“I am not a terrorist, nor Islamophobic,” stated Alexandre Bissonnette in a Québec City courtroom on March 28. Bissonnette asked forgiveness for what he referred to as the “senseless act” he had committed over a year prior — on January 29, 2017, he perpetrated a mass shooting against praying Muslims at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Québec City. Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane, and Aboubaker Thabti did not survive the attack. Bissonnette eventually pled guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder.
A panel on anti-Muslim racism was held at the University of Toronto earlier this year, entitled “One Year Later: Islamophobia & the Quebec Mosque Shooting.” The event was hosted at Hart House by the Multi-Faith Centre and the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), and it featured moderator Syed Hussan and panelists Imam Yasin Dwyer, Azeezah Kanji, Gilary Massa, and Lucy El-Sherif, who shed light on anti-Muslim racism as a structural problem that operates through a diversity of state and social institutions.
Bissonnette did hold far-right, white nationalist, and anti-Muslim beliefs that evidently inspired his attack. But to label Bissonnette and other perpetrators of anti-Muslim violence terrorists or Islamophobes, however fitting, makes for simplistic individualized narratives that overlook the bigger picture. Engaging in critical analysis of the structures that rationalize violence against Muslim communities is essential to fully understanding anti-Muslim racism.
The national security state
When considered in the broader context of state security legislation, Bissonnette’s violence no longer seems perplexing or isolated, but rather is a rational product of Canadian society and culture. As Kanji argued, by defining terrorism as ‘illegitimate violence,’ the state reaffirms its own legitimacy to create violence. The more we use terrorism to describe individual acts of violence, the more the culpability and terrorism of the state itself is obscured.
Over the past three years, the Canadian state’s anti-Muslim racism has in fact nurtured various forms of violence against Muslim communities. The shooting at Parliament Hill in October 2014, framed as an attack by a homegrown, Muslim-convert terrorist, led to the passing of Bill C-51. The bill, introduced by the Conservative Stephen Harper government and backed by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, expanded the security state’s draconian capacities. In the name of national security, Muslims, journalists, Indigenous activists, and environmentalist protesters became primary surveillance targets of the legislation.
This was followed by another Conservative-led, Liberal-backed piece of legislation: the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. Like MP Kellie Leitch’s obsession with ‘Canadian values,’ the act targets and criminalizes Muslim communities as culturally incompatible with so-called ‘old stock’ Canadians. During the 2015 federal election campaign, the Conservative Party centred the issue of the place of niqab at citizenship ceremonies, given Harper’s view that niqabs are “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”
In a critique of colonialism, scholar Gayatri Spivak commented sardonically, “White men are saving brown women from brown men.” El-Sherif echoed this sentiment, arguing that the Canadian state positions itself as a saviour for Muslim women supposedly oppressed by barbaric, Muslim men. This is in spite of the fact that Muslim women have consistently demonstrated agency — after all, it was Zunera Ishaq, a woman, who successfully challenged the Harper government’s niqab ban in citizenship ceremonies in the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal.
Even in the era of Trudeau, popular rhetoric about strength through diversity falls apart as his government continues to support many of the Conservatives’ previous anti-Muslim legislation. The Liberals have approved Harper’s multi-billion-dollar deal with Saudi Arabia that was recently revealed to include heavy assault vehicles, not just the innocuous “trucks” or “jeeps” the government had advertised. This deal strengthens a Saudi regime that continues to perpetrate violence against civilians in the Yemeni civil war, among other human rights abuses.
The singular Muslim image
The security state also shapes and supports public opinion. Muslim communities, especially women, have been subject to a skyrocket of hate crimes in recent years. A recent University of Waterloo study showed that Muslims are the most negatively perceived minority group in Canada.
M-103, a non-binding motion to condemn Islamophobia and study “systemic racism and religious discrimination,” passed in March 2017 but faced fierce opposition from conservatives and far-right groups because it was erroneously seen to be ‘promoting Sharia.’ New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh’s infamous heckler last year was motivated by Singh’s support for M-103 — and, given that Singh is Sikh, also exemplified how Sikhs are frequently confused for and targeted as Muslims.
