On Sunday 29 January, the safe and peaceful environment of a local Québécois mosque during evening prayers suddenly became the scene of a massacre as a gunman entered and fired indiscriminately. Although quickly condemned by Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, the attack raises many questions and issues, including the rise of Islamophobia, in Canadian society. And yet, the political responses to this attack are symbolic in more ways than one. It is especially significant as Canada’s neighbour, the United States, and its new president, President Donald J. Trump, promulgate discriminatory rhetoric against the immigration of refugees and Muslims.
The shock and devastation in the wake of the attack in Québec was clear from the accounts of eyewitnesses. One described how he saw the gunman, Alexandre Bissonette, enter the mosque and proceed to shoot at ‘everything that was moving’ until he ran out of ammunition. Six people died as a result of the shootings and nineteen people were left injured. Many in the community have expressed their horror at the attack, including Québec’s premier, Philippe Couillard.
Following the attack, Trudeau made a heartfelt speech to politicians in Ottawa— making it clear that this was an act of terrorism against the Muslim community. Trudeau aimed to reassure Canadians, particularly Muslims in the country now fearing for their safety. Appealing to Canadian values, the Prime Minister stated: ‘Canada has long been a diverse and accepting nation. We are kind. We are generous. And we embrace one another, not in spite of our differences, but because of them.’ The speech also implored everyone in Canada to come together in their communities with open hearts.
Welcoming Syrian refugees and maintaining tolerance of others have been key policies of Trudeau’s government since his election. Not everyone in Canada agrees with his views, however. Despite Trudeau’s reassurances, the attack on Sunday could be symptomatic of more serious underlying anti-immigration feeling in Canadian society.
Prior to Sunday’s attack, the mosque had been subject to other ‘Islamophobic’ acts of aggression. Examples include swastikas spray-painted on the building and a pig head left on the steps during Ramadan with a note saying ‘bon appetit’. Such acts attack essential Islamic principles and show a blatant disregard and even hatred of some towards the Muslim community. Although the mosque had not received any threats in recent weeks, Islamophobia has become increasingly prevalent across Canadian society in recent months.
People who knew the man responsible for the attack, Alexandre Bissonette, described him as ‘pro-Trump’ and having ‘far-right’ political views. This has led some to question how much of an impact Trump’s strong warnings about the dangers posed by Muslim immigrants have had on Islamophic sentiments in Canada and even across the world.
It has been a politically tumultuous few weeks in world politics as President Trump advanced a firm stance against the immigration of refugees, particularly from majority-Muslim countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
Approaches to the issue of welcoming refugees taken by Trump and Trudeau could not be more diverse. Trudeau’s tweet in response to Trump’s suspension of the Syrian refugee program explicitly welcomed refugees, regardless of faith, fleeing persecution.
Trudeau was not the only one to react this way to Trump’s extreme measures and increasing anti-immigration speech. Numerous demonstrations opposing anti-Muslim rhetoric were staged across the world, decrying the link made between terrorism and Islam as well as the labelling of refugees as potential terrorists. In Scotland, demonstrations took place in several cities, with protesters carrying signs calling for the United States government to ‘stand with Lady Liberty’ and welcome refugees, instead of turning them away. The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, also made a statement, refusing to maintain a ‘diplomatic silence’ in the face of a ‘ban on refugees’ and questioned whether Trump’s state visit to the United Kingdom should go ahead. She also urged Theresa May to take a stronger stance.
In addition to this public and political action, celebrities have joined the worldwide protest. Alicia Keys shared an emotive short film demanding the US government to ‘act with love’. J.K. Rowling has also criticised Trump’s actions in several tweets. Inevitably, these efforts have been met with a variety of responses but it is clear that Islamophobic orders, laws and acts will not simply be ignored or accepted quietly.
The recent attack in Québec has shown the horrendous consequences of putting a label on members in society. But the world’s reaction has also shown that there are voices willing to speak out to protect those in danger. There will likely be more incidents and attacks, but we must stand firm in our stance in protecting the minorities in our societies who may be targeted.
Reflecting on Trudeau’s speech after the attack, the overwhelming message from protesters around the world seems to echo his assurance that: ‘We will grieve with you. We will defend you. We will love you. And we will stand with you.’
We must be vigilant against hate speech and crime and the political rhetoric, which could potentially sow the seeds for this. We must continue to voice our desire for diversity, compassion and an open mind. Finally, we must plead with our governments to act with love towards those fleeing from war and persecution and remind them that they are people just like us, no matter what their faith. Hopefully we will be heard soon.