Quebec City mosque attack memorial

Quebec mosque attack anniversary a sad reminder of ever-present Islamophobia

“For some politicians and pundits, it’s impossible to discuss Islamophobia in Quebec or Bill 21 and the impending legal challenge without them insisting it’s Quebec bashing. There is no room for nuance in their statements because they don’t want there to be any. It’s performative outrage that’s purely meant to distract.”

It’s been six years since Alexandre Bissonnette entered the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City and gunned down six innocent men in prayer and injured another 19, leaving behind families in mourning, 17 children without fathers and members of Quebec’s and Canada’s Muslim community terrorized. Six people killed in cold blood just for being Muslim. 

The London, Ontario attack that followed in 2021, which wiped out an entire family, and a deadly stabbing at a Toronto city mosque the year before, certainly did nothing to abate Canadian Muslims’ fears. Islamophobic comments openly and routinely expressed online haven’t provided the community with much solace either.

To read some people this past weekend, you’d think these horrific events were maliciously orchestrated to gain political sympathy and allow the community an unfettered opportunity to hijack the public discourse once a year and spread their “Islamic rhetoric.”

Sadly, annual ceremonies on January 29 and Muslim Awareness Week may serve to honour the dead, offer solidarity and create opportunities to counteract bigotry stemming from ignorance, but they also serve to remind us of how prevalent and normalized Islamophobia continues to be.

The presence of Islamophobia in Quebec isn’t an indictment of Quebec

Quebec City mosque attack Islamophobia Montreal vigil
Montrealers stand against Islamophobia following the Quebec City mosque attack

Within minutes of posting a simple tweet about Muslim Awareness Week, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante’s message was inundated with hateful comments. 

“If you’re asking yourself why the need for Muslim Awareness Week,” I tweeted in response, “all you need to do is read the comments.” It didn’t take long for people to accuse me of “Quebec bashing” or wanting to “shame Quebecers.” Those making such baseless accusations never seem to remember that I’m a Quebecer, too, or that many Muslims targeted by online hate also happen to be Quebecers. Pretending that calling out islamophobia in Quebec is a general indictment of all Quebec serves no one except Islamophobes who want to continue being Islamophobic without being called out. 

Let’s not mince words. Islamophobia exists in Quebec, like it does everywhere else. While Islamic radicalization around the world is (justifiably) treated as the threat that it is, I see far too many Quebecers and Canadians being way too lenient towards politicians and right-wing pundits making racist and xenophobic statements about Muslims, immigrants, asylum seekers and all “others.” Statements that — left unchallenged — encourage hate and mistrust and put a target on innocent people’s backs. We already know words matter and that tolerating intolerance can be dangerous. 

Yes, Bissonnette was a troubled man who suffered from anxiety and depression, but he also consumed a steady diet of right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim pundits. He agreed with Trump’s Muslim travel ban, was against more immigration to Quebec and was obsessed with “saving people” from Muslim terrorist attacks. The irony, of course, is that in his attempt to “save” his family from terrorist attacks, he carried one out himself.

Denial isn’t a strategy plan

Despite Premier Legault’s continued insistence that Islamophobia isn’t a problem in Quebec, it most certainly is. And his social media team knows this. When the Premier tweeted out a message to commemorate the Quebec Mosque massacre, they made sure to deactivate comments, preventing some of the vile replies I saw elsewhere. These comments ranged from calling the commemorations “annual whining” and “emotional blackmail,” to someone cruelly pointing out that “prayers obviously don’t work” implying that the god that the victims prayed to couldn’t save them. As an atheist, let me completely disassociate from such ignorant comments pretending to be progressive. 

I also saw embarrassing whataboutism. A barrage of people “innocently” questioning why the six Quebecers murdered in a terrorist attack in the middle of a war zone in Burkina Faso on January 16, 2016, weren’t also remembered on the exact anniversary of a day commemorating another tragedy. The most egregious comment, by far? Someone commenting that at least the wives of these dead men were now “able to live their lives free from their domination.” Some of these comments are hard to share but I think it’s important to see the amplitude of hate circulating online.

Because muting or minimizing racism doesn’t solve racism. It only allows you to bury your head in the sand and ignore it, which our Premier really excels at. Whether we want to believe it or not, for many Quebecers and Canadians, anti-Islam sentiment (ranging from full-on Islamophobia to a generalized distrust of the Muslim religion) dictates many of their perceptions, political leanings and, yes, support of certain legislation.

Bill 21 is largely a result of anti-Muslim sentiment 

Quebec immigrants attract bill 96
Bill 21, courtesy of François Legault, Simon Jolin-Barrette & cie.

And here’s where Bill 21 comes in when we inevitably discuss Islamophobia. A 2019 Léger Marketing poll commissioned by the Association for Canadian Studies in Quebec revealed that anti-Muslim sentiment appeared to be the main motivation behind Bill 21 support. This is the same poll, by the way, that Canada’s new anti-Islamophobia representative, Amira Elghawaby, pointed to a few years ago and is now being vilified for. 

I won’t comment further on her appointment, and I know some of her statements and her work as a human rights activist have rattled folks both in the ROC (she’s called for the abolition of the monarchy) and Quebec, but suffice it to say that I do agree with her assessment on this issue and her point of view on the province’s secularism law. People telling me she’s only there to demonize Bill 21 make me chuckle. I mean, did Quebecers expect that someone appointed to fight Islamophobia would be favourable to Bill 21? Her job is to bring forward the Muslim community’s concerns and fight Islamophobia, not to pacify or perpetuate majority opinion. Of course, some of her comments may have been hurtful or questionable, but there is no universe in which challenging the status quo can be done in a “unifying” way.

That 2019 poll of Quebecers surveyed found that “only 28% had a positive view of Islam, and 37% had a positive view of Muslims, compared with 66% who had a good view of Catholics and 60% who had positive views of Catholicism. Among those who have negative feelings about Islam, a whopping 88% support a ban on religious symbols for public school teachers. Conversely, those who had positive views of those religions were overwhelmingly against the ban.” 

In other words, not everyone who supports Bill 21 is Islamophobic, but odds are good that everyone who’s Islamophobic supports Bill 21. That might sound harsh to some, but my daily online interactions have convinced me that there are a lot of people conveniently hiding behind the façade of religious neutrality to spew hate.

While Bill 21 supporters insist the legislation is motivated by a desire to take all religion out of the public sphere (and for some that’s certainly the case) the results of such polls clearly show how anti-Muslim attitudes have largely influenced support for discriminatory laws that infringe on people’s rights and freedoms. It’s not “Quebec bashing” to point this out. And while some may justifiably point out that similar anti-Muslim attitudes also exist in the ROC, the difference is that those attitudes haven’t helped shape legislation that discriminates against people who practice their faith. Bill 21 has been devastating for the Muslim community (a Quebec Superior Court judge didn’t call it “cruel and dehumanizing” for nothing), reinforcing prejudice and normalizing discrimination, allowing some to unequivocally believe their discomfort with religion is somehow more important than their fellow citizens’ rights. 

Bill 21 constitutional challenge isn’t anti-Quebec, it’s pro-rights 

Whether you support Bill 21 or not, the way it was rammed through is problematic. The legislation was passed via closure, in true autocratic Legault style, preventing any kind of debate on the issue at all. And even though historically the notwithstanding clause has been used sparingly and only after lengthy debate, the CAQ chose to use it to pre-emptively shield it from a constitutional challenge and override fundamental rights. 

While the federal government has primarily stayed out of the debate and let the challenge before the Quebec Court of Appeal play out, once the legal challenge arrives at the Supreme Court it’s not inappropriate for the feds to get involved. The Supreme Court currently being vilified by some Bill 21 supporters is the same court that francophone minorities in the ROC have routinely resorted to for help and protection of their minority rights, so it’s hypocritical to see the faux outrage over another minority group now doing the exact same thing. 

When I hear Legault say that Ottawa possibly joining the Supreme Court challenge of Bill 21 “is a “frontal attack on Quebec’s democracy and its people,” I can’t help but wonder, “which people?” 

Muslim Quebecers are Quebecers, too

Muslim Quebecers Canadians canada bill 21
Bill 21 protest. Photo by Christinne Muschi

Because the people whose fundamental rights the Supreme Court could rule to protect are Quebecers, too. And so are many against Bill 21, now exercising their legal right to challenge the legislation. Quebecers, by the way, who don’t see the federal involvement as an “attack” but as necessary upholding of fundamental rights, protected by both the Quebec and Canadian Charters. 

For certain politicians and pundits, it’s impossible to discuss the presence of Islamophobia in Quebec or debate the discriminatory ramifications of Bill 21 and the impending legal challenge without them insisting it’s an attack against Quebec as a whole. There is no room for nuance in their statements because they don’t want there to be any. It’s performative outrage whose purpose is to distract.

This constant and deliberate “us” versus “them” polarizing and antagonizing statements serve to obscure the obvious: Bill 21 may be supported by many Quebecers, but it’s also targeting Quebecers. Islamophobia may be perpetuated by some Quebecers, but it’s also victimizing Quebecers. Those fighting Bill 21 may be challenging a government voted in by Quebecers, but they’re also defending Quebecers discriminated by that very legislation. 

Perhaps we’d have an easier time fighting Islamophobia in Quebec if we recognized it’s not solely affecting Muslims but fundamentally affecting Quebecers who just happen to be Muslim. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.