A year has passed since six were killed and nineteen other Muslims injured in a shooting by Alexandre Bissonnette at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec in Sainte Foy. The event was shocking for its unexpectedly explicit violence against Muslims. The Islamic center had been targeted before; it had received hateful messages and a pig’s head on its doorstep in the past. But this was different. This shooting is the only time that members of a religious group have been killed in their house of worship in Canada. It is the only incident in which Muslims have been targeted and killed, solely and precisely because they are Muslims.
(Image Source: (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press) | http://www.cbc.ca).
Muslims can be Human
For more than a decade, Muslims have been regularly presented as cultural or religious threats to “national values”, in addition to potential terrorist threats to national security in political and media discourses. Although the post 9/11 “war on terror” aggravated these perceptions and representations, they did not originate in this time period. Rather, they were part of a longstanding history of suspicion, prejudice and discrimination against racialized minorities, dating from the White Canada immigration policies of the first half of the 20th century (Thobani 2007).
In the initial aftermath of the shooting, there was an outpouring of emotional support for the victims and for Muslims collectively in Canada. There were candlelight vigils and emotional messages of support and kindness from the public. The Prime Minister, the Quebec Premier, the mayors of Montreal and Quebec City, as well as other politicians, gave statements condemning the violence and affirming Muslims as citizens and members of society.
The mosque shooting demonstrated the extreme limits of the demonization of Muslims as perceived threats to the nation: not only do Muslims not belong in it, they must be erased from it. The collective response sought to return from that limit that had been exposed by the violence, by affirming the value of Muslim as citizens as worthy of national support, as worthy of having their humanity affirmed. But teddy bears and emotional reassurances of “we love Muslims” were not and are not enough. The presence of Islamophobia depends upon the larger political relationship between Muslims as racialized, religious minorities and white majorities.
One year later, how do we make sense of this incident? How do we think about this violence in relation to the everyday negative attitudes, prejudice and discrimination that also constitute Islamophobia. In a year of continuing incidents, what does Islamophobia mean today in Quebec and Canada?
(Image Source: (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press) | http://www.cbc.ca).
Muslims as a Political Category
I want to contextualize this discussion by addressing how Islamophobia is tied to the emergence of Muslims as a specific category of people (Sayyid and Vakil 2010). Muslims have been present in North America since the trans-Atlantic slave trade first brought them to this continent (Diouf 2013). Black slaves were brought to Canada when it was part of British North America in the 1800s, including Quebec (Austin 2013, 8-10). In the late 1800s and early 1900s, some Muslims were brought as labor to work on the railroad, others were farmers or traveling salesmen. The first mosque in Canada, the Al Rashid Mosque, was built in Edmonton in 1938 (Munir 2015).
However, in popular understanding, Muslims are identified as racialized immigrants who were part of the post-1967, postcolonial wave of arrivals in Canada. They exist in overlapping categories; they are part of the diaspora from specific countries, such as Somalia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, etc, as well as members of visible minority groups, such as South Asians, Arabs, and Blacks.
However, it is only since 2001 that they have come to be politically and publicly visible as a distinct group because of a securitization discourse in which they are perceived as terrorist threats in the context of the global “war on terror”. Muslims have been the targets of hate crimes, negative political and media discourses, as well as scrutiny and attention from the state as potential “radicalized” young men (Jamil 2016).
Thus, despite the longstanding historical presence of Muslims in Canada, they have only become visible as political subjects recently. The emergence of Islamophobia is tied to this visibility. The formation of Muslims as a political category is related to the recognition of their experiences as distinct because of who they are as both racialized and religious minorities. This is relatively new in Canada in comparison to other countries where Islamophobia has been a topic of public policy discussion much earlier (Runnymede Trust 1997, Sayyid and Vakil 2017). This provides the context for understanding the amount of resistance to Islamophobia as a political issue.
(Image Source: (Philippe Morin/CBC) | http://www.cbc.ca).
