By Haroon Siddiqui
January 30, 2017
On Sunday night, a gunman opened fire in a mosque in Quebec City, killing six people and wounding eight. Our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, called the shootings a “terrorist attack on Muslims.”
Worshipers gunned down in a mosque — people here more readily associate such news with the United States than with Canada. That this happened in Quebec City has shocked many of us, myself included.
An incurably optimistic Canadian, I long believed that Canada would be immune to anti-Muslim hysteria. I was mistaken. This attack has been a long time coming.
The first inkling came after Sept. 11. Until then, I was just another Canadian journalist. After that, I was seen only as a Muslim, my identity reduced to my religion. The confusion, or deliberate conflation, of terrorist extremists with ordinary, law-abiding Muslims meant laying a collective guilt on all Muslims.
“What do you, Siddiqui, have to say about this or that horrible act of terrorism?” It was as if I were personally responsible.
Soon, mosques were being firebombed or vandalized. Women wearing head scarfs were spat upon, pushed and kicked in public places. Muslim Canadians reported feeling psychologically interned, as if under suspicion, surveillance and siege.
This was all rather new. Historically, Canadians prided themselves in being different from what they saw in the United States, especially on guns and racism. On Islamophobia, though, we’re ahead of Trumpism, in rhetoric and policy.
Long before Donald J. Trump and some Republicans began demonizing Muslims and “radical Islam,” the government of Mr. Trudeau’s predecessor as Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was maligning Islam and discriminating against Muslims. So were the governments of our two largest provinces, Ontario and Quebec, in varying degrees.
Mr. Harper, first elected in 2006, waged cultural warfare on Muslims and used every opportunity to tie terrorism to Muslims. The Harper government banned the Niqab, the veil worn by some Muslim women, from citizenship ceremonies and systematically cold-shouldered mainstream Muslim organizations. In 2011, he said that the biggest threat to Canada was “Islamicism.”
In 2015, he suggested that mosques were incubating radicals. He constantly claimed that the West was fighting not just the Islamic State, but was at war also with “the international jihadist movement.” He intervened to slow the admission of refugees from Syria, saying some were potential terrorists, and prioritized Christian asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq. Sound familiar?
In the early 2000s, well before American states approved legislative or administrative measures banning the Shariah law that was not coming and could not possibly come to America, Ontario had its own Shariah hysteria. When a small group of Muslims sought permission to use religious arbitration in business disputes and such family matters as divorce and marital assets — to duplicate what churches and rabbinical courts had long been doing — there was a public furore. The state’s premier, Dalton McGuinty, a Liberal, was finally forced to ban the practice for all faith groups.
In Quebec, Islamophobia manifested itself in a series of sensational cases, in 2007 and 2008, over the “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities, Muslims in particular. The provincial soccer federation barred Hijab-wearing girls on the pretext of safety. It took an official commission to calm public nerves. Its 2008 report, which had the eminent philosopher Charles Taylor as an author, found there was no crisis: Sensationalist media coverage had distorted perceptions, but Muslims were not making unreasonable demands.
Even so, in 2010, Quebec’s premier, Jean Charest, went ahead with a ban on the Niqab for government employees and for anyone receiving a public service, including health care. The Muslim-bashing continued in 2012 with the election of the separatist Parti Québécois, which the following year proposed a ban on all religious attire and symbols, such as the kipa, hijab and the Sikh turban, from the public sector. The chief target was Muslims, as the government made abundantly clear in proposing to fire Hijab-wearing women from government employment, including in day-care centres, schools and hospitals.
But, this being Canada, we took comfort in the fact that the Parti Québécois government was rejected at the polls in 2014, precisely because of its reactionary identity politics, and that the Harperites were trounced in the federal election of November 2015. Canadians had finally decided that Mr. Harper had crossed a red line with his Muslim-baiting. In that election, Muslim voter turnout was a record 79 percent, compared with the overall turnout of 68 percent.
In his victory speech, Prime Minister Trudeau spoke of meeting a worried Hijabi woman during the campaign and he assured the nation that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.” Mr. Trudeau reversed Mr. Harper’s policy on Syrian refugees and welcomed more than 35,000 refugees during his first year in government. Today, hardly a week goes by without my hearing about a neighbour or friend, or a church, synagogue or community group, going to the airport to welcome their Syrian family.
I remain an incurably optimistic Canadian, and I want to believe that Canada is still not the United States. But as Sunday’s attack showed, we face the challenge of undoing the damage of years of suspicion and bigotry.
Haroon Siddiqui, a former columnist and editorial page editor for The Toronto Star, is the author of “Being Muslim.”