On January 29, 2017, white nationalist Alexandre Bissonnette attacked worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Québec City, killing six people and injuring 19 others. As for the motivations behind targeting the worshippers, Bissonette had been known to avidly read far-right media sources, hold anti-refugee views, and support politicians like Donald Trump and far-right former French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
In the ensuing days, there was an outpouring of support for the Muslim community in Canada, with vigils being held across the country. Political leaders of all stripes decried the attack, offering their condolences and standing in solidarity with Muslim Canadians. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking to Muslims at a vigil in Québec City, said, “We stand with you. We love you and we support you. And we will always defend and protect your right to gather together and pray, today and every day.”
Many Muslims leave their countries to immigrate to Canada because they believe they can practice their faith here peacefully. I came to Canada from Sri Lanka when I was four years old. Racialized immigrants in general always face adversity, but for the most part, Canada seemed like an accepting country.
January 29 was a tragic day for the Muslim community, especially since this attack was the first of its kind: never prior to this event had there been a mass shooting in Canada at a place of worship. Although the Muslim community is no stranger to racism and Islamophobia, few thought that this kind of violence was possible, including me. On that tragic day, my view of Canada changed.
Islamophobia overall has been on the rise in Canada over the past years. According to Statistics Canada, hate crimes against Muslims rose 253 per cent between 2012 and 2015. Meanwhile, the rise of far-right groups like the Soldiers of Odin and the Proud Boys in Canada has led to the dramatic increase of Islamophobic attitudes in Canadians, making everyday life for Muslims that much harder.
After the attacks in Québec, things only seemed to get worse. Politicians who were once with us have now changed their tune. Québec Premier Philippe Couillard, who attended the funeral of the victims, argued that Islam was inherently linked to global terrorism a few months later. This is nothing new to Canadian Muslims — we are often used for political purposes, either being demonized for who we are or being used as political props in order to garner more votes.
Far-right groups and media outlets espouse views of Muslims as backward, uncivilized, and unable to assimilate into Canadian culture. These critiques of Islam are without nuance, and they instead regurgitate orientalist tropes. Right-wing media outlets like The Rebel Media have floated the conspiracy that a Muslim attacked the mosque that day after early reports that the suspects in the attack had yelled “Allahu Akbar.” Even though this report was quickly reversed and deemed false, The Rebel ran with the story and actively promoted the conspiracy.
The idea that the Muslim community itself had perpetrated the shooting feeds into the larger conspiracy of “creeping sharia”: the faux plot that Muslims are in Canada to ‘take over’ the country and institute their religious law. In a recent Ipsos poll on Canadian perceptions of Muslims, Canadians on average thought that Muslim people constituted 17 per cent of Canada’s population; in reality, it’s around three. Additionally, Canadians on average think that the Muslim population in 2020 will be at 27 per cent — roughly one in four Canadians — whereas experts consider the prospect of the population growing so rapidly to be slim at best. Jasmin Zine, a Professor of Sociology, noted that “whenever there’s a new influx of communities in our history there’s been moral panic around how they may change the fabric of society.”
As a Muslim, I can tell you I am not here to take over — there’s no proof that anything of the sort is true about my community. If anything, hateful attitudes like these have always been present in Canadian politics, and the latest intensification of Islamophobia is part of a broader pattern of exclusion and hostility toward immigrants and racialized people. Our country has a long history of racism, from the treatment of Indigenous peoples in residential schools to anti-Semitism leading to the rejection of Jewish immigrants during World War II. Right-wing groups are simply building on the racist attitudes that have always been present throughout Canadian history, and the Québec mosque shooting is one terrible example of what can happen if this racism is left to fester.
The Québec mosque shooting was a terrible tragedy, and its impact should remain in our thoughts going forward. Although Canada has a shaky past with racism and will continue to grapple with this issue, it is also a country that intrinsically values multiculturalism. We cannot forget who we are as Canadians, and what we should stand for, as we try to reconcile with the darker moments of our past and present.
We should also remember that our university campus is no stranger to instances of Islamophobia. In the past few years at U of T, we have seen Snapchats mocking Muslim students and a Muslim student spat on outside of Robarts. We’ve observed racism perpetuated by members of groups like Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS), which have masked Islamophobia under the guise of free expression — members of SSFS have threatened to bring “a Quran to rip apart” at events. Most recently, a Turbah box was removed and vandalized at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology’s prayer space, and an Islamophobic hate note was reportedly left in its place. Given the continued prevalence of Islamophobia on campus, students have a role to play in ensuring hatred does not thrive closer to home.
Finally, in the spirit of moving forward, we can never forget the people who lost their lives on that tragic day. Families lost their husbands, brothers, and fathers, and the community lost as a whole. To Azzeddine Soufiane, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Mamadou Tanou, Ibrahima Barry, and Abdelkrim Hassane: we will never forget you, you will always be in our hearts, and may your souls rest in peace. In Islam, when someone passes away, we recite, “Inna lillahi wa inallah-e-raji’oon” — “We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return,” Quran 2:156.
Haseeb Hassaan is a fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science.