immigrants. We cannot be part of this society, and if they are thinking in terms of colours, they are right, because we will never be able to be white."
It is this very unease that made even the most liberal individuals comfortable to engage with the racist nature of the charter of "values" debate, and the reasonable accommodation parade. Muslims are not going to look like Marc-Andre or Phillippe, Diane or Geneviève. That does not make them second-class citizens, it does not make them suspect, and it certainly doesn't warrant the imposition of a mass media-led public scrutiny of their personhood.
Many people are mourning because they do not want to believe that people like them are capable of regrettable actions. They ignore or fail to see the bigotry that has accumulated over a decade.
Vigils are nice. Coming together to cry can be comforting. The president of the Islamic community centre himself was moved by the support from the municipality. In French, he thanked people for showing compassion.
But compassion and shared grief can also be extremely insulting if it is not coupled with an acknowledgement of what has taken place in Quebec since 2007. For a decade, Muslims have been asked to prove something that cannot and should never be asked of a community and a person: that they are worthy of respect and dignity.
The killing of those six innocent people, as they prayed to God, as they bowed down and sought solace is a strong reminder of the power of racism in political discourse. By engaging in a decade-long debate that was fundamentally exclusionary and at its core, racist and Islamophobic, a fertile space has been created wherein this type of hatred could grow. The consequences have been deadly. Since the shooting on Sunday, 14 hate crimes against Muslims have been reported in Montreal alone.
Quebec doesn't have a Trump problem. Quebec has an Islamophobia problem. In the midst of your tears, recognise it.