Islamophobia in Quebec wasn’t created overnight​

Sabrien Amrov is a PhD student in Human Geography at the University of Toronto in Canada

The murder of six Muslims at an Islamic Center in Quebec City, Canada, on Sunday January 29th has generated great public outcry. Khaled Belkacemi,
Azzedine Soufiane, Aboubaker Thabti, Abdelkrim Hassane, Mamadou Tanou Barry, and Ibrahima Barry were praying in their spiritual sanctuary when 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonette shot and killed them. A number of people have associated the tragic act with the rise of the US President Donald Trump’s hate theatre. They are not wrong. But that is not the entire story.

What happened on Sunday might be the actions of a lone wolf. But to me, it fits in well with the types of actions that public debate of the last decade in Quebec have led to.

Bissonette and I are the same age. We are part of the same generation. I was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec to Palestinian parents. They settled in a francophone quarter in the city, Ville Lasalle. I am a child of Bill 101 of 1977 that designated French as the official language of Quebec, meaning I had to go to school in French under the pretext of protecting the language and the culture of the “original” people of the land. No, of course I am not referring to the First Nations people of Turtle Island, the traditional name for North America. I am referring to the descendants of the French colonialists. That culture.

Many Muslims in Quebec, of Arab and non-Arab descent, are children of Bill 101. Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Guinea, the countries the victims were originally from, are also part of the francophonie. Just like them, children of immigrants of my generation embraced French. We too were schooled to believe the narrative of the Quebecois culture being colonized by the hegemonic English culture in Canada as a whole. We built a sense of solidarity around the struggle to keep the French language alive and well. But that was not good enough.

In 2007, a commission was put in place to consult Quebecers as to what they believed were “reasonable cultural and religious accommodations”. It was called the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. I remember thinking that it was such a ridiculous exercise — to go around the province and ask people: what and who do you think deserves a space in the public sphere?  I remember in the evenings watching the meetings being broadcast nationwide. The things people seemed so comfortable saying were outrageous and still register in my memory: “How many immigrants are there really in Quebec? Must be more than 20? Get the Hell out! Take your rags and garbage with you!” Every night, it was a different city. Every night, new hateful comments were given sanction to exist on television.

For the first time in my life, I had to prove that I was worthy of being called a Quebecoise. I was a first-year student at Dawson College at the time, and so naive, that I took up the insidious challenge. I volunteered to be a fixer for a Radio-Canada radio show for young children and early teenagers. I would go around the city looking for teenagers from immigrant families, inviting them to talk about how the reasonable accommodation debate affected them. In reality, we were mostly trying to prove how Quebecois we really were, despite our hijabs, our olive skin tone, and our strong belief in God.

The following year, the Commission published a “comprehensive” report at the end of the saga called Building the Future. The future that would follow was bleak. The entire exercise was only productive in disseminating social anxiety. On more than one occasion people stopped me in the street telling me I don’t need to be wearing “that thing” on my head. Once a bus driver told me that he would never force his daughter to wear a turban (my hijab) while others stared as I tried to convince the bus driver that this was my choice. The very fact that I felt the need to justify myself to a stranger is testament to the kind of pressures people who looked like me faced. While working at the Canadian coffee shop Tim Hortons on weekends, I had people refuse to be served by me; I had people call me a terrorist; I had people dismissing the fact that I spoke perfect French and who used their hands to gesture how many creams and sugars they wanted in their coffees because they feared I couldn’t understand them. I was infantilized and ostracized. I left Quebec for the province of Ontario 4 months after the Commission published its report.

Public conversations continued on television, radio and newspapers. I would look every now and then at the news. The comfort and casualness that politicians, TV personalities and writers displayed in making Muslims feel horrible about themselves were so strong that the residents of one town in Quebec — Herouville – even called on their municipality to ban “lapidation” (I would just say: stoning). Yes, stoning, something that has never even happened in Quebec, let alone Canada. Nonsense was given a serious place in public discourse. It was ridiculous, but it was growing.

In 2013, I moved to Turkey. In the place I had just left, that same year, politician Pauline Marois of the Parti Quebecois opened her mouth, and all hell broke loose. She and her entourage came up with a sequel to the reasonable accommodation saga, only with a new name: ostensible symbols. While being introduced in Quebec, the rhetoric was plagiarized from France. For those of you who have lived in Quebec, you might know about the fetish certain Quebecers entertain over their desire to be like France. Some of the Quebec intellectual elite, in a desire to mimic the French model of dogmatic secularism (laïcité), decided they wanted the same for Quebec. People like me were paying the price.

They focused on women, like me, who wear the hijab. Committed to policing our bodies and our choice of dress, Pauline Marois and her friends meticulously constructed the debate around symbols under the guise of protecting her much vaunted Charter of Values. Imposing their version of white middle-class feminist values, Marois was at the helm of a campaign that made Muslim women the target of violence.

Alexandre Bissonnette and I both experienced — in a fundamentally different rhythm and beat — the progression of the discourse of othering around Muslims in Quebec. We were raised and schooled in the same province. We are the same age. He was taught to fear people like me, and I was taught to feel guilt and shame about myself.

Islamophobia in Quebec is not new. It exists in Canada more broadly, but it is especially hurtful in Quebec. It hurts because Quebec likes to present itself as a more progressive province of Canada, one that is supposedly in tune with struggles of social justice and equality. But the violent crescendo emerging from inconsiderate comments made by politicians and mainstream intellectuals over the years, has allowed people who consider themselves “original” Quebecois to feel comfortable making people like me feel unwelcome.

Despite the current rhetoric, this discomfort has not uniquely been targeted toward Muslims. I watched a documentary some weeks ago called Sisters in the Struggle (which is celebrating its 25th anniversary). In the film, Haitian social worker and activist Amanthe Estiverne-Bathalien makes an important observation about Quebec society. Though both Haitian and Quebec history have a lot in common, she says: “(I) believe the Quebecois society has an unease toward the Haitian community because they (Haitians) are people of the Third World, because we are black…so we are judged as non-integrateable immigrants. We cannot be part of this society, and if they are thinking in terms of colors, they are right, because we will never be able to be white.”

It is this very unease that made even the most liberal individuals comfortable to participate in the racist nature of the charter of values debate, and the reasonable accommodation parade. Muslims are not going to look like a Marc-Andre or Phillippe, a Diane or Geneviève. That does not make them second class citizens, it does not make them suspect, and it certainly doesn’t warrant the imposition of a mass media-led public scrutiny of their personhood.

Today, many people are mourning the killings of Sunday January 29th because they do not want to believe that people like them are capable of such horrific and hateful actions. They ignore or fail to see the bigotry that has accumulated over a decade.

Vigils are nice. Coming together to cry can be comforting. The president of the Islamic community center himself was moved by the support from the municipality. In French, he thanked people for showing compassion.

But compassion and shared grief can also be extremely insulting if they are not coupled with an acknowledgement of what has taken place in Quebec since 2007. For a decade Muslims have been asked to prove something that cannot and should never be asked of a community and a person: that they are worthy of respect and dignity.

The killing of those six innocent people, as they prayed to God, as they bowed down and sought solace, is a strong reminder of the power of racism in political discourse. By engaging in a decade-long debate that was fundamentally exclusionary and at its core, racist and Islamophobic, a fertile space has been created wherein this type of hatred could grow. The consequences have been deadly. Since the shooting on Sunday, 14 hate crimes against Muslims have been reported in  Montreal alone.

Quebec doesn’t have a Trump problem. Quebec has an Islamophobia problem. In the midst of your tears, recognize it.

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