Calling Out Islamophobia
In February 2017, one month after the shooting, the parliamentary motion M103, which had been tabled by MP Iqra Khalid in December 2016 came up for debate. Its supporters had thought, mistakenly it turned out, that as a private member’s bill and as a non-binding motion, it would be pass easily as a symbolic measure reiterating the government’s condemnation of “Islamophobia, and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.” Instead, it became a lightning rod for the discourse on and about Islamophobia.
Among the objections to it was that Muslims were being given too much attention and were being singled out through the reference to Islamophobia in the wording of the motion. Some Conservative politicians demanded that the term be removed and all religious discrimination be given equal importance. They drafted an alternative motion, which did not pass.
Another objection was the lack of definition of the term, which was seen as precluding the condemnation of Islamophobia as a phenomenon. Still others criticized it for being a channel for a “Sharia law takeover” and the like. MP Khalid also received death threats as both the subject and the object of the Islamophobia motion and Islamophobia. Ultimately, the non-binding motion passed by 209 to 91 votes on March 23, 2017, without any changes to the text.
Why did M103 garner such protest when one month earlier politicians had been so willing to express their condemnation of violence against Muslims. For one, politically speaking, there is a difference between making a statement to the media and engaging in parliamentary politics. More significantly, the proposed motion was an attempt to name Muslims and their experiences as a matter of national politics, to move beyond “feel good” statements to fight Islamophobia through political institutions. Even if the motion was non-binding, and only asked the federal government to study the issue, it also gave it political legitimacy by naming it specifically. The criticisms and the protests against the motion collectively aimed to silence Muslims (and their supporters) and deny Muslim agency to name Islamophobia as an issue of political concern, rather than a problem of “lone wolf shooters” or an issue of community relations that only required goodwill and hugs.
The Dead Don’t Live Here
The funerals of the six Muslim men who were killed, though they took place on a grand scale in Montreal, highlighted the fact that there were no Muslim cemeteries in or around Quebec City. The deceased were buried in a Muslim cemetery in Montreal or sent to their countries of family origin. It demonstrated the lack of the institutionalization of community needs for Muslims in Quebec, despite the many years of settlement and the relative size of the community of 200,000 people.
In an attempt to resolve this problem, the Islamic center in Quebec where the shooting had happened bought a piece of land in the small town of Saint Apollinaire, Quebec. Though the town council approved the sale, it required a zoning change in order to be finalized. A petition was circulated calling for a referendum. In July 2017, Saint Apollinaire held a referendum on zoning changes to allow for the Muslim cemetery. The outcome was a resounding no, 19 to 16, though only 36 out of the 62 residents who were eligible to vote in the referendum voted. The mayor of the town council noted that fear of Muslims may have been part of the motivations for the ‘no’ vote, while some people insisted that in the interests of “secularism”, Muslims shouldn’t have their own cemetery. The far right nationalist group La Meute, which is active in Quebec City and vocal about its anti-Muslim and xenophobic views, also played a role in fanning the opposition and starting the petition calling for the referendum.
The outcome of this referendum highlighted two key points. Despite the momentary emotional response to the shooting in January, it did not signify a change in attitudes towards Muslims. Instead, there remained an active resistance to the institutionalization of Muslim community needs and to their collective presence, even after they died. Second, it highlighted the role of far right groups in fanning Islamophobia, demonstrating that Islamophobia was not just a national phenomenon but also a transnational one, echoing the white nationalist political agendas of far right groups in Europe and the US.
Muslims Not Required
Towards the end of the year, in December 2017, Quebec news channel TVA reported that a mosque in Montreal had specified that there be no female workers on a construction site on Fridays in its contract with the company. Further investigation revealed that there was no such clause in the contract, and that the mosque had never made any such request. The channel apologized for its non-existent story, but not before the issue had brought out protests and counter-protests and statements from politicians about the importance of gender equality in Quebec society.
