January 29 marked four years since the murderous attack on worshippers in the Quebec City Mosque that left six dead and 19 injured. We would do well to remember the names of the victims of that fateful night attack on a place of worship.
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 up in the House of Commons and issued the following statement: “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.”
Other political leaders issued similar statements although it soon became clear not all of them were sincere in their pronouncements.
The people of Canada in cities and towns big and small 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 the Quebec government had over the years adopted an antagonist policy toward Muslims.
The perpetrator of one of the most horrific terrorist crimes in Canadian history was Alexandre Bissonnette, 27-years old at the time. He was a student at Laval University, where one of his victims, Professor Khaled Belkacemi also taught. It is unlikely the two had crossed paths since Bissonnette was in the Social Sciences department while Professor Belkacemi taught Science.
On the night of January 29, 2017, Bissonnette approached the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City. There were about 50 men present for Isha‘ salat (the last prayer at night). Women were praying upstairs while children were playing in the basement and so fortunately survived the carnage. He 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.
Once inside, he killed six men and injured 19 others, some of them critically. Soufiane, the grocery store owner, sacrificed his own 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.
Family members of the Quebec City Mosque shooting have been left with permanent scars. While expressions of sympathy do provide some comfort, the larger issue of the environment in which Bissonnette emerged must be examined. Successive governments in Quebec, especially since the early 2000s, bear major responsibility for what happened four years ago.
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) called it ‘the law against religious freedom.’
The Quebec government while insisting on disallowing religious symbols was soon caught in its own contradictions. Above the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly’s Blue Room, there hung a crucifix that had been there for decades. In the ensuing debate, Quebec Premier François Legault made the ludicrous claim that the crucifix was there to stay, insisting it was not a religious symbol, but a historical one.
The hypocrisy was too much to sustain and he ultimately relented only to move the crucifix to a space between the Blue and Red rooms. The stench from that hypocrisy lingers on. When governments target religious minorities and pander to majoritarian prejudices, the consequences are deadly. The latest example of this was witnessed in the US on January 6 when white supremacists attacked the Capitol Building.
Even though Bissonnette was sentenced to life in prison eligible for parole in 25 years, he was not charged with terrorism, only first-degree murder. The January 29, 2017 terrorist attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City was not the first Islamophobic act.
In Ramadan of 2016, a pig’s head was left outside the mosque. There has been a marked increase in cases of discrimination against Muslims. The number of reported hate crimes against Muslims in Quebec tripled in 2017 and has continued its upward trajectory since.
Bissonnette clearly sought inspiration for his Islamophobic beliefs from such 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 killing spree at the Quebec City Mosque, Bissonnette had visited Shapiro’s website 93 times.
While Canadian security and intelligence agencies chase the phantoms of ‘Muslim terrorists’, the real white terrorists—Soldiers of Odin, the Three Percenters, and the violent racists Proud Boys that led the storming of the US Capitol, operate freely. Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) of Canada, has launched an online petition calling on the Canadian government to designate Proud Boys a terrorist organization. As of writing this article, the federal government has not taken any steps.
Condemnation of terrorist acts, however well-meant, will not end such attacks. Practical steps are needed. These include designating Islamophobia as a hate crime and declaring white supremacist groups as terrorist organizations. The ball is in the Canadian government’s court.