Canada likes to project itself as a multicultural society but it appears Muslims are not included in this mosaic. The racism they face on a daily basis has led to attacks on Muslims and their places of worship. The most heart-wrenching attack occurred at the Quebec City Mosque on January 29, 2017. It left six dead, 19 injured and many shattered families. It also left the broader Muslim community in extreme fear.
It is essential that the Muslim community in Canada not forget the victims of the terrorist attack, or their families. As in previous years, this year too memorial services were held to remember the victims.
Such memorializing is important. It provides some comfort to the families of victims that they are not alone. It also reminds the broader Muslim community that the threat of anti-Muslim terror is real and they must be vigilant at all times to guard against it.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee against such attacks despite remaining vigilant. The brutal murder of 58-year-old Mohamed-Aslim Zafis outside a mosque in Rexdale, Ontario on September 20, 2020 was a chilling reminder of this grim reality. Zafis was a volunteer caretaker who was checking congregants to ensure they wore a mask before entering the prayer facility. His assailant, Guilherme Von Neutegem, 34, attacked Zafis and slit his throat with a knife.
An even more horrific attack occurred in London, Ontario on June 6, 2021. Three generations of the Afzaal family were crushed to death by Nathaniel Veltman who drove his van over them repeatedly. The Afzaal family—44-year-old Syed Afzaal, his wife Madiha, also 44, their 15-year-old daughter Yumnah and Syed Afzaal’s 74-year-old mother—were all crushed to death. The only survivor of this horrific terrorist attack was their nine-year-old son Faez who sustained serious injuries.
The family was out for an evening walk when they were mowed down by Veltman, deliberately driving his truck into the family. He then reversed his vehicle to crush them and ensure they were dead. The bodies were so badly mangled that some Muslims who usually perform the washing of bodies before burial were too horrified to do so.
“There is evidence that this was a planned, premeditated act and that the family was targeted because of their Muslim faith,” said Det.-Insp. Paul Waight in London, Ontario. “This is a devastating loss of four members of our community,” added police Chief Steve Williams at a news conference on June 7, 2021.
Let us, however, return to the terrorist attack of January 29, 2017 at the Quebec City Mosque. The Muslims were offering their late-night prayer. Men were in the main hall while the women were upstairs. The children, mercifully were playing downstairs in the basement otherwise many of them too would have fallen victim to the terrorist’s anti-Muslim rage.
The perpetrator was identified as Alexandre Bissonnette, 27-years-old at the time, and a student in the Social Sciences department at Laval University. That a university student should be so consumed by hatred of people with whom he had had little or no contact points to the poisonous atmosphere that has been created against Muslims, especially in Quebec.
Bissonnette first attempted to shoot two Muslim men with a semi-automatic .223 rifle. They had just exited the mosque. The rifle jammed so he pulled out a 9-mm Glock pistol and entered the mosque and opened fire on the worshippers. One of the worshippers, Azzeddine Soufiane, 57-year-old grocery store owner, sacrificed his life by rushing Bissonnette to disarm him. Another Muslim, Aymen Derbali tried to distract the shooter. Derbali was shot seven times and spent two months in a coma. But for the courage and self-sacrifice of these two Muslims, there may have been many more victims.
The terrorist sought inspiration for his Islamophobic beliefs from such hate-spewing white supremacists as Richard Spencer, Pamela Geller, Ben Shapiro (a self-confessed pedophile and founder of the The Daily Wire, and former Breitbart editor-at-large) and even Donald Trump who had just been sworn-in as US president in January 2017. In the days leading to his murderous spree at the Quebec City Mosque, Bissonnette had visited Shapiro’s website 93 times!
Let us recall the names of the victims of the most horrific terrorist attack on a place of worship in Canada.
1: Khaled Belkacemi, 60, Science professor at Laval University;
2: Azzeddine Soufiane, 57, owner of a local grocery store;
3: Aboubaker Thabti, 44, pharmacy technician and poultry plant worker;
4: Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42, accounting technician;
5: Abdelkrim Hassane, 41, computer analyst for the Quebec government; and,
6: Ibrahima Barry, 39, an IT worker for the Quebec government.
The day after the mosque terrorist attack, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood in the House of Commons and said: “It was with shock and sadness that Canadians heard about a despicable act of terror last night in Quebec City. By current counts, six people worshipping at the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre have lost their lives, with many others seriously injured. This was a group of innocents targeted for practicing their faith. Make no mistake – this was a terrorist attack. It was an attack on our most intrinsic and cherished values as Canadians – values of openness, diversity, and freedom of religion.”
Canadians across the country came out in their thousands to express sympathy with their Muslim friends and neighbors. The expressions of solidarity were heart-felt and genuine. There were candle light vigils even in Montreal, the largest French-speaking city despite the fact that successive governments in Quebec have, over the years, adopted antagonist policies toward Muslims.
Under the rubric of regulating religious symbols because the French-speaking Quebecois insist on maintaining their ‘secularism’, successive governments have targeted Muslims. Their wrath has been especially directed at Muslim women wearing the hijab or niqab. This ill-wind of intolerance has come directly from France that the Quebecers identify with so closely.
Like in France, Quebec too has introduced various forms of legislation targeting Muslims (Quebec Charter of Values). Dubbed “reasonable accommodation,” it is an unreasonable proposition that has now been enacted into law under Bill 21. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has called it ‘the law against religious freedom.’
Even while Muslims remember the victims of the Quebec City Mosque, they must bear in mind that they are not safe in Canada. There are powerful forces deliberately promoting hatred against Muslims to advance their nefarious agenda.