Gender equality is a well-established theme in Quebec political and media discourses, often used to highlight the lack of gender equality allegedly “inherent” in Islam and Muslims. It is a political code for talking about Muslims as the Other. This discourse has been mobilized many times, from the Bouchard-Taylor Reasonable Accommodation Commission in 2007 to the recently passed Bill 62.
Just over 10 years ago, in 2007, it animated the Herouxville affair. Herouxville is a small town in Quebec, which passed a Code of Conduct aimed at Muslim immigrants, despite the fact that none lived there. The Code highlighted what the town believed to be key “Quebec values,” including gender equality, secularism, and democracy, against the perceived threat of Muslim immigrants.
This TVA incident was a continuation of the same discourse that operated in the Herouxville case, where Muslims were collectively presented as a danger and threat to “Quebec values”, reflecting the anxieties over the perceived loss of national and white privilege to define who belongs to the nation (Jamil 2014, 2325-2326). This anxiety is both national and transnational, related to a fear of loss of power by white majorities, fear of the loss of their white privilege in a world where the historically dominant position of the western nation is no longer a given. Islamophobia doesn’t necessarily require any actual Muslims in order to exist. It is sustained by the imagined figure of a racialized Muslim who represents a threat to the “white nation” (Hage 1998). Islamophobia is an expression of a racialized way of thinking that makes a distinction between the west and the non-west through this figure of the racialized Muslim.
One Year Later
These various events in the past year, including the mosque shooting, may appear to be single events, uncoordinated and unrelated except in retrospective analysis. But they are tied together through Islamophobia as an explanation of meaning (Sayyid 2014). Islamophobia is a system of meaning, a logic, a way of thinking about Muslims as racialized Others in the west, in relation to whiteness and the “white nation.”
The discourse on Islamophobia is a way to talk about the presence of Muslims. It is a response to the increased visibility of Muslims and Muslim experiences as an issue of politics and public policy. It does not mean that Muslims have not experienced Islamophobia for decades. Rather, it means that the name for these experiences as distinctly tied to the idea of Muslims has only recently become part of public conversation. The mosque shooting, the debate over M103, the cemetery referendum and the TVA story are all part of this public conversation.
The call by the National Council of Canadian Muslims for a National Day of Remembrance and Action against Islamophobia on January 29 is another part. Though its purpose is to mark the anniversary of the shooting, it has also opened up questions about Islamophobia, its meaning and about who determines this meaning. The loud and clear refusal of Quebec political parties to this proposal demonstrates the political resistance to this question, and conversely, its continuing significance.
As long as Islamophobia can be erased, sidelined, avoided and denied as a political concern, it will not require a political response from the government. As a consequence, it will also mean that Muslims must continue to remain responsible for “proving” the existence of Islamophobia through their experiences. And still, critics will claim that those experiences, even if they include the targeted killing of Muslims, do not constitute Islamophobia, but something else. It will be given another name.
A national day is an attempt to resist this erasure. It is to give Islamophobia political legitimacy as a thing, as something important for the entire nation, and not just for Muslims. It is to consider Islamophobia as something that endures, that is not just one isolated event, or even several events. It has a logic, a system of meaning. It has a history, a genealogy. It is national and transnational. It is not only about Quebec or Canada, but about global ways of thinking about Muslims in racialized hierarchies. It is about coloniality, about a world that is still divided between the “civilized” and those who still have to prove that their experiences and their lives matter.
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Hage, G. (1998) White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Nation. Sydney: Pluto Press.
Jamil, U. (2014) National Minority and Racialized Minorities: The Case of Pakistanis in Quebec. Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies. 37(13), 2322-2339.
—– (2016) The War on Terror in Canada: Securitizing Muslims. Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies. Vol. 1, No. 2 (November), 105-110
Runnymede Trust. (1997) Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All. London: The Runnymede Trust.
Sayyid, S. (2014) A Measure of Islamophobia. Islamophobia Studies Journal. (Spring) 2:1,10-25.
Sayyid, S. and A. Vakil. (2010) Thinking through Islamophobia. London: Hurst Publishers.
Thobani, S. (2007) Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.