Kanji noted that Canadian security agencies such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Public Safety Canada disproportionately identify Muslim terror as the primary threat. Even though the Islamic Cultural Centre in Québec City was the site of a white nationalist attack, the Québec government passed an anti-niqab law the same year, echoing the federal government’s attitude in 2015 and suggesting that the securitization of Muslim women is somehow essential to public safety. All this despite the threat posed by the increased visibility of far-right and white nationalist movements in recent years, evidenced by the protest at a Masjid Toronto mosque in February 2017 and frequent demonstrations at Nathan Phillips Square.
Pervasive negative stereotypes about Muslims also encourage structural violence. At the panel, Hussan probed how Orientalism, whereby “the west constructs the Occident, the east, and therefore constructs itself,” creates a singular Muslim image: often the bearded, light-skinned or brown Arab man. This image facilitates the racialization of Muslims as angry, conniving, and dangerous, because discourse and policy surrounding Muslims is frequently informed by conflict in the Arab Middle East. This erases the diversities and nuances that exist among Muslim communities and fails to account for complicated realities. For instance, that a non-Arab country, Indonesia, hosts the world’s largest Muslim population, or that Muslims are targets, not perpetrators, of fundamentalist violence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
Diversity also exists, unfortunately, as conflict between Muslims. In February, an act of anti-Shia vandalism at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology demonstrated the contemporary split between majority Sunni and minority Shia denominations of Islam. Diversity, however, is obscured by an industry that profits off of racism — as Hussan and Massa described, books, media, and movies that rely on a stereotypical, singular Muslim image culminate in an ‘Islamophobia industry’ that is economically lucrative to those in business and in power.
Confronting anti-Muslim racism requires acknowledging a fundamental fact: there is no such thing as a single form of Muslim people. Muslims exist across nationalities, cultures, denominations, and individual lived experiences, and to say otherwise only serves dominant security narratives.
The language we use to describe anti-Muslim violence also shapes how we design solutions. El-Sherif said that she does not favour the term ‘Islamophobia’ because it implies that anti-Muslimness is an irrational fear based on a lack of awareness. It also suggests that if only Canadians knew how peaceful Muslims really were — if only Canadians just visited a mosque! — then anti-Muslim violence would stop.
But it is not fair for Muslims to have to ‘integrate’ into the Canadian national imagination to prove the goodness of their faith, which also privileges Muslims who can best ‘fit’ prescribed expectations. ‘Anti-Muslim racism,’ on the other hand, is a term that can understand the problem as structural and intersectional in that it is linked to other forms of racism, for example, against Indigenous and Black communities that are also disproportionately affected by the expansion of the security state.
When asked how students can take action against anti-Muslim racism, Massa acknowledged the very real fear of being Muslim on campus. Indeed, Muslim student associations on campuses have reportedly been subject to surveillance from the CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. However, Massa maintained that the MSA should politicize itself: Muslims should openly dedicate themselves to causes of justice against institutions of power.
Hussan recommends that addressing anti-Muslim racism requires stitching together multiple layers of strategies. In this vein, students should challenge the war industry, including U of T’s investment in companies that support violence against Muslims abroad, and organize against the national security-based anti-Muslim legislation and discourses that degrade civil liberties for us all. Acknowledging the diversity within Muslim communities and the widespread impacts of anti-Muslim racism, students should stand in solidarity not just with Muslims but with other minoritized communities. Supporting safe community spaces for discussion, learning, and coping is also essential.
It is too easy to call Bissonnette, and others like him, an Islamophobe, a terrorist, and an isolated perpetrator of senseless acts, no matter how fitting these definitions may be. But the structures of anti-Muslim racism — made up of elements from politics, culture, and the social order — are what rationalize violence against Muslim communities. Only by shifting the dialogue from individuals to structures can we identify the root of the problem and, ideally, overcome it.
Ibnul Chowdhury is a third-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies. He is an Associate Comment Editor for The Varsity.