By Amira Elghawaby
15 February 2017
It has been a difficult couple of weeks.
Just as we have had to come to grips with the so-called Muslim ban in the United States and all its actual and potential implications, Canadian Muslims have also had to come to terms with the fact that a young man would let hate consume him to the point that he gunned down innocent people at a mosque.
The attack at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec in Ste. Foy on January 29 is a horrific stain on Canada’s history: never before has a gunman attacked congregants at a house of worship in this country.
As Canadians said farewell to the six individuals – men in the prime of their lives, with families and careers and so much to look forward to – there has been some much-needed soul searching as to how such a tragedy could have occurred. While much has been positive, questions linger as to whether Canada has reached a critical turning point.
“When I say that words matter, it means that words can hurt, words can be knives slashing at people’s consciousness,” said Quebec’s Premier Phillippe Couillard a few days following the attack, referring to a social and political environment in Quebec in which Muslims are often discussed as ‘the Other’.
The Premier would continue to speak forcefully about the need for respectful dialogue, as well as the need to emphasise that diversity is a strength, not a hindrance to Quebec and Canadian society.
“They were sons and brothers and uncles — like me, like us. Friends, co-workers, like us. They were us. They were loved, appreciated, respected, and they always will be. We won’t forget them,” said Couillard. “I want to tell Muslim Quebecers: you’re at home here, we are all Quebecers.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also paid his respects by visiting Quebec City immediately following the attack, as well as attending the funerals for the men.
“It’s high time those behind these messages — whether they are politicians, radio or TV hosts or other public personalities — realise the harm their words can cause,” Trudeau said at one of the events.
“Every one of us is responsible for leading the fight against injustice and discrimination in daily life, for acting in a way that represents who we are, that represents Canada…”
Even those who had spoken negatively about Muslims in Quebec were initially quick to apologise. Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée said he regretted suggesting that a Muslim woman wearing a long robe could be hiding an AK-47 underneath. Shock-jock radio hosts who are heard on what’s termed as “trash radio” also seemed to initially feel regret.
“I recognise it; I erred, It won’t happen again,” said Sylvain Bouchard, a morning radio host who admitted that he hadn’t spoken to a single Muslim community leader in all his years of ranting about Islam and Muslims. And yet, other radio hosts continued with their hate-filled narratives, including one who spoke derisively about an obituary for one of the deceased men.
And that’s the real concern: that despite the heartfelt words that we’ve heard from politicians, and the acts of solidarity of thousands of Canadians who braved frigid weather to participate in vigils, human chains, and rallies across the country, that people will forget that Islamophobia threatens all of us.
While the Quebec City mosque attack illustrates the very worst manifestation of the irrational fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims, the sad reality is that on a daily basis there are acts of discrimination and marginalisation of Canadian Muslims.
It’s important to note that while Canada prides itself on being a diverse and multicultural nation – a place where everyone can be true to themselves as they contribute positively – various forms of discrimination continue.
According to recent polls, more Canadians hold biased views of Muslims than any other group in society and Muslims face the most discrimination. Hate crimes against Muslims have doubled over the most recent three-year period for which we have the numbers for – the only group to see a significant increase.
So while it is critical that Canadian Muslims continue to speak up against all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination, there is clearly a need to better understand and study the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia. To that end, the federal government is considering a motion put forward by Member of Parliament Iqra Khalid that recommends further study of these issues. Again there are already those who are using misinformation and fear to suggest that the motion will limit freedom of speech in this country, or that it will be a path to forcing Sharia in Canada, or that it will lead to blasphemy laws. These claims would be laughable if they weren’t being taken so seriously by citizens who genuinely appear alarmed by the motion.
This is a moment for the silent majority of Canadians who are opposed to hatred of all kinds to speak up, and many are. As Joel Lightbound, member of parliament for Ste. Foy, said: “Having the seen the mistrust, the fear, the hatred among my peers and having tried to respond but not having done enough, silence also has consequences. Never again.”
Let’s hope his fellow parliamentarians – and all of Canada – are as equally determined.
Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).