Over the weekend, police had to be called to the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre — the very same Quebec City mosque where Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire in 2017, killing six men in cold blood — because some of its members were verbally attacked and one person was hit in the face during an altercation with a man spewing Islamophobic and anti-immigrant hate.
The man showed up by the mosque’s entrance and started shouting that he was “chez nous,” demanding mosque members show him their passports, and that they (unlike him, it’s presumed) didn’t belong in Quebec. When mosque goers attempted to calm him down, he became threatening and eventually hit someone in the face.
Quebec City police officers confirmed that a 47-year-old man was arrested, but initially, and quite inexplicably given the circumstances, chose not to treat the incident as a hate crime, but as a mere altercation between two individuals.
It was a decision I found disturbing, because even though security footage and witnesses clearly pointed to a hate crime, I mean… it walked like a duck and talked like a duck, but Quebec City police officers insisted they heard absolutely no quacking. By the next day they had, thankfully, changed their tune and are now treating it as a suspected hate crime.
Nothing to see here
Quebec politicians also seem to be suffering from the very same tragic affliction. Asked about the incident, Quebec Premier François Legault condemned it but insisted that there was “absolutely no connection” between the altercation and Bill 21. Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette reiterated the same, calling it “regrettable,” but also denying the influence of his government’s proposed legislation. I find this willful ignorance to be quite fascinating!
CBC journalist Jonathan Montpetit, who’s been doing a phenomenal job of covering the Bill 21 hearings, likened the denial to “the popular internet meme that features a dog, in a room on fire, saying ‘This is fine.’” He’s not wrong. It is, in fact, the perfect meme for this contrived and deeply selective denial.
“Some people are racist and behave in an unacceptable manner,” Jolin-Barrette added to his comments, flippantly shrugging away even the mere possibility that discriminatory government legislation could somehow have unintended (or intended) negative consequences on those being discriminated against. In other words: “Nothing to see here. Sh*t happens and let’s all move on.” He then solidified his lack of observational skills by concluding that there is “no tension and no division.” Come again, Simon? Are we watching the same movie?
I’m not quite sure where Jolin-Barrette has been living these days, but if he hadn’t been at the CAQ’s general council meeting over the weekend, hugging it out with Sonia LeBel at dad’s orders, I would have been tempted to think he had left the country.
No tension and no division? He’s certainly not describing the province and the city I’m living in these days, where so many ethnic and religious communities have recently made themselves hoarse from voicing concerns, fears and an overwhelming level of stress since Bill 21 came to the forefront.
The rise of right-wing extremism and intolerance has left many visible ethnic and religious minorities walking on eggshells and concerned about their safety. According to a report by Statistics Canada, hate crimes against Muslims in 2017 increased by 151 per cent. Here in Quebec, advocacy groups are reporting a clear spike in harassment directed at Muslim women (people yelling at them, attempting to pull off their hijabs and even striking one woman who was wearing a niqab). There have been more than 40 reported cases since Bill 21 was tabled barely two months ago.
YouTuber Pierre Dion was recently found guilty of one count of incitement of hatred when he defended Quebec City Mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette, and will be sentenced on June 11. Online, people openly and proudly defending Dion or spewing equally vile Islamophobic statements can be found so easily it’s downright disturbing. Don’t tell me there is no division and tension.
You would think that after what happened in 2017, the police, the public and the government would treat cases like these with the severity and attention that they deserve, but you would be wrong. The excuses and the downplaying of the incident on social media has already started, with many treating it as a minor spat, some suggesting the Muslim community is only too eager to exaggerate every incident to gain sympathy, and with police stating the man has “psychological problems.”
We’ve heard variations of all this before around the world. How often are white terrorism and hate crimes attributed to “loners,” “men worried about their status in the world,” “depressed, anti-social, awkward men” who’ve “been bullied in the past” and would have never resorted to violence if only someone had reached out and “loved them.” They’re always misunderstood and harmless. Until they’re not.
The National Council of Muslims issued a press release expressing its sadness at the incident, but not its surprise.
“While we are saddened, we are not shocked,” it reads. “The Quebec City Mosque has continued to face threats since the tragic events of January 29. Furthermore, minority communities continue to be under the microscope as divisive legislation like Bill 21 moves through the National Assembly.”
It continues: “We are immediately demanding […] that leaders across Quebec commit to doing all they can to make our communities more inclusive and cohesive, rather than feeding division.”
Religious communities, currently being targeted are imploring the government to stop feeding the division, and the only response they are receiving is “there is no division”? When Jolin-Barrette says that “the bill in no way legitimizes the kind of behaviour,” what he is doing is selectively choosing his words and shaping his own convenient reality by ignoring the collateral damage.
By focusing on the intended consequences of the bill (the eventual eradication of undesired religious symbols in government) he actively refuses to acknowledge the unintended consequences of his sponsored legislation: it emboldens racists who clearly hear the message that, if the government can discriminate against religious minorities, then so too can they.
The CAQ’s willful ignorance is shameful. The same folks, who are perfectly capable of inventing a non-existent, non-proven link between government workers who wear the hijab and their hypothetical powers of proselytization are somehow unable to see the direct and obvious line between discriminatory legislation that marginalizes and demonizes people wearing religious symbols and an immediate and statistically proven uptick in discriminatory behaviour towards said people.
I mean, who could have seen that coming?
Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said: “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” The CAQ (and Quebecers who support this bill) have successfully fooled themselves twice. ■