Taking a closer look at the province’s history with xenophobia and Islam
When I was in second grade, my teacher would hold spelling bees in class. I won one, and was ecstatic because the winner would always get a prize. Students could win teddy bears, puzzle pieces, even candy. I was eyeing a turquoise teddy bear when, instead, my teacher handed me a cartoon book about Christianity and Jesus Christ.
At the time, I didn’t understand that what was happening was wrong. I didn’t feel weird when I wasn’t allowed to go out during recess, and instead, was kept indoors with my teacher who read to me about Jesus’ life.
I remember sitting next to her at her desk, listening as she lectured me about the importance of praying every Wednesday morning. As she droned on, I studied the small but imposing Quebec flag at her desk, the white and blue fleur-de-lis forever seared into my memory. I’ve realized that, for the longest time, I associated Quebecois people with intolerance. My teacher was Quebecois and she despised that I was Muslim—and I spent most of my life assuming all Quebecois felt the same.
Of course, I now realize that’s not true. I can’t believe that, because it would be the same argument used by Islamophobic people—that one person’s bad actions represent all the members of a group.
The Jan. 29 Quebec shooting has brought the reality of Islamophobia to people’s attention. The alleged shooter, Alexandre Bissonnette, killed six men and injured at least 15 others at the Grande mosquée de Québec, in Quebec City. Some reacted with anger, others with shock—but for many Muslims, like me, there was only acceptance of the inevitable.
I’ve heard many people say, “How can something this hateful occur in Quebec?” But all I can think is, how can something like this not happen in Quebec?
Anti-Islam sentiments have been growing in this province for years. According to an article by Al Jazeera, in 2010, a bill was pushed forward in Quebec that aimed to ban women wearing the niqab—the Muslim veil—from using public services. The bill never became a law, but the debate about what a Muslim woman should be allowed to wear has amplified. From the hijab to the niqab, Quebec has always had a negative view of Islamic culture.
This was further shown in the Quebec Charter of Values in 2013, which aimed to ban religious symbols and attire from being worn by employees in the public sector. According to Global News, Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who studies right-wing extremist groups, said, “The rationale [former Premier Pauline Marois] provided for the Charter of Values was to minimize the role or the visibility of religion, but of course the focus was really on one religion.” The Charter of Values would have allowed the crucifix to remain in the National Assembly, the cross to stay on Mount Royal, and Christmas trees to remain in government buildings, according to the National Post.
A poll conducted last year by Forum Research showed that 48 per cent of Quebecois hold an unfavourable view of Islam, in comparison to the 18 to 28 per cent in other parts of Canada.
Groups like PEGIDA—which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West—continue to flourish in Quebec with a Facebook page that has over 18,000 likes and a neo-Nazi/white nationalist stance. The group is known for being anti-Islam and, according to the CBC, the leader of the Quebec chapter has said, “Islam needs to reform itself or leave the West.”
In November 2015, a man named Jesse Pelletier wore the Joker mask and uploaded a video to YouTube in which he held a gun—which later turned out to be fake—and threatened to murder one Arab a week in Quebec.
On Feb. 3, the same day a funeral was being held for the victims of the Quebec shooting, the Khadija Masjid Islamic Centre was vandalized.
A lot of people are arguing Bissonnette—who is a Donald Trump supporter—might have been influenced by the U.S. president’s Islamophobic rhetoric. But I don’t think that’s exactly it. The truth is, Quebec has a problem with Islam. People need to admit that Bissonnette might have been influenced by what he sees in this province—which is a dislike towards Islam.
After the shooting, I spoke to many members of the Muslim community and almost all of them were unsurprised by what happened. Sarah Shamy, a McGill University student, said, “I have been on edge for a while now and I don’t think it’s just because of Trump. Quebec has shown itself willing to accept ‘the other’ if the other is deeply similar to themselves. Quebec has a negative relationship with anyone who isn’t Francophone, white or Quebecois. I don’t feel safe as a Muslim here.”
Politicians and the media further stir ignorance and help paint a negative image of Islam in Quebec. Radio poubelle, for instance, often broadcasts segments that voice “concerns” about Muslim immigration and Islamic terrorism, according to the CBC. When people listen to these segments, it adds fuel to the fire. It’s impossible to ignore how it affects Muslims—it’s hurtful, unnecessary and not truthful—and it reinforces people’s negative image of us.
“I don’t feel safe here anymore,” said Javaid Malik, my father, who moved to Quebec in 1996. “I used to. But even before the shooting, I felt worried about attending the mosque. I noticed the unlocked door, and I was so nervous about praying that I tried to find a rock to protect myself in case someone tried coming in and hurting us.”
These sentiments of fear and lack of acceptance aren’t unusual for Muslims in Quebec. The province seems to be polarized already, with Quebecois separatists pitted against Anglophones. This tribal mentality creates a reality in which anyone outside of the group is strongly considered “the other” and is isolated. Muslims usually don’t fit into either category and are thus viewed as incompatible with the mold Quebec has shaped for itself. Our beliefs, our practices and our faith is so completely different from the norm that it becomes easier to reject us.
Zahra Tourki, a student at the Université de Montréal, said Quebec is close-minded. “All they do is think about keeping their language and French culture alive. They try to convert us into their modern way of living. Islamophobia is everywhere, and it’s sad that it took the shooting to make people wake up. As a Muslim, I will always feel like Quebec is not my place, as if I’m a stranger. I don’t belong here.”
It’s hard to come up with a solution that can end Islamophobia right away. But the first step to finding the solution is understanding where the problem comes from. It’s not just Donald Trump’s recent Muslim ban, or even ISIS—Muslims have been dehumanized in the media for a long time and that’s what led to the shooting.
Alan Conter, a journalism professor at Concordia University, believes that the media is responsible for creating open spaces—something they haven’t been doing for a long time.
“The media needs to be more open to exploring the diverse realities of Islam, and of other faiths and people who don’t hold faiths. The whole discussion of belief systems isn’t treated well,” he said. “There’s a tendency in Quebec of holding a sense of exceptionalism. People say, ‘It couldn’t happen here because we’re wonderful…’ In English Canada, people would bring up our diversity. In every society, people will try to explain away horrible things because it’s easier than looking into yourself and trying to find real root causes.”
What happened on Jan. 29 is a manifestation of a dangerous problem. A lot of Canadians believe that we’re safe from the discrimination that is more apparent in the U.S. We’re considered accepting, a diverse society, and we are—to a certain extent. But our sense of exceptionalism weakens our ability to address the negative side of our society. Quebec’s history of polarization, of subtle racism, has always existed but is rarely acknowledged. What Alexandre Bissonnette did is terrifying—but what’s even more terrifying is that there may be many other people just like him in Quebec who have developed a vicious, violent hatred for a religion they barely